Rising ground: travel vs place

I have bookshelves groaning with travel literature shelved by place. This includes Philip Marsden‘s The crossing place (1993, Armenia), The Bronski house (1995, Poland; not to be confused with, although sitting next to, Radek Sikorski’s The Polish house) and The spirit wrestlers (1998, Russia). After that things gradually went boat-shaped for Philip, culminating in him buying Ardevora, a farmhouse on the banks of the River Fal. Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (2014; extract) sees him return home to write about Cornwall.

Marsden describes the reasons for this shift from travel to place: “Getting a bit older perhaps, having a young family, being a little less restless. But more than that is the sense that looking deeper into the local is ultimately more revealing than reaching for the exotic”. And it was never just about the travel. “I have written travel books certainly, but have come to each subject fresh – explored it, researched it, teased it out and tried to unravel its attraction. Only then do I assemble the form that it requires to tell.”

But Rising ground is not just about place. It’s also about a journey westwards, tracking earlier ‘topophiles’ of the region such as John Leland, the father of topography, the first to write about people and their relationship with the physical aspects of the landscape, a roving antiquary who suffered a breakdown under the weight of knowledge he had amassed. And John Whitaker, who unlike the ‘crag-happy’ Romantic poets of his era felt that places should be examined to reveal the past, not the picturesque. (It’s quite distressing how many of these early writers of place came to a sorry end. Charles Henderson, who read the landscape like a palimpsest, layered with the text of former lives, died in Rome on his honeymoon at the age of 33, while John Blight, author of A week at the Land’s End, was confined to an asylum for 40 years, dying there in 1911.)

Marsden himself grew up on the edge of the Mendips, where as a child he explored Aveline’s Hole, a 10,000 year old cave cemetery. Revisiting “fuses childhood wonder and adult knowledge, both of which originate in the universal drive to make sense of the world through an understanding of place…a need to belong”.

The second chapter introduces Ardevora as character, run-down with malfunctioning pipework: “knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging”. In intervals between house renovations he explores thinking around space and place, starting with Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking (1954):

‘Dwelling’ meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German the word buan – meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ – is linked to the verb ‘to be’. So to be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence…

‘Place’ is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, whereas ‘space’ is an idealised location, abstracted from the real world, a template which can be dropped over any point on the earth’s surface and allow meaningful discourse about it…

Physical surroundings (places) have the capacity to create mythologies around them…[but] every topophile knows that some sites are better than others – not just prettier or more dramatic, but endowed with a certain quality that attracts to it a host of stories and ideas.

All this inspires him to compose a topophile’s history of Cornwall, following the axes of time and place on foot to Land’s End in a chronology spanning the ritual landscape of Neolithic times, the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and on to the 20th century.

In Tintagel he probes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling of the Arthurian legend, with the castle perhaps the product of “suggestive topography” where idea and place became intertwined in stories which “bounce down through the centuries, their edges rounding and their shape altering with the collective spirit of each age”. Geoffrey drew on the tradition of the locus amoenus or delightful place, in medieval polarity with the hostile wilderness, defined as comprising a tree (or several trees), a meadow, a spring or brook, possibly with birdsong. “The most elaborate examples add a breeze”. Often asserting a collective sense of belonging, with a recurring motif of a sense of enclosure or encirclement.

Returning to the Mendips as his parents sell his childhood home he walks to Glastonbury, whose tor was a constant presence in his childhood. The mythic heart of England, the town was a one-stop pilgrimage site reducing the idea of earthly sanctity and of the nation to a single place, until it was sacked under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as universalism took the place of local cultism.

Visiting his parents’ house for the last time he finds only “hollows and imprints” of his family’s presence, “the memories of the place separated from the place itself”. Lying in bed in Ardevora he hears the iron casing of the stove cooling down with a clicking sound, creaking like an old ship, settling down again and getting used to its refit, coming back to life.

The walk westwards is “like walking the plank”. In West Penwith, the “end of the end-end” in Welsh, the ages are rolled into one in a post-modernist bundle. Nearing the coast the land becomes more marginal. Many feel an altered perception as they reach Land’s End: “We began to feel that we could walk like this for ever, never having to turn back but always going on, to see what was round the next headland, and the next”.

In pre-Christian Europe there was a belief that when the sun dropped below the horizon it went on to shine on the realm of the dead. This makes a walk to Land’s End a “rehearsal for the last perilous journey, or perhaps the realm of the future and the time beyond our own death”. Topography gradually seeped into popular consciousness, going beyond the local (what you can see) to the map or plan, an abstracted version of space which creates its own imperatives.

Beyond Land’s End lies Lynonesse, embodying a sense of loss, of that “vanished era when everything was larger and better”, a locus amoenus which goes one step further with the addition of Tennyson’s King Arthur. The mountain that rose from the land was called Camelot, where “save the Isles of Scilly, all is now wild sea”, the site of Arthur’s last day on earth. Mortally wounded, Arthur is carried out to the land’s end, where a barge takes him away into the western ocean.

As for the Isles of Scilly, “like all the best places, [it] draws you into a state of ceaseless questioning…the reduced scale brings questions closer, and adds a heady combination of freedom and isolation”.

To return to the theme of travel vs place, there’s a a sense that all place writing is travel writing, as any book about ‘place’ to a degree moves through the land. And a journey offers a familiar narrative structure, with walking in particular giving “the slow pace with which to be fully attentive, to notice“. Where place writing differs from conventional travel writing is in the deep mapping required to exhaust a place – in a travel book both reader and writer see a place for the first time, as a tabula rasa, and then move on, without building a permanent relationship. Rising ground is about what makes certain places special and about our fundamental response to landscape, whether personal or collective, cultural places which have accrued meaning and stories.

Our reaction to places, to certain landscapes, lies at the heart of both our personal lives and our collective lives, our culture and traditions…It is us who imbue it with spirit and meaning…Something in our make-up drives us to animate the world around us, to fill it with significance.

Globalisation, with the accompanying increased pace of life and communication, is affecting our relationship to place. It is getting more and more difficult to build and maintain connections with a place (aka the local, home) – perhaps one reason for the current boom in place writing, a given genre in English, with its own prize (the Wainwright). How much is this a British thing, built on a melancholic sense of genius loci developed over generations?

Place writing is not much found in Denmark. Having pondered long on why, I wonder if it is partly down to the fact that in a small, homogeneous, essentially inward-looking country there is a lot less moving about, hence less need to find a place or to make it anew in order to belong. This must affect the Danes’ relationship with place – and be indicative of how it can present an issue for the outsider.

The sense of a need to belong to a place is rather less resonant here, with the Danish sense of national identity perhaps taking its ‘place’. There’s also a dominant narrative about people, when I can’t help thinking they protest too much – no one reading about Jack Clemo (who raged against his physical impediments, against nature-lovers and the sentimental, against chapel-goers, and derived a perverse pleasure from devastation) in Rising ground could be in any doubt that place writing is as much about people and their stories as it is about the landscapes and buildings they inhabit.

the walk to Land’s End concluded (Richard Carew, 1602; source)

Sources: The ClearingGranta Books | Guardian | Ramblings | Start the Week. See also my post on Place writing now.

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Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different. (For the full Viking experience, see Destination Viking – based in Lerwick – and the accompanying Viking Routes; handy map inc Fife here.)

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article | Unofficial Britain)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

Here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

Mind you, in the introduction to an interesting looking short story collection (review), Sjón maintains that the Nordic lands can really be seen as “a single culture with regional variations”. Update: this equally interesting looking post on anthologies states that Sjón also “describes how writers resist the umbrella term ’the North’ and its associations: ‘Their usual reaction is to be annoyed at hearing it… before they answer that there is no common identity.”

Vikingery:

The Centre for Scandinavian Studies’ Rethinking Scandinavia conference in June had several streams of interest. Full papers in due course, it says. Of most interest:

  • Frans Gregersen’s keynote on The battle between the three Scandinavias, the past, the present and the future
  • papers on Swedish exceptionalism and Sweden bashing, the other side of the coin – or hype cycle; I certainly remember it being all about Swedish exceptionalism in the 1970s, which never appealed and was finally debunked by Andrew Brown’s Fishing in utopia (interesting that Sweden as metonym preceded Denmark)
  • in panel 5, Anna Sandberg (KU) on Transnationale forestillinger: Danmark i tysk litteratur og kultur omkring 1900, featuring three texts which fremstilles Danmark med sin geografi og historie adskilt fra resten af Skandinavien – ha! (another example: Danish sadly lacks the concept of fylleangst – it’s worth unpicking why…)

It seems that worrying about Scandi identity and studying its reception overseas has a long history (and is the new black, as the sociology of translations). As a Germanistik graduate I don’t remember a similar Teutonic concern, but the Danish Anglo press does frequently note the obsession with what makes a Dane a Dane. For more see the latest issue of Scandinavica on Peripheral figures: British and Irish receptions of Nordic literature and culture.

The theme of August’s Nordic Research Network conference was The N/north as home. Interesting opening keynote by Stefan Brink on the role of academia in nationalism and state building (not streamed; unSwedish vs unDanish), plus a roundtable on the theme itself.

Update, Nov 2017: spotted on FBDanmarkshistorier i 2017 – hvorfor og hvordan, seminar at RUC (programme) exploring Danish history from the perspective of memory and identity, inc DR’s Historien om Danmark, 99xVSTGN, the Kongerækken podcast, 100 danmarkshistorier – 100 bøger; the chance of any coverage of this sort of event is usually zero, however somehow I picked up that the @AUforsker of the week, @sally_schlosser , was livetweeting, so thanks to her.

Landmarks: the modern house in Denmark

Update, June 2917: several of the houses below are featured in a fun article on why movie baddies always live in modernist houses, and Michael has now published a tome on Louisiana (English)

Picked up on this coffee table book by Michael Sheridan somewhere or other. The library duly obliged.

Sheridan’s landmarks are 14 ‘single-family houses’ from the 1950s and early 1960s, “cultural landmarks designed to become part of the natural setting with an intimate relationship to the landscape”, dubbed humanistic modernism:

Simple and unpretentious forms, the celebration of craft and organic materials, a profound attention to human comfort…at once rational and romantic, sober and sensual, elegant and economical, deeply humane.

The houses, and the book, are indeed lovely things, if set to be filed under ‘Exclusive’.

Sheridan opens proceedings with an extended essay on the development of the detached house during the 20th century. As we have seen, unlike in Germany most architects in Denmark rejected “the industrial aesthetic and clean break with tradition” of 1920s modernism, remaining focused on neoclassicism. The origins of Danish functionalism can instead be found in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, with Erik Gunnar Asplund as chief architect. Asplund’s vision was of “a warm, sensuous modernism grounded in the experience of the individual” and a Romantic view of nature.

The Danish translation of this ‘humanistic’ version of modernism idealised the garden rather than the factory and was based on a vernacular ideal. Said Kay Fisker (perhaps “the most influential Danish architect of the 20th century”):

We strive after an architecture that serves people, which conforms to nature and isn’t intrusive, on the contrary; it tries to be anonymous.

This explains a lot about Danish architecture, if not Denmark itself, right up to the present day.

Anyway, after 1932 the yellow brick box with asymmetrical windows and a gently pitched roof became the model for the detached house in Denmark, based on Fisker et al’s design for Aarhus University.

‘Funkis’ developed further after WW2 with the adoption of ideas about space and structure from the US and Japan. During the 1950s houses were frequently financed by state loans, restricting the floor area to 130m and limiting construction costs. Hence bedrooms were small and corridors largely eliminated, replaced by a communal living area oriented towards the garden.

In place of the brick box with windows these houses were conceived as a set of independent elements. Load-bearing walls were constructed from brick and timber, with open frames connected by large areas of insulated glass. Structural elements were often left exposed, with ceilings, interior walls and floors covered with untreated wood, stone tiles or natural fibres.

The end of the 1950s saw the closure of the state loan scheme, and the Danish housebuilding industry began to embrace standardisation and prefabrication in the shape of the typehus. Buyers could select their new home from a catalogue or a group of model houses, often erected as part of a competition or exhibition. Two architects, Henrik Iversen and Harald Plum (nephew of maverick WW1 profiteer Harald Plum), developed a series of 12 IP Typehuse of assorted sizes. Hundreds of IP houses were constructed up to 1985, with Iversen and Plum working with local builders to ensure quality.

The early promise of the typehus was however quickly overwhelmed by economic factors, with uniformity replacing innovation. More than 450K typehuse were constructed around Denmark over the course of 20 years, built at the rate of 50 per day, typically in clusters of around 20, and transforming both the landscape and society. These houses were long, rectangular boxes resting on a concrete slab, with prefabricated wooden roof trusses. Brickwork was reduced to a set of freestanding walls that sometimes extended beyond the interior, with gaps filled by windows.

So much for the diversion into mass housing. Sheridan presents 14 ‘landmark’ houses from the period in loving detail. Most are still private homes, with a handful saved for the nation by Realdania (English), who then let them out, in what always seems to me a bit of a weird move.

The earliest house presented is Jørn Utzon’s house (1952; Arkark) in Hellebæk just north of Helsingør. It was Utzon’s first completed work, and remained his base for the rest of his life. Also by Utzon is the House on Stilts (1953; Arkark) built for interior designer Svend Middelboe, raised one storey to make the most of the lakeside views.

Jørn Utzon’s house (1952)

Some architects employed creative solutions to get round the size restrictions imposed by the state loan scheme. Eva & Nils Koppels’ house (1952; Arkark) for the appropriately named heating engineer Jørgen Varming in Gentofte had a double height living area, while Karen & Ebbe Clemmensens’ house (1954; Arkark) in Jægersborg (“near a heritage-listed bog”, says Realdania) added a studio to the living area.

Sheridan includes two houses by Erik Christian Sørensen, who later embraced Brutalism and was responsible for not least the 1969 Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, now, alas, in need of renovation. His own house in Jægersborg (1955, Arkark) featuring load-bearing outer walls offering flexibility, a gently (30 degree) pitched roof covered with felt, and, unusually for Denmark, no cellar, was much copied by typehus builders, while the house he built for for Mee Tholstrup (1955; Arkark) on the hyper-desirable Rungsted Kyst sold in late 2014 for DK 6 million.

But the most fabulous house in the selection for me is Knud Friis’ house (1958, extended in 1970; Arkark) in Brabrand on the edge of Aarhus, dubbed “early ‘mild’ Brutalism” – no doubt the neighbours dubbed it The Bunker – run a close second by Arne Jacobsen’s house for Erik Siesby (1959; Arkark) in Sorgenfri. On the other hand Halldor Gunnløgsson’s house (1959; Arkark) on Rungsted Strandvej tips over into oh-so-sterile Scandi.

Knud Friis' house

Knud Friis’ house (1958)

I’m also less moved than many by Bo & Wohlert’s Louisiana, it’s just too staged, and the same can be said for the house they built for Arne Bøgh Andersen, aka the Ambassador’s House (1961; Arkark), also on Rungsted Strandvej, a modified version of Ønskehuset from a 1959 exhibition. Wohlert is also represented by an extension built for no other than physicist Niels Bohr’s summer house (1957) in Tisvilde, taking timber to its limits.

Better is the Bendix-Harboe house (1959; Arkark) in Charlottenlund, built by Knud Peter Harboe (1959). Knud gets a post in Graham McKay’s Misfits series, well worth a look, with pics also of some of the other ‘landmark’ houses.

Sheridan’s oversized baker’s dozen is rounded out by:

  • Poul & Hanne Kjærholm’s house (1962) on Rungsted Kyst; Hanne (1930-2009) was a woman architect of note, married to furniture designer Poul, with whom she designed picnic areas with concrete tables and toilets, now those I’d like to see
  • Inger & Johannes Exner’s house (1961; Arkark) in Skodsborg, the only one we have bagged so far, defying the passive-aggressive stares of the tenant to take a couple of snaps (there’s a Bronze Age burial mound in the garden, supposedly the site of trysts between Caroline Mathilde and Struensee, but where wasn’t?)

All bar one of the 14 houses are situated north of Copenhagen, in the so-called Whisky Belt, a favoured area for architects rather like Peredelkino for writers near Moscow. While it’s fun reading up on the architects and building a picture of the connections, there’s also mileage in keeping an eye open for less illustrious versions locally – as it happens our house was modelled on a competition house of the period and exhibits several now familiar features, such as a closed frontage with large windows opening onto an extensive garden, and a flexible interior, evidenced by the marks where internal walls have been put up and taken down. A fair few modernist inspired gems have been found on our daily walks as well.

modernist inspired house at Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Landmarks is also available på dansk as Mesterværker, published by Strandberg in 2011, with an accompanying TV series.

Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

Update: out and about in Næstved at the weekend we came across an unexpected funkis cluster, documented in Huse i Næstved. This included Farimagsvej 10, which I was unable to photograph but would look quite at home in Gdynia, and the spectacular Staalgaarden from 1934 – it’s out there! See Farver i funktionalismen (2008) for more about funkis in Denmark.

I am an all round Bauhaus freak. Imagine my distress when Nan Dahlkild stated on the Valby Bedre Byggeskik walk that there was no Bauhaus in Denmark – not a surprise, but worthy of further exploration.

While there are links between Bauhaus and contemporary movements in Denmark, the latter tended – and tend – to take a less utopian and internationalist approach, being rather more design led.

Vi lader os ikke imponere af Størrelse, Tempo, det grandiose, det gigantiske.

(Trans: “We will not allow ourselves to be impressed by size, pace, the grandiose, the gigantic.”)

Between 1926-28 the journal Kritisk Revy, edited by Poul Henningsen (of PH lamp fame but also a formidable cultural commentator) published a series of articles critical of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and De Stijl in the Netherlands, accusing them of formalism and the lack of a human (or even practical) dimension. The 1928 visit to Copenhagen of Hannes Meyer, shortly to succeed Walter Gropius as leader of the Bauhaus, and publication of his manifesto in Danish gave rise to an article in Arkitekten likening Gropius’ house in Dessau to a dentist’s waiting room.

There were some exchanges on the ground though. Edvard Heiberg, who had previously worked under Le Corbusier, taught at the Bauhaus for three months in 1930, lending his expertise to designs for housing in Tørten and the furniture for the Trade Union School in Bernau. He lived in one of the masters’ houses, which he described as “badly insulated and undemocratic in form”. Resigning shortly after Meyer was deposed, he wrote a feature article in Politiken on 6 December 1930 about his Bauhaus experiences.

Painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen was a student at the Bauhaus from autumn 1930 to spring 1931, where he was taught by Klee and Kandinsky. This influenced his graphical style in particular. Petersen later adopted surrealism.

Links between the Bauhaus and Denmark can also be seen in furniture design, in particular the stress on good craftsmanship. In 1942 the Danish Cooperative Movement (FDM) created a popular range of wooden furniture which continued in production until 1983. In contrast to the architecture of the period, the furniture has made a popular return, going back into production in 2013.

It’s funkis

So what was different about modernist architecture in Denmark in the inter-war period? Generally known as funktionalisme or funkis for short, two main styles can be identified.

Buildings more akin to those found outside Denmark, often in white cubist style with flat roofs, experimenting with concrete and other new materials, such as Arne Jacobsen’s white factory at Nordre Fasanvej 215 from 1935 (international functionalism):

Frederiksberg - Novo Nordisk (1935)

Buildings incorporating Danish traditions and materials, making use of brick and tiled roofs, such as Virum Torv (1937; national functionalism, rather more widespread):

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

The design for Aarhus University, with its staggered blocks following the undulating terrain, is a prime example of the connections and divergences between the Bauhaus and Denmark. The design follows the Bernau Trade Union School layout in a freer form, making use of the Danish vernacular such as yellow bricks and curved roof tiles.

While the first funkis house in Denmark was built as early as 1924 (by Heiberg for himself and his family), it was the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition which really kickstarted things. New housing complexes such as Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Bellavista (1934-37) and numerous smaller projects, based around the idea that housing should suit the residents’ needs rather than be based around old tropes such as spisestue, salon og herreværelse, were built during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Rather than traditional karréer (blocks around an internal courtyard) the new housing was built in parallel blocks, offering better ventilation. The keywords were lys og luft (air and light), with bigger windows to let in more light and balconies facing the evening sun. These features are just one of those which make funkis buildings out of step with today’s Denmark – the energy required to heat these less well insulated houses is just too expensive.

Modernism and Danish scale

The funkis buildings of the 1930s are also out of step on a more abstract level. A booklet produced for the 2008 Golden Days festival has portraits of 20 buildings from the period. It’s a little book with a big agenda (and, once again, no map). The language frequently feels negative and subjective, utilising words such as “naked”, sober”, “factory like”. At the foot of each entry is a carefully chosen contemporary quote:

Vi forstaar, at Tyskerne nu har den fastest muligt indstilling til Arkitekturproblemet imod de sidste Tiders eksperimentelle og sentimentale Funtionalisme…men ikke har Evne til at skabe det varige og det ophøjet skønne. (Vilhelm Wanscher, art critic and author, on Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista)

Der er noget troldsk over sceneriet. Ungerne sidder nogne og brune – som en samling grillstegte hanekyllinger – omkring de hvislende flammer. Det er det skinbarligste og pudsigste djævelsskab, man pludselig er dumpet ind i. (Erik la Cour Halved, journalist, on Kaj Gottlob’s Skolen ved Sundet)

For me modernist buildings, not least the Bauhaus, are Mozartian in their perfection, everything exactly as it should be, catching your interest and admiration in their simplicity. But in Danish discourse they are cold and clinical, ‘ungenerous’ and lacking ‘human scale’, features extolled ad nauseam in the architectural press, where smallness is lauded as a key quality.

Happily though on the ground it’s a different story. We often go funkis spotting – below is my current favourite, Ole Falkentorp’s exquisite Hotel Astoria from 1935, just outside the central station:

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

Sources: ‘Bauhaus og Danmark: fra eksperimenterende håndværk til industrielt design’ (in Architectura 2006:28:23-52) | Edvard Heibergs eget hus | Den store bog om Brugsens møbler og historien om Det Gode Liv | FDB-stolen: Folkets klassiske møbler genoplives | Ideernes Kobenhavn: en guide til mellemkrigstidens byggeri (Golden Days 2008) | Rasmus Friis: Rentemestervej 14

Update: VINK on the Astoria

One Danish tree: Klopstock’s Oak

For once a positive tale about trees in Denmark! On Sunday we visited Klopstocks Eg, a reputedly 850 year old oak on Prinsessestien in Lyngby, not far from Sorgenfri Station off Hummeltoftevej at Åmosebakken, or thereabouts – you can’t miss it!

Known to all Germanists, Frederich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) lived in Denmark from 1751-70 on the invitation of Frederik V, residing in Lyngby in the early 1750s. Like all good Romantics he liked a walk, and the area inspired not least his poem Die Frülingsfeier. Klopstock’s brother also lived in Lyngby, owning a silk factory.

Prinsessestien (the Princess’ Path), which first appeared on a map in around 1800, was probably created for the use of Princess Sophie Hedevig, brother of Frederik IV, who gave her a mansion at each end of the path (Sorgenfri and Frederiksdal) in 1716. In 1743 his successor Christian VI passed Frederiksdal on to his advisor, Johan Sigismund Schulin.

The wife of one of Schulin’s descendants, another Sophie Hedevig, owned Frederiksdal Slot from 1781-1807. She built a well, Louisekilden, close to the path, for the 50th birthday of her sister, Louise Warnstedt, in 1791.

The oak was protected in 1958 and is in reasonable condition, although a large bough fell off in 2013 and is lying to the side. Every July members of Det Danske Klopstockselskab (the Danish Klopstock Society) meet at the oak for a reading.

Denmark’s most famous oaks are probably those planted by Christian V in the countryside north of Copenhagen in 1669 (see Fodnoter) – around 1800 remain, including Kongeeg (The King’s Oak), reputedly 1500 years old and the oldest tree in Denmark, and part of a group of three with Storkeegen (a stump after the storm of 1981) and Snoegen. Christian V’s personal oak stands at the crossroads between Ndr Eremitagevej and Chausseen, and is so named because it was under this tree that he was kicked on the left foot by a stag on the Hubertus Day hunt in 1698, which contributed to his death a year later, or so the story goes.

The oak has been a symbol of Danishness since the 19th century. In 1915 many valgretseger were planted to mark women’s suffrage – Dendron.dk lists nine, with Kvindeegen in Viby one of the last surviving.

All this inspired Jens Blenstrup and Ole Lejbach to investigate in a four year project, Ege-ekspeditioner (oak expeditions; Facebook). The resulting text and images are on display in three galleries around Denmark.

More på dansk…Klopstock: Den glemte digter i egetræets skygge | Klopstock – en sporty digter…Ege-ekspeditioner in Magasinet Kunst | Nordea Fonden.

Leaving Denmark

We’ve just spent 10 days in northern Italy, taking one of the last City Night Line trains out of Copenhagen and travelling via Munich to Venice, Trieste and Udine, with a sidestep to Slovenia.

We boarded in Copenhagen at 18:46, arriving in Venice Mestre at 17:58 the next day. Sadly Deutsche Bahn is winding down the City Night Line service, and despite the best efforts of Save the Copenhagen Night Train and a petition 13 December will mark the end of night trains out of Copenhagen.

Aurora

boarding the 18:46 from Copenhagen to Basel

On Hogmanay we took the Aurora the whole way to Basel, treating ourselves to a two berth sleeper. This time sleeper berths were not available – either sold out or simply phased out early, like the dining car – but as we were only travelling as far as Mannheim this was OK. We were joined in Odense by a couple, visiting a friend living in Munich. For them the night train barely took longer than travelling to Copenhagen airport, going through the bus in the air hassle and then travelling into Munich from its airport.

On the return journey we took a sleeper from Udine to Munich, leaving at 22:47 and arriving in Munich at 6 the next morning. The train merged with several other night trains at Tarvisio Boscoverde and split again in Salzburg, with the majority of coaches bound for Vienna, arriving at 08:40. In Munich we hopped on a train doing the six hour slog up to Hamburg, and then onto the toy train which goes onto a ferry at Puttgarden, always a delight, resurfacing at Rødby to chug up to Copenhagen, where we arrived at 18:14.

This journey is slightly shorter than the Flensburg route, and will become a tad shorter again when the Fehmarnbelt tunnel opens (due in 2021). Scant recompense though for the increasingly limited non-plane options. (The Esbjerg to Harwich ferry has recently sailed its last voyage.)

Note: slow travel? Maybe it’s not just transport choices which need a rethink. See also Ian Jack on the Caledonian Sleeper, and Empty Pipes’ CPH map with travel times to any point in Europe by train.

Høstfest! Harvest time in Denmark

foto

on guard

Time for some more foraging, aka going into your garden and picking stuff. We’re over-run with apples, although the beags do their best, endlessly playing in the evening sun with windfalls, and there are herbs to freeze or dry – rosemary and thyme are supposedly perennial, but not in our garden they ain’t. The rhubarb has survived being moved twice this summer, hopefully we’ve finally found its perfect spot, the gooseberries were as disappointing as usual and the raspberries should have been pruned earlier. Our grønkål/kale is coming along OK, despite the best efforts of slugs and snails. Can you tell I’m not much of a gardener? Partner is lined up to divide and conquer our løvstikke/lovage and kvan/angelica, so they can come into their own next year, and in the case of the latter, hopefully flower in a dramatic fashion.

Other things we can avail ourselves of:

  • damsons/kræge – or probably not, although maybe could substitute mirabeller, more prevalent here – Delia’s chutney | Telegraph
  • hasselnødder/hazelnuts – preferably cobnuts, sighted last year on Roskilde Torv
  • havtorn/sea buckthorn – good with apples in compote; chutney, infused as a tea
  • hyldebær/elderberries – soup with potato starch? ellers tak
  • kvæde/quince – after the first frosts
  • rosehips/hyben – infused as a tea; chutney
  • røn/rowan – aka mountain ash; apparently it is a tradition in both Scotland and Denmark to have a rowan tree by the front door to ward off witches and evil spirits, and we have one handily placed; jelly seems to be a thing, also wine; TBH thought the berries were poisonous
  • sandtorn/tjørn/hawthorn – jam?
  • slåen/sloes – Daily Mail | BBC | Gdn gin

A Facebook friend, who is doing the full Hugh FW, has been mushrooming and after several attempts located some kantereller/chanterelles, but I think we’ll have to stick to Irma for those. Theirs come from Belarus, how exciting is that.

But what to do with all this stuff? The answer tends to be jam, involving massive amounts of sugar, or snaps. Planning to use some rowan berries in the last of our Faroese snaps, plus some sloe gin, which I have mixed memories of as a student.

Latest entry from backlash corner: from Jay Rayner’s Just because you can go foraging doesn’t mean you should:

5,000 years of agriculture and now we’re all foraging. I bet the Mesopotamians wonder why they bothered…the biggest argument against it is the lacklustre and uninspiring food that so often results from all that clomping about down in the woods.

As someone yet to empty their one jar of kryddesalt I can only agree, but the Danes seem well up for it, in particular as part of an event.

Last week a Høst-havemarked (harvest and garden festival; coverage) in nextdoor suburb Rødovre closed Vestegnens Kulturuge (also part of Golden Days). The garden of the Heerup Museum, which incidentally offers the least value for money of any museum I’ve ever been to, was transformed with mini-gardens, an apple press was on duty, honey from some local urban bees was on sale, you could roast your own coffee, grind your own flour, drink local wine…the gullaschkanon (field kitchen) got an outing, there was a WW1 exhibition including a row of tents, 200 flea market stalls and local radio supplying the sounds. Festivities continued with music from established names and local acts until midnight, moving to Damhuskroen until 5 in the morning. Blimey. Just a shame about the weather.

Sunday was Naturens Dag, with Byhøst doing an autumn forage in Valbyparken. Also involved was haymaking with scythes from Vild Med Vilje – read their report from the Vild Festival in August, when it also rained, and lots of stuff for children. Elsewhere there was some sort of fishing cum picnic thing at Sct Jørgens Sø, which is nice, as I’ve been pondering for a while why more doesn’t go on at the Lakes. Next Sunday sees a picnic at Tippen, with grapepicking at our local vinyard pencilled in for 11-12 October.

Meanwhile, the Eat your city conference (Facebook) promoted urban farming, particularly as a social movement, looking very serious minded, but it did culminate in KBHs Høstfest (Facebook | review), a harvest festival with a 2500 seater 800m longboard down Sønder Boulevard – it was hipster heaven. All part of the Sharing Copenhagen effort.

For a more realistic view of the eating habits of the average Dane see Michael Booth in The Local, or visit any ‘budget’ supermarket.

A final check-in with the local trees me and the beags have been monitoring (February | June):

2014-09-23 11.44.17

one lousy branch – better luck next year?

Update, May 2015: sad to relate, the three trees above have now been felled.