An urbanist’s trip to Paris

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to Paris. In a world before budget airlines Paris nudged Bruges as first stop for Brits venturing onto the Continent. My first visit was in 1980, in a sponsored student hitch from Bristol. I also have evidence of a 1982 visit, part of a summer hitch round Europe, with photos from the top of Samaritaine looking towards La Défense and Sacré-Cœur. After that things went very German, but I was there again in 1992 with my mother, when we visited the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles, and went for a boat trip on the Seine past La Défense, at that time dominated by something angular and shiny. I can also come up with a couple of short stops in the 1980s, and I was there some time in the 1990s for a conference.

Never took to it – too French. So for our New Year 2017 trip we honed in on themes of interest rather than revisiting the tourist classics, in a three step urbanist’s Paris programme.

Step 1: local government nerdery

What is Paris, anyway? CityMetric’s Jon Elledge has engaged with this at length, with, obv, London as baseline. He reveals just how small the City of Lights actually is:

Paris - the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris – the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris ‘proper’, as in the area within the périphérique ring road, is only six miles across, smaller than inner London. Venturing beyond tourist hotspots quickly brings you to suburbs (and the too often notorious banlieues) with their own councils. This has an effect on development, take it from me, living just outside Copenhagen ‘proper’. The creation of the Metropole du Grand Paris in 2016, covering the city and its suburbs in an area bigger than Greater London, may “help to reintegrate the banlieues and make the city work better”.

It’s all about density and taut town planning. Paris is one of the densest cities in the western world, with an average of 21,500 people per km2 compared with London’s 5000. Dubbed a ‘horizontal city’ by UNESCO, it is emphatically low rise, high density, dominated by buildings of four to six storeys.

The satellite view of Paris displays a homogeneous mass, divided by laterals and diagonals, interspersed by the odd circle:

(image: Airbus Defence and Space)

This geometric layout is of course the result of Haussmann’s famed urban renewal programme (CityMetric on the barricades), resulting in “broad, strictly linear streets, unbroken facades, roundabouts radiating avenues, uniform city lighting, uniform street furniture…rebuilt and outfitted with all those identical trees (mostly plane trees and chestnuts), benches and kiosks” (Edmund White).

The inauguration of the Boulevard Périphérique in 1973 created a further physical and mental boundary between Paris, and not-Paris. While restrictions on building height and a policy of facadism means that the city ‘proper’ has largely maintained its Haussmann era appearance, this “small, beautiful city is surrounded by all of the messy, lively and less-than-pristine stuff that it does not want to process” (source), socially segregated with a central ghetto for the rich. The less elegaic urbanist press notes that Paris may even be in decline, a ville muséewith anything edgy pushed to the fringes – and other than the odd grand projet, that’s where where the interesting stuff is to be found.

More critique:

  • “a spiral layout of arondissements self-replicating until they hit the périphérique“(Lauren Elkin)
  • “mostly characterised by architectural reticence and courteous homogeneity” (J Meades)
  • “everyone has said that it was marvellous for so long that mankind has taken itself in by its own flattery” (Ian Nairn in 1968, via Owen Hatherley)

All this goes some way to explain my issues with the place. As you wander down the interchangeable streets, past yet another lovely square, thing start to blur and fall out of time, an endless parade of cafés offering the same plats du jour and boulangeries giving birth to people hurrying home with a baguette…in some ways then, comforting compared with sterile Scandi, but ultimately unchallenging, lacking eccentricity and in places just too conformist.

And cars, cars, cars. If the empty post-nuclear holocaust feel of central Copenhagen is the way to go, Paris has a problem. Queuing to take a selfie at the Arc de Triomphe in wedged between four lanes of French drivers may be one explanation for Paris Syndrome.

Step 2: cultural connections

Paris 1928: a city that attracted people dreaming of a better world after World War 1. This was the year when the surrealists Magritte, Dalí and Buñuel brought their bizarre new vision to the people, and when émigré writers and musicians such as Ernest Hemingway and George Gershwin came looking for inspiration. 

Paris in 1928 was where black musicians and dancers like Josephine Baker found adulation, where Cole Porter took time off from partying to write Let’s Do It, and where radical architect Le Corbusier planned a modernist utopia that involved pulling down much of Paris itself.

It’s a bit like Vienna 1908, “when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”. Among old friends we find Samuel Beckett, James Joyce (who arrived in 1920 at the invitation of Ezra Pound, supposedly for a week, but ended up living there until his death), Ernest Hemingway (whose posthumous Moveable feast has unexpectedly regained popularity – see Being Human 2016) and Peggy Guggenheim.

There’s also a clutch of Scandis and related, not least Rilke, whose only novel, The notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), is the narrative of a destitute young Danish poet wandering around Paris and hoping to write, plus a pair of Danish sculptors, Astrid Noack of Norrebro’s Atelier fame, in town between 1920-29, and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (vid), member of CoBrA. Robert Jacobsen (more sculpture, CoBrA fringe) and Richard Mortensen (painter), who feature the sort of Danish names it’s impossible to differentiate, were both in Paris between 1947-69, and now have side-by-side streets named after them in Ørestad Syd. Update: Inger Christensen also stopped by.

The big beast though is polymath Asger Jorn (1914-73), in town briefly during 1936-37 and working with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the forthcoming World Exposition. Jorn contrasted Corb’s rationalist approach with the more ‘spontaneous’ ideas associated with the Danish and Scandinavian traditions, moving on to become a founder member of both CoBrA and the Situationist International.

Despite the above overflødighedshorn we confined ourselves to a quick peek at Walter Benjamin’s plaque before retracing parts of Simone de Beavoir’s regular stroll from Montparnasse to St-Germain-des-Prés.

The Boulevard du Montparnasse isn’t what it was, with le jazz hot and l’existentialism froid not much in evidence (source). Instead doormen prevent curious entry to cafés such as Le Select, La Coupole and La Rotonde, above which SdB was born. Both Le Dôme, where SdB edited Sartre’s Being and nothingness, and Café de Flore, where she wrote two essays, a novel and a play by the stove during WW2, were fully occupied by the sort of tourists who favour a full lunch.

You’ll find Les Deux Magots (Magots as in Chinese figurines…), an Existentialist haunt also favoured by Samuel Beckett which has awarded its own literary prize since 1933, next door to Louis Vuitton. We moved on, to a rather more successful turn around Perec’s place.

Where I get excited by a fleeting connection with Rachmaninoff in Gentofte, in Paris, as in London, there’s an endless web of connections to unpick – see 19 Quai Voltaire and the Café de la Mairie. Going a step further is Rue Watt, named after Scottish inventor James Watt and in its wrought iron incarnation featuring in a song, a film and two novels.

Rue Watt, redeveloped in 2005

Step 3:  building, buildings, buildings

Architecture for me starts with Art Deco. Paris’ Art Nouveau confections are like pralines, too rich for every day and cloying en masse. With the aim of escaping the false utopias of the culture industry we explored Cité U, founded in 1925 in a spirit of peace, unity and friendly cooperation, with 40 residences from around the world (top picks: Germany and the Netherlands).

Le Corbusier may not have achieved a Haussmann-style remake of the city, however his UNESCO recognised Paris traces include Immeuble Molitor, an apartment building conforming to four of his five points of architecture. Corb’s last home is on the top floor, overlooking the Parc de Princes and a short stroll from Roland Garros.

We spent three nights on the edge of La Défense. Initiated in 1958 by a team of visionary architects as a modern business district for Paris, its first building is one of its most impressive.

CNIT (1958) with friends, boasting the world’s largest self-supporting concrete vaulted ceiling

Making a rather bigger statement is the Grande Arche from 1989, at the westernmost point of the Axe historique, connecting it physically and visually to the city. The architect, Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, who died two years before the inauguration, is also responsible for Hvidovre’s Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, on a rather different scale.

Some Defacto factoids:

  • Europe’s largest business district – 3.5 million m2 of offices over 560 hectares, with 25K residents and 180K daily workers, plus 8 million tourist visitors per year
  • also a recreational venue – renewal plan launched by President Sarkozy in 2007, classified as a tourist attraction in 2009
  • Europe’s largest shopping mall – CNIT has 36 outlets, while Les Quatre Temps houses 265 shops, 35 restaurants and 16 movie screens (180K m2, 40 million visitors per year)
  • 12 hectares of green spaces including Parc Diderot and a vineyard
  • 100+ buildings and towers (19 taller than 150m)
  • 60+ works of art by 50+ artists from 14 countries
  • downloads inc guides to architecture, artworks & history and stories | map & signage

With pedestrians and motorists strictly separated as advocated by Corb, it’s more Barbican than City. The central pedestrian promenade impresses, with some striking artworks, while less impressive are the individual skyscrapers, which lack the interest of those in London or Rotterdam. They work rather better as a group and at night.

La Défense from the ‘near’ end of the Esplanade

Some rather more exciting architecture can be found in the nearby grands ensembles of Courbevoie and Nanterre, both neighbouring communes half in, half out of La Défense.

Outside Paris ‘proper’ meaning less money for renovation has left Courbevoie’s concrete Charras, dating from around the same time as the first now glass and steel towers a few streets away, untouched since the 1960s. Both Les Damiers, four nearby Brutalist ziggurats, and Nanterre’s Cité Pablo Picasso (or Tours Nuages), consisting of 18 towers with a total of 1607 apartments, provide further provocations to a future forever just around the corner.

(For more grands ensembles see Laurent Kronental’s project, breathlessly covered by CNN | Dezeen | Gdn.)

Tours Nuages, a big snake and a glimpse of La Défense

More utopias…President Mitterand commissioned a slate of grand projets in a programme aimed at revitalising the city in 1982. Many of the projects were constructed on the working class eastern side of Paris, bringing a re-emphasis to the Seine, but the usual trinity of costs, over-runs and operational issues caused controversy. Mitterand’s eight buildings include the baffling Bibliothèque nationale, four glass buildings designed to resemble open books, and the Ministère de l’économie et des finances, a 70m long piece of PoMo not unlike a motorway tollgate (height restrictions precluded the construction of a tower).

Contemporary prestige projects, redeveloped as part of the Paris Rive Gauche (map & booklet; previously Seine Rive Gauche) initiative, include Les Docks, which couldn’t be more French, and Les Grand Moulins, which we managed to miss due to approaching the ‘back’ way.

An initiative commissioned in 1985 on 130 hectares of land previously owned by SNCF between the railway tracks of the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Seine, Paris Rive Gauche is the largest development project since Haussmann’s time. It accommodates approximately 15,000 residents, 50,000 employees, and 30,000 students and staff from the Paris Diderot University, with the Avenue de France a 40m broad artery.

We explored the Masséna district, made up of several neighbourhoods each coordinated by a different architect. Masséna Nord, launched in 1995, includes Les Grand Moulins, now part of the university, as well as some innovative housing based on coordinating architect Christian de Portzamparc‘s theory of the ‘open block’ (îlot ouvert), with free-standing blocks designed on principles of diversity and contrast. Here height regulations have been relaxed to allow buildings of 50m for residential purposes and 150m for non-residential purposes.

Rue Hélène Brion in Masséna – on-street parking and trees

Streetnaming here is delightful, focusing on important people of the 20th century, with a Rue Elsa Morante and a Thomas Mann school, a Rue Olivier Messiaen and a Rue René Goscinny (decorated with call-outs from his cartoon that have already become local attractions).

For more see my Paris Flickr album (130 photos) and developing map:

More Paris:

Walks and walking:

Too late! Blue Crow’s Brutalist Paris map, reviewed in AnOther’s Brutalist buildings to visit in Paris…the Promenade Plantée, Paris’ High Line (came first!)…Modigliani in Montmartre and Montparnasse

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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.

Golden Days: Denmark in the 1970s

Golden Days is Copenhagen’s autumn festival, at the highbrow(ish) end of the packed event spectrum. While its first outings celebrated Denmark’s Golden Age (1800-50), lately it has tackled rather broader themes – in 2013 philosophy, in 2014 World War 1, and in 2015 heritage itself.

The 2016 festival (calendar | programme aka 28 page content-thin broadsheet | case) explored the 1970s. All very  hyggeligt and nostalgic (the cassette! potato printing!) if you actually grew up in that lovely decade. What follows is a summary of events in the areas of literature, art and architecture, plus some general musings.

My struggle with Danish writing continues. The festival provided a 1970s literature checklist, made up of Suzanne Brøgger’s Fri os fra kærligheden, Kristen Bjørnkjær’s Kærestesorg, Vita Andersen’s Tryghedsnarkomaner,  Peter Laugesen’s Hamr & Hak,  Dea Trier Mørch’s Vinterbørn and Villy Sørensen, Kristen Helveg Petersen & Niels I Meyer’s Oprør fra midten. All of which I have just copied and pasted, you’re welcome. Among retrospective looks are Peter Øvig Knudsen’s typically massive Hippie (flippet also used).

As a golden entry in Denmark’s tiny place writing corner we have Dan Turèll’s Vangede billeder, published in 1975, on growing up in a 1950s suburb. Urban hero Søren Ulrik Thomsen’s first poems were published in Hvedekorn i 1977, but his first collection City slang wasn’t published until 1981.

Artist Martin Bigum (1966- ) now lives in Frederiksberg, but grew up in Brøndby Strand, finding himself unimpressed by its iconic tower blocks. His vej mod kunsten (journey to art) is described in Min personlige kunsthistorie (key excerpt), with an exhibition at Arken. At the other end of town, Louisiana has a Poul Gernes exhibition (article | guide), highlighting not least his udsmykningsarbejder at Herlev Hospital (1975) and Palads Biografen (rather later).

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

Onwards…1970s architecture was thoroughly chewed over and mainly spat out, with a guide (65 pages, OK-ish at DK 49,95 but with DK 30 postage I’ll wait for the library or try to track it down in a shop, thx all the same) and exhibition on 1970’erne – det forbudte årti:

Golden Days guider dig rundt i hovedstadens idealistiske og udskældte arkitektur
Parcelhuse og brutale betonbyggerier er ikke i høj kurs, og egentlig vil arkitekterne helst glemme 1970’erne. Men bag de forbudte facader gemmer der sig historier om et samfund præget af både fornyelsestrang og et stærkt ønske om at skabe lige muligheder for alle.

The guide features 11 buildings, many old favourites, while Politiken highlighted four. All begging to be mapped…update, May 2017: finally got round to having a look at the guide. Subtitled Guide til hovedstadens mest brutale, idealistiske og udskældte arkitektur, it’s nicely produced, with a map and lots of B&W photos. The back cover maintains that it is an “anderledes guide“, showing the 1970s dreams and visions of fælleskab (community) and frihed (freedom) translated into brick and concrete, the decade which architects would rather forget – no mugs or tea towels here. However, the text by Arkitektforeningen’s Karen Dyssel doesn’t really live up to the foreword/blurb. I’d go as far as to suggest that Karen has a sneaking regard for her subject.

Concrete has yet to be treasured in Denmark, and 1970s tower blocks are emphatically not Danish scale, even if at the time they offered the residents of cramped city flats lys og luft in a split new home with all mod-cons. It’s much the same story as the UK, with social problems and some poor quality builds leading to a ‘ghetto’ reputation for the biggest estates, now being refurbished eastern Europe style with colourful stick-on panels.

I went on Frederiksberg’s 1970s bus tour, where the city archivist didn’t even try to hide his dislike of some rather classy housing (but he has written a nice long article). Interesting, if not surprising, to hear that FRB was in the same state as CPH proper in the 1970s – current discourse makes it sound like it has always been a green conservative paradise. The proposed sanering of some areas was met with resistance, as it was in next door Nørrebro.

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

A bus tour was also offered round Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Lyngby and Rudersdal. In the 1970s the suburbs were the place to be, with the CPH urban area growing by up to 12 km2 per year, and in Denmark as a whole the built-up area doubling. As elsewhere the new-builds were predominantly housing estates and tower blocks, but by the late 1970s ‘low rise high density’ became more popular in an attempt to recreate the Danish landsby, plus a range of experiments into collective living.

BL (Danmarks Almene Boliger), who represent the Danish social housing sector and in 2015 offered a series of events on the tower block as cultural heritage, stepped up to the plate once more with Sunday events on three contrasting estates, complete with langbord lunches:

  • Gadekæret (Ishøj; 1976-79) – a reconstructed landsby made up of 650 element built yellow brick and red tiled terraced houses around a pond, described as En by der er blød som en krop by poet Inger Christensen in 1969(?) and lovingly drawn by childhood resident Ib Spang Olsen
  • Galgebakken (Albertslund; 1972-74) – 600 terraced houses, known as Albertslund’s Christiania; residents included Social Democrat politicians Mogens Lykketoft and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, and writer/director Jørgen Leth
  • Urbanplanen (Amager; 1965-71) – the ultimate Corbusier-style estate with its own shopping centre, library and church; ironically the largest car free area in the city and the subject of some re-evaluation with En landsby på højkant (part of the current wave of site specific theatre) and Morten Pape’s autobiographical novel Planen (the estate abuts Ørestad Nord, a more recent regeneration effort which also has its critics, plus ça change…)

15 storey tower block in Urbanplanen, condemned in 2010 but still standing

Also place related was Konfrontation med 70’erne (Soundcloud), audio at 20 spots around town. If like me you find These soundscapes can be a tad uninspiring, but these are rather better than the norm, as is more intriguing is Last night a DJ saved my life, four podcasts on the story of the 1500 British DJs who kept the disks spinning in provincial Denmark during the 70s (a subgenre of interest is Brit musicians with err…Danish links, from Slade drummer Don Powell to Rick Astley).

Summing up…

The festival benefits from considerable amounts of funding and sponsorship, although state funding is to cease. I’m not entirely surprised, not least because it’s not very clear who the target audience/s is/are, and with over 100 partners and 200+ events it’s hard to work out what’s going on.

Events fall into three categories: something random from a big hitting cultural player tagged with the branding, pricey ‘experiences‘ organised by the festival secretariat for BYTs (in 2015 this included a polterabend and a wedding), and events organised by community organisations. It’s the last which are the most interesting, uncovering areas outside those more usually pimped by Visit Copenhagen, as well as ensuring the festival reaches the entire region.

There are however issues with history and the learning therefrom more broadly, identified by among others Michael Böss in his 2014 book Det demente samfund (Altinget | Politiken). Denmark is a very youth oriented society, and its ‘here and now’ culture constantly reinvents the wheel, fetishising the elements of ‘heritage’ which fit a single Danish national identity and self-image – hence, perhaps, no concrete, and little recognition of diversity or ‘overseas influences’. The country seems to be in a rush forward, neglecting and ignoring the past, at best relegating it to folkelig corner as outmoded and rather quaint. (See the IHR’s History now and then series for more on this.)

In previous years I’ve also got rather worked up by the festival website. There’s a search box but no easy access to search/browse by eg keyword, category, audience, venue. The jaunty design feels extremely tired, even if the massive mugshots, an issue for those not benefiting from ‘good genes’, are accidentally-on-purpose somehow on trend. And don’t go looking for any  social media action or event amplification, as there is none. It all feels rather amateurish. And isn’t it time for a My Golden Days app?

Finally, after going all out with Hello Heritage, “a weekend dedicated to visitors and expats” in 2015, this year there’s no English to be seen.

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

Tingbjerg: the housing estate at the end of the bus route

The recent Copenhagen Architecture Festival offered five events on and about the Brønshøj housing estate of Tingbjerg, designed by Steen Eiler Rasmussen in conjunction with landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen in the early 1950s and constructed over a period of 20 years.

Tingbjerg masterplan

Tingbjerg masterplan (photo: Natacha Berté and Robert Martin, KADK)

Only 10 km from Rådhuspladsen, Tingbjerg contains around 2000 properties and is home to over 6500 people. Situated at the top of Vestvolden where it joins Utterslev Mose, we’re talking lys og luft again, with buses gliding round the access road past tastefully designed yellow brick low rise with white shutters to the top of the estate and back again.

houses on the estate's access road

low rise on Ruten, the access road around the estate

But it’s the usual story – classified as a ‘ghetto’ until autumn 2012 Tingbjerg is currently the subject of an(other) urban renewal effort. Sticking to infrastructural issues, assorted paths lead to the estate’s allotments and across Vestvolden, but road access to both Husum, for big shopping and trains into the city centre, and nearby Gladsaxe is poor, and the Hillerød motorway creates an uncrossable barrier to the north.

Utterslev Mose (marsh)

Utterslev Mose, just a short stroll away

I took the 132 bus the full length of its route from Friheden, one 1950s utopian housing project on the southern fringe of Copenhagen, through suburban sprawl to another, Tingbjerg, at its northern border. The community council’s walking route highlights the major sights: Sørensen’s byggelegeplads (adventure playground), the tower block, the only building above three storeys on the estate and originally built to hide the varmecentral but today housing apartments, Gavlhusvej with decorative brickwork on the gable ends, and the unique Arkaderne blocks.

Arkaderne (collonades)

the collonades: Arkaderne

The estate also houses a church (1983) and a library (1993; CPH’s smallest). Two shopping parades offer a limited range of retail opportunities, with the smaller due to be pulled down in the summer with the opening of COBE’s new Tingbjerg Culture House. Tingbjerg school (1970) became a heldagsskole, with 35 hours of classtime per week, in 2008.

the main shopping parade

the main shopping parade

The CAFx events included a guided walk with Peder Boas Jensen, an architect who worked both on Tingbjerg and on Avedøre Stationsby, right at the other end of Vestvolden, and a utopian suburb type seminar, with four academics speedily running through some off the peg slides as the lights came on in the tower block.

the tower block at dusk

Højhuset at dusk

More: photos on FlickrMenneskebyen | Mønstersamfundet | Tingbjerg Forum. Per Fly’s Bænken (2000) was filmed on the estate, plus 2012 saw Visit Tingbjerg, a contemporary art festival on the estate.

Copenhagen’s gentrification: Nordvest

Nordvest is being talked up as Copenhagen’s next gentrification hotspot. While it’s possible to get some vague Shoreditch/Brick Lane vibes in the former industrial quarter around Rentemestervej, there’s a long way to go. Old school bodegaer are still to be found, for heaven’s sake.

Most of the gentrifying action is concentrated in the former industrial quarter around the Frederiksborgvej/Rentemestervej crossroads. Part of Copenhagen’s 1901 land grab, the area which is now postcode 2400 was rapidly transformed with endless streets of blank five-storey blocks serviced by trams ferrying people between home and work. By the 1980s the heavily polluting factories which had sprung up here and there were as good as gone. With the area designated for the rehousing of people with mental illness in the community, Nordvest became known as Nordvaerst (from north west to north worst).

Farvemøllen, a former paint warehouse at Dortheavej 4 now housing a sound studio or two, is part of the gentrification charge. On the other side of the road at Bispevej 29 is the David Risley Gallery, in a building previously used as a repair shop for police cars. Interviewed in November David said that Nordvest fitted rather better with his world view than the gallery’s previous location on Bredgade in the heart of the happy city centre. He aims to involve the community in gallery events in the future – the gentrification conundrum in a nutshell.

Farvemøllen (1934)

Farvemøllen (1934)

The streets of Lygtenkvarteret offer a cavalcade of housing from københavnerlejligheder to 1970s council blocks with an almost suburban level of stillness, but without the accompanying lys og luft. Architectural gems are to be found – the eight brick blocks on the odd numbered side of Bogtrykkervej provide an interesting contrast to the kiddy reliefs on the karré on the evens side.

A further cluster of former industrial buildings lives on around Skaffervej. At nr 8/Bygmestervej 2 (1936) is the Forlagshuset kontorhotel, incorporating ‘gastronomic oasis’ Tribeca NV, while the former ink factory at nr 4 (1938) has housed Sjakkets Aktivitetscenter since 1995 (its 2004 renovation by Bjarke Ingels of BIG was funded to the tune of more than DK 20 million by Realdania and other deep-pocketed philanthropic funds).

Sjakkets Aktivetscenter (1938/2004)

Sjakkets Aktivetscenter (1938/2004)

Back on Rentemestervej finds one of Denmark’s few industrial buildings in funkis style, a former factory from 1934 by Marx Ishøy which housed Denmark’s first bakelite factory. NJ Plast closed in autumn 2003, and the building was lovingly converted to offices in 2005 by contractors Rasmus Friis, preserving much of the internal layout.

Rentemestervej 14 (1934)

Rentemestervej 14 (1934)

Such a sensitive renovation could hardly stand in bigger contrast to Emaljehaven (2007) on the other side of the road. On the site of the former Glud & Marstrand metalworks, the development follows Copenhagen vernacular in taking the form of a five-storey closed karré, but with open entrances on three corners giving views of the large green space behind. The prizewinning clunky facade is broken up on the inside by balconies and roof terraces, and on two of the corners there are cafés. Facing the heavily trafficked crossroads is a not very appealing lund (grove).

Described as an ‘oasis’, a self-contained community like 8TALLET in Ørestad, it’s a trophy building for the fortunate few, despite the nod to affordability with one third social housing. And a punch in the face to everyone else.

Emaljehaven (2007)

Emaljehaven (2007)

More successful is Biblioteket Rentemestervej (2011), a truly luxury class library by COBE stuck on the side of the former kulturhus, itself converted from a former warehouse, with murals from HuskMitNavn:

a space that is more than just a place you go to find books – the building also works a village hall, a community center and an urban space uniting the neighborhood…at ground floor, there’s a children’s library, then a youth library, a library for adults and finally on top, a concert hall. The different volumes are connected with staircases and in the space between the boxes, are multi-purpose areas.

Part of the kulturhus has since 2008 housed Ungdomshuset, which replaced Jagtvej 69 in Nørrebro.

COBE’s shiny box concept is due to make a return at Ragnarock, Denmark’s new rock museum in Roskilde, shortly.

Biblioteket Rentemestervej (2011)

Biblioteket Rentemestervej (2011)

After riding various waves of urban renewal the current plan for Nordvest appears to be to become a bit more Berlin (finally!), breaking up the endless parade of housing blocks with lots more greenery (there’s currently barely a tree to be seen), wider pavements, small shops and more cultural offerings.

Shading into the northwest suburbs of Copenhagen but increasingly looking inwards rather than outwards, Nordvest is an edgeland on the cusp. The pending arrival of the metro at Nørrebro may well have sealed its fate as a haunt for the creative classes – performative walks and street art have already been sighted on Nordre Fasanvej to the south. All the same it could well take another 10 years before house prices and hipness reach the heights of Nørrebro, and Nordværst becomes Nordbedst.

Sources: COBE: the libraryIndustri i NordvestkvarteretKøbenhavns nedslidte bydel får milliard-indsprøjtningLokalhistorisk Selskab: KvartervandringerNordvest er Københavns næste smarte bydel | Rentemestervej 14Sjakket: helteakademi i ghettoen

Albertslund: utopia in a Danish suburb

The Vestegnen municipality of Albertslund was created out of bare ground on fields west of Copenhagen in the 1960s and 1970s to a 1957 ‘garden city’ masterplan. Named after a French count who fled to Denmark in 1802 and established a farm in the area, the kommune‘s coat of arms features a vaguely Gallic looking cockerel.

Until 1973 the new municipality was known as Herstederne, after the villages of Herstedvester and Herstedøster. Other subsumed villages include Vridsløse and Risby, all to the north of the business end of things in Albertslund Syd.

Albertslund Syd

the Albertslund Syd masterplan

Albertslund is on the Roskilde – or index – finger of Copenhagen’s 1947 Finger Plan. Separated from neighbouring Brøndby by an industrial zone lining some wide roads, a large area is taken up by Coop Danmark’s headquarters. A further 60% of the municipality is covered by forests and green areas, including a hill created from construction detritus. The main transport arteries are Roskildevej and the B S-train line, plus the network of motorways which slices through Vestegnen’s otherwise continuous sprawl.

Suburb or town? The dream of creating a ‘cradle to grave’ town was in full swing when Albertslund Syd was constructed. The population grew from 3000 to 30,000 over a period of eight years, and today is around 27.7K. 61% of housing is social, income per capital is low, immigrant count is high. Has Albertslund succeeded in establishing its own identity, a place you would visit even if you didn’t live in the area?

The town centre was put together from the standard checklist of station (1963), town hall (1971), cultural house (1974/1996; now MusikTeatret), library (1974/2004) and church (Opstandelseskirken, 1984), plus obligatory shopping (unlike most shopping centres on Vestegnen open to the elements). Walking around on a Sunday in late February, when Denmark is at its most bare and bleak, there was a definite buzz, with people going around their business and a fair number of cafes actually occupied. Two elements help create the feel of a place – the use of canals in the streetscape, making an attraction out of the rainwater drainage system, plus some interesting (and mainly successful) public art.

canal in the town centre

Strictly zoned, with a network of roads and bike/pedestrian paths and a good selection of under/overpasses, the centre gives way on one side to three storey blocks and on the other to clusters of small one-storey gårdhuse and two-storey terraces in an almost Hobbit scale landscape built over a period of three years. Emphatically – and unusually – low rise and high density, with an accompanying lack of horizon, this area feels inward focused, invisible and almost apologetic, although some open spaces have been created by staggering the terraces.

Typically for the time only white, black and grey were used, to allow the residents to add their own personal touch. Equally typically, the gardens are private, with windows facing the street or common areas. With today’s eyes these decisions have led to monotony and uniformity, but at the time it all seemed exciting and new, offering more than ample space, light and air. Less happily, by 1974 it was clear that the roofs were leaky, leading to a drawn out tagsage (roof case; story), renovations costing a total of DK 25 million and 50% rent increases in 1978.

Albertslund Bibliotek is currently hosting Utopia, a multi-media exhibition and associated activities, inspired by the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Supported by Kulturstyrelsen, the exhibition is one of three in libraries in the Greater Copenhagen area rethinking the library as Det litterære Udstillingshus (the literary exhibition hall; Bibliotekarforbundet), blending literature, art and theatre. The exhibitions are touring the three libraries, with Ulysses, hot from Frederiksberg, next up in Albertslund, and Hamlet from Helsingør arriving over the summer.

from the utopia exhibition in the library

As well as the exhibition the library is offering utopian reading lists for all ages, a newspaper, a sound experience, the diary entries of a refugee fleeing Utopia and holed up in the library, and two events, one offering readings from More’s Utopia accompanied by hurdy gurdy. I particularly enjoyed the musings of the refugee emanating from behind 1970s style radio-cassette players stationed around the library. He had fled Utopia for its lack of diversity, challenge and stimulation – which could lead us on to an examination of Denmark, the world’s happiest country, as Utopia, but for today I’m staying in Albertslund, a rather different Denmark from the current hype.

And there are things going on. Forbrændingen, a music venue in an old incinerator next door to the district heating plant with its iconic 80m high chimneys, is a regional draw. The council is a frontrunner in environmental issues, in particular the use of innovative lighting and smart city solutions. With the ship of the self sustaining functional city having long since sailed, new connections are coming in the shape of light rail (ETA: 2023), picking up where the 1947 Finger Plan left off with Loop City. And yes, Copenhagen is only 17km and 20 minutes by train away. Albertslundruten, Denmark’s first cycle superhighway, has been speeding people into the city since 2012.

MusikTeatret lends an almost big city feel

Has the confidence and optimism of the 1960s perhaps resulted in a more lasting experience than the more modest projects of the immediate post-war period? Or is it the fact that Albertslund started from a blank sheet, rather than adapting what it already had, the key to its success? If what turns a new town into a town rather than shading into a suburb is innovation, diversity and change, Albertslund rather surprisingly has it, and I would certainly return.

From Albertslundssangen, seen in the underpass by the station:

Du er dagen du er vejen, du er drøm og poesi
du er badesøen som jeg svømmer i når jeg har fri
Du er frihed du er fængsel, du er kærlighed og længsel
du er glædens, du er vredens grund
du er alting Albertslund.

See my Flickr album for more.

Sources and further info: Albertslund får sit navn | Albertslund Syd er kulturarvDet utopiske Albertslund | DOLL Living Lab & En gave fra Albertslund til resten af verdenGåaftstand goes City walking in Albertslund | Kroppedal Museum on Albertslund | Litterære udstillinger: hvad kan man forvente? | Somerset House’s Utopia season & London Design Biennale | Sound Settlements: Albertslund Syd | Utopian events: Albertslund: en utopi bliver til & Hvordan ser utopien i Albertslund ud | libraries and the high brow: the exhibitions critiqued