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, 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!)

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.

Vestegnens Kulturuge 2016: forgotten giants and guerilla knitting

Update, Nov: spotted in our local library, a booklist from the six library services covering the topics of ghettoen, forstadsliv, de fremmede, to be or not to be and på den anden side – mainly Danish books, and very well done, but not traced online – seems a bit of a wasted effort

Fourth time of asking for our local festival, Vestegnens Kulturuge (2013 | 2014 | 2015), which ran from 9-18 September. Aimed increasingly at Familien Danmark, like so many festivities in Happy DK, with lean pickings for those not in that demographic. One news story even went so far as to highlight a classical concert as an event for those interested in ‘culture’, so kudos to Albertslund, offering a range of Hamlet themed events as the final part of its participation in the literary exhibition hall project, plus a kunstvandring.

While generally each of the six kommuner do their own thing during the festival period, Thomas Dambo’s Forgotten Giants project (Vestegnens Kulturuge) extended across the whole area, with six sculptures constructed over a period of six months. Made from recycled wood and built with the help of volunteers, the giants were hailed by local mayors as illustrating Vestegnen’s values: working together, recycling and volunteering.

In a sort of ‘because it’s there’ approach, we picked up our first giant in Ishøj back in June, mopping up the final one in our manor both under construction and at its fernisering. While the project did fulfill its stated aim of taking us to new parts of Vestegnen, it also showed off the bleakness of its over-planned nether regions, empty streets of low rise sprawl broken only by broad roads, reachable mainly by motorway or local train, with all traces of life hidden away.

Driving out to Høje Taastrup all the way down ruler-straight Roskildevej through a stretch lined with shiny sheds we could have been in the USA, an impression only reinforced by a pit stop at Wittrup Motel. Having located the giant via iphone (as well as being forgotten ie glemt, most of the sculptures are also hidden, ie gemt) we snapped it and exited, never likely to return. Sited in a low-lying marsh, now managed parkland, and a stone’s throw from the motorway, the background hum of traffic was ever present – a common problem in the area.

So let’s call it for an enterprising soul in Hvidovre who set up a Strik byen smuk project (broadly: Knit the city prettystory), which can’t quite be called for guerilla knitting due to its planned nature, but heck, this is Denmark, nothing happens without a plan. Mainly around the town hall, and taken down in no short order by Monday morning.

Knitting also featured in the 1970s themed Golden Days festival, also taking place during September throughout the Greater Copenhagen region. Ishøj library offered a session on Hønsestrik, a feminist inspired knitting movement kicked off by Kirsten Hofstätter’s 1973 manifesto, riffing on women as a flock of hens (høns) and dispensing with patterns. Rather more upmarket, the new Kähler i Tivoli enterprise hosted a knitting salon on the same theme.

Before you say: how hyggeligt, yes indeed, but the knitters, lucky with the weather (soggy knitting would not have been great), were plagued by thefts and vandalism, malicious or no, so some norms do apply. And interestingly, Dambo’s sculptures outside DK tend to have rather more edge.

Also running over the summer was Stemmer fra Hvidovre (Voices from Hvidovre; story | again | yet again | critique | response | again | again), egnsteater from Teater Vestvolden, a former children’s theatre gradually offering some rather more innovative productions. Taking the form of teatret i byrummet, the production was part of the current wave of site specific theatre. 40 people per performance were driven around the locality in a toy train in search of Hvidovre’s DNA, hearing stories old and new from a squad of 90 volunteers in a celebration of Hvidovre’s fællesskab (community spirit) and foreningsliv (participation in clubs and societies).

With schools in Denmark starting the new term in early/mid August Vestegnens Kulturuge represents a good opportunity to enjoy late summer, which tends to have rather better weather than the increasingly unreliable mass holiday month of July. As well as Golden Days it overlaps with a cornucopia of other festivals, including NaturensdagAeronautisk Dag, Mosensdag, Copenhagen Art Run (Vinkbh)…and with a clang of inevitability, Family Days.

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.

#CAFx2016: Copenhagen Architecture Festival

Copenhagen may not have a decent open house event but it does have probably the world’s biggest architecture-cum-film festival, on its third run-out this year (see post re 2014 and 2015). The Copenhagen Architecture Festival (aka CAFx; Twitter | Facebook | Instagram), took place from 10-20 March, still dominated by film but accompanied by debates, walks etc in 12 themes at more than 30 venues, with presences also in Aarhus (AAFx) and Aalborg (ALAFx).

Of the themes, Københavns Forvandlinger stuck out as by far the biggest – subdivide, guys! The most eye-catching events were sold out when I looked, but at least there was some hand-wringing around gentrificationCopenhagen vs the rest of Denmark also looked on point.

Providing further food for thought was Det urealiserede København, showcasing the 1960s proposal for a motorway round the Lakes, which has a certain perverse appeal in the face of the bucolic set of potential projects generally rolled out. 2015’s six best, which you could visit on a guided bike tour, included Cykelslangen, which surely opened in 2014 (and still makes me want to poke someone in the eye). But it’s not all about Copenhagenized and Copenhagen Dreaming – two housing projects, Brygge Blomsten and Sundholm Syd, were also recognised.

Film i s-toget meant that instead of TV 2 News the screens in the trains showed historical film clips, if only after midnight and at the weekend. More multi-media in the shape of three new audio walks, with one on (inevitably) Vesterbro bag facadenLyt til København offers short recordings made at random spots, while Ghettoblaster from young folk in Nørrebro probably does what it says on the tin. Part of a Lyd og rum theme, there was also a workshop on Havenlyd og byrum, the sounds of the lost harbour.

In the handful of place-centred events, an exhibition looked at DSB Byen, the area behind the central station, which we nosed about back in August 2014. The creative classes have now moved in, with a three part event from AMPD (Facebook), themselves based on Otto Busses Vej. Here’s the latest wheeze for the some of the area, involving IKEA and green roofs.

The Brønshøj council estate of Tingbjerg, designed by Steen Eiler Rasmussen in the 1950s, surely merited its own theme, like Aarhus’ Gellerup – so will get its own post shortly here.

Website critique: it’s very blue, and I wish things wouldn’t slide up and down when you hover over them. Then there’s a Mine Favoritter section, but no way of favouriting things. Would never have happened on my watch. On the plus side this year you can filter by type – see walks, including one on bikes, the gentrifying tracks of Nordre Fasanvej (involves games) and yup! Vesterbro.

Interestingly, the EN button takes you to an on-the-fly Google translation. Google as globish? As far as #some goes, it’s strictly PR in best exclamatory style! No attempts at coverage or recordings of the very interesting talks etc for those not able to attend. Instead there was Snapchat.

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

Hvidovre’s trees

Update: 2016’s Xmas trees came from Sydkærsvej 102 and Toft Sørensens Vænge 11

A post in honour of the UK’s National Tree Week (#NationalTreeWeek), running since 1975.

Tree survey

As a planned 1950s suburb, with luft og lys (air and light) as watchwords, Hvidovre has some well planted green areas among the social housing. Bredalsparken boasts a diverse collection of mature trees including poplars and beeches, while Grenhusene, designed to evoke the branches of a tree, is made up of a series of terraces separated by copses. Egevolden makes good use of oaks, as well it might (eg = oak), with one line screening traffic noise from Gammel Køge Landevej and a second hiding the railway line.

oaks at Egevolden

oaks at Egevolden

Risbjerg Kirkegård was landscaped by architect Eywin Langkilde as an new cemetery for the growing kommune in 1965. Its avenue of plane trees between beech hedges was innovative in Denmark at the time. In 2002 the cemetery was extended with the addition of a more open section including a small lake and lawns, plus a group of quince trees.

The grounds are well cared for, although there has been some felling near the gates leaving the remaining topped conifers looking rather forlorn. Some greenery also went on nearby Biblioteksvej a couple of years ago and on the grounds of the school round the corner. Here apparently the trees were syge (diseased), but quite possibly the need for yet more bike racks played as much of a role.

Hvidovre’s lack of street trees has been highlighted in the plans for the new town centre. At our end of the kommune Paris Boulevard is lined with London planes and there is a further group on the corner of Hvidovrevej and Brostykkevej just across the road from a line of horse chestnuts.

early pollarding!

getting ahead with the pollarding

Off the main road, Svendebjergvej somehow retains a well tended ash grove, admittedly with negative effects on the pavement in places, while Catherine Booths Vej running parallel is completely bare, increasingly so as the residents get out the power saw as part of the widespread slapping down the paving habit.

Tree stories

Hvidovre’s tallest tree is the copper beech at Brostykkevej 56, on the corner of Risbjergvej. Here’s a picture of it with Valby’s late lamented gasometer behind:

Around 18m tall, the tree may well have stood on this spot in 1913 when Carl Andersen set up his market garden, using copper coloured tiles for the roof to match. Carl called his business Brassica – he grew cauliflowers and won prizes for his efforts, with the seeds exported as far away as the USA. The business closed down in the early 1950s, with part of the plot taken over for Risbjergskole, a new school.

The house has only had two owners, with the present owners buying the house from Carl’s widow in 1997. It’s an imposing old house and well looked after, so should be safe from the tear down brigade.

Hvidovre’s most famous tree is Smedens pæretræ, a pear tree planted by a blacksmith who ran a smithy from 1897 to 1930 on land now occupied by Friheden Station. Frequently watered by my beagles, the tree is protected and forms an interesting contrast with the rather functional station building dating from 1972. A mural inside tells the full story.

the smith's pear tree

the smith’s pear tree

As I write the willows are the only deciduous trees in the area still with leaf cover. This includes the willow below on Strandhavevej, an award winning estate designed by Svenn Eske Kristensen in 1955. He chose to build round the tree, which was deemed syg in early 2015, to be felled in the summer (source: Hvidovre Lokalhistoriske Selskab). Happily still in place, and looking pretty fit and healthy too:

On a less happy note, two pine trees have just been felled to fulfill their destiny as Hvidovre’s Christmas trees, taking pride of place outside the town hall and on Hvidovre Torv. Until Monday the town hall tree stood on HC Bojsensvej, right next to the water tower. At four o’clock today, the first Sunday in advent, it will be lit with singing, dancing and general hygge.