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.

Walk on: re-examining Jane Jacobs

Next up: Will Self and Owen Hatherley on JJ (5 July, Hoxton).

Updates: new biog outon The Urbanist@owenhatherley on JJSlate on her cheerful hurly burly (cached) featuring JJ: the opera, with Robert Moses looking down from above and JJ looking at her feet…JJ: the film (Gdn & Olly Wainwright | Observer & again New York Times | Vogue | Jonathan Glancey)…also namechecked on Slate’s The quest to make the perfect place (cached) on New Urbanism and its attempts to recreate the small town in the city as an alternative to the typical suburb – sound familiar?

Lots about Jane Jacobs at the moment, “American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist best known for her influence on urban studies”. A Google doodle celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birth on 4 May with accompanying hashtag #jj100, there’s a six month New York based celebration, a year long effort in Toronto and a conference in Delft for starters, plus the annual walking weekend. Is Jane just the American (OK, Canadian) Gehl-like Good Thing you can’t argue with?

Jane Jacobs Google doodle

Happy Birthday to Jane from Google

Jane’s Walk (#janeswalk | @janeswalk | blog) offers a cornucopia of delights, including Jane’s Ten Big Ideas, a quick guide to Jane’s written work and a summary of walkability research. From coverage elsewhere, the Guardian ran two pieces, with Saskia Sassen on the day itself and a piece on Jane vs Robert Moses. US based Strong Towns has screeds of stuff. See also the Project for Public SpacesJane’s last vid and Treehugger on Jane at home. And what might JJ say about smart cities?

Slate, however, weighed in with Bulldoze Jane Jacobs, calling for a stop to the deification and a re-examination of her ideas, which have led to “nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground[s] for the rich”:

Governments…spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow.

Other less fashionable areas outside the downtown core are all too often left untouched.

So much so Copenhagen, with its swathes of almost identically tasteful apartment blocks shooting up all over, re-writing of Carlsberg’s cultural heritage and over-hyped ‘one size fits all’ lifestyle. Meanwhile its outer districts, and even more much of Greater Copenhagen’s five fingers, are seemingly left to their own devices.

My results from Curbed’s Jane Jacobs quiz:

Your neighborhood is a work in progress.

The sidewalk ballet (the dynamic unfolding of the city’s life, a form of art represented by interactions of neighbours, passers-by, children playing, shopkeepers) in your neighborhood could use a few more rehearsals. Some Jacobs-approved approaches may have taken root—there are a few newer buildings mixed in with the old, or your neighborhood’s avenues offer a mix of shops, restaurants, offices, and residential space—but the neighborhood still has long blocks, or large swaths of only housing or office buildings that leave it quiet for much of the day or evening.

So, back to the walking, an invaluable aid for those who find themselves adrift. Jane’s Walk in Copenhagen turned out to be a one-off (I know, I know…), but for 2016 we find diverse delights in Birmingham and Coventry, GhentLiverpool, London, Tokyo, Zagreb and Zurich, plus Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (all in Hebrew). With a special shout-out for Eugene Quinn’s Funk ORF! (Vienna).

#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.

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

Ground control in Copenhagen

I’ve been catching up with some urbanist reading lately, starting with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, moving onto Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism and back to earth with John Grindrod’s Concretopia.

Yesterday I polished off Anna Minton’s Ground control (2009 edition). Having worked as an infopro in urban development environments for most of my career it all feels rather like coming home, although some of the jargon has changed, and Ground control helped to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions raised by our recent trip to London.

urbanist classics

my one note reading pile

What made me sit up though were the references to Denmark. To me central Copenhagen feels like the privatised public spaces described in the ‘Clean and safe’ chapter:

One of the problems the new ‘clean and safe’ parts of the city wrestle with is how to make places exciting. All too often they are strangely sterile, soulless and lacking in atmosphere, as the drive to create new places places little attention to real historic and cultural identity…

The contradiction is that while the managers of business districts want to create a ‘buzz’ and an atmosphere, they plan entertainment very carefully…the unexpected rarely happens…the growing micro-management of activities threatens to design out lingering and wandering around.

In Copenhagen the “authoritarianism and control” is innate, it doesn’t need to be imposed or enforced. Undesirable people (homeless, groups of youngsters, political protestors) and activities just don’t happen – or only when the Brøndby fans come to town. There is definitely the “feeling of an invisible hand directing what is going on”, with a chain of near identical public places “produced according to the same tick-box recipe”, changing and deadening the atmosphere and resulting in “participants who are unable to depart from the script”.

There’s a lot of idyllic Danery in the civil society section. In the chapter on fear of crime, ‘R/respect’, trust and happiness Minton discusses the role of strangers in cities in preserving the essence of civility and safety. Richard Senett (1977) described the city as the place “where strangers are likely to meet”, defining ‘civility’ as “treating others as strangers and forging a social bond based on that distance”. Jane Jacobs (1961) based her case on “natural surveillance”, built around the informal social controls of strangers, “eyes on the street”, resulting in an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves”.

Hence the role of strangers determines levels of trust in places, a “trust between strangers which occurs naturally in healthy places and is still part of daily life to a far greater degree in countries like Denmark”. The use of the word ‘like’ seems crucial here, as this statement goes against widespread reportage by internationals and the concept of ‘negative politeness’ as a key Danish value, which on a bad day can verge on the passive aggressive.

Minton notes that trust and happiness are highest in Scandinavian countries “like Denmark”, where “stark, visible differences between social groups are also among the lowest”. Networks of likeminded people, rather than “places which promote the diversity of strangers”, increase trust and social capital: “The more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust one anyone”. So there you have it. Danes “unconsciously trust each other and look out for each other” because they are all the same.

Plus there are downsides. “Life is no fun if it is perfectly safe…More importantly, when life becomes too safe, paradoxically we become more fearful and less trusting, as the natural human bonds which occur spontaneously between people are stifled”. An article in Politiken this weekend asked if Danes are addicted to tryghed (safety, security). It’s possible to see Denmark as a protected environment on a national scale, its own little homongenous enclave with an inwardly focused national discourse. To such as extent that there’s widespread surprise when ‘others’ comment on what they do – see the reaction to Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian.

The final chapter on possible solutions to the problems of the 21st city concludes with a section on reinventing the public, where Minton returns to Happy Danery: “many genuinely public places in towns and cities around southern and northern Europe, in [long list concluding with Scandinavia] are thriving. Families and groups of people stroll arm in arm taking the passeggiata, children run around and old people sit together on benches”.

I want to go on holiday with Anna! She cites – of course she does – Jan Gehl, “Danish urbanist and architect, credited with transforming Copenhagen” into a place where shopping is not the main reason for coming into the city. Apparently “four times as many people come into the centre of Copenhagen as did so in the past…simply to stroll around and take in the atmosphere”. This is a long way from my experience of the centre of the city, where over-designed and under-peopled asphalted public spaces are broken only by basketball pens and bike parking facilities. Plus pavement cafes, oh those pavement cafes…all this is why I as a rule I choose to wander in areas further afield, as yet untouched by the flattening hand of the ‘human scale’.

/rant

Update, 27 Feb: The Urbanist’s How do you create a healthy city episode offered more on this theme, with UCL’s Nick Tyler selecting Copenhagen as his example of a happy city. He redeemed himself somewhat by being more than a little troubled by “the cycling bit”, stating that “there are people who don’t cycle”, and that an unbalanced stress on cycling, with the potential for conflicting situations, could tip things out of balance. Cities need a whole variety of people – that’s where the vibrancy is. Quite. Plus a whole variety of scale, so the city doesn’t turn into Middle Earth.

Is it now taken as read that every city is travelling towards becoming a cycling city? It certainly is for The Urbanist’s next speaker, high heeled bike riding Bianca Hermansen of Cititek, who doesn’t choose to walk or use public transport. She’s in the nudging camp, favouring a context which “compels people to change their behaviour”, yikes, and preaching her message whenever she gets the chance. It’s all about lifestyle – and never mind anyone who doesn’t choose or aspire to that lifestyle. Luckily this segment only lasted four minutes.

London 2016

Thoughts from a recent trip to London, looking at building, buildings, buildings (more buildings on Flickr). What has changed in the last decade or so, and what does it all tell us about me, Copenhagen, London and life in 2016?

Sunday: Euston Road, Bloomsbury and Midtown

We started out by walking up Hampstead Road from the disused 1907 Euston tube station to Mornington Crescent, the first of many of Leslie Green‘s stations spotted in central London. Despite dying at the ridiculously young age of 33, Green’s impact on tube station design may well equal that of Charles Holden. Then entering ‘forgotten Camden’ (see Tom Bolton’s St Pancras trail) we took in the splendid 1960s St Aloysius RC Church before approaching the three monster stations on Euston Road.

A sort of 19th century Crossrail, the construction process involved in bringing the railways into London extended over the course of 30 years, displacing 30,000 people in the process. St Pancras International was a new one on me, completely renovated from 2001-07 to welcome Eurostar, and now as much shopping destination as station. A symphony in red and white by George Gilbert Scott from 1868, with the kitschy statue to end all kitschy statues in the gallery, its general over-the-topness is not for me.

Much better is King’s Cross, the gateway to the north, where I have taken many a train and met many a parent. It has also changed completely, a 2014 restoration opening up the concourse and revealing Lewis Cubitt’s beautifully simple building from 1852. In contrasting fortunes 1970s style Euston, originally built in classical style by William Cubitt in 1837 but demolished in 1962, is unchanged, with the Euston Arch still found only on pub signs.

Also shined up is the Brunswick Centre from 1972 , an unusual mixed use development with council housing in a ziggurat design alongside a commercial section. Now renamed The Brunswick with repetitive shopping, and still hosting the Renoir Cinema. Of the Bloomsbury squares and gardens we tarried most at Thomas Cubitt’s 1820s Tavistock Square, with its statue of Virginia Woolf set against Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education. After that, Charles Holden’s Senate House (1937) seemed almost underwhelming.

Walking down Tottenham Court Road heralded the self-styled Midtown, centred round St Giles Circus and the iconic Centre Point (1966), currently under wraps. Tottenham Court Road tube is transformed, with 2010s style wide open spaces inside (Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics either in store or in Edinburgh) and Crossrail damage outside. Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles (2010) sets the tone – time will tell how the refurbishment of New Commonwealth House (1939) will fit into this context.

With the rain showing no sign of slackening we then walked through the gloaming down New and Old Bond Streets to Piccadilly, with its splendidly Art Deco Waterstones in the former Simpsons (1936), before taking in Leicester Square and a sumptuous south Indian thali near Warren Street.

Tavistock Square

Virginia Woolf with Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education behind

Monday: from Hampstead modernism to the Alexandra Road estate

Hampstead modernism day, starting in Belsize Park at the Lawn Road Flats (1934) then on to Ernö Goldfinger’s house (1938) on Willow Road facing Hampstead Heath. By all accounts a formidable figure and immortalised by Ian Fleming, the house is quite superb, a ‘reintrepretation’ of a Georgian terrace in brick and wood on a concrete foundation.

Up to Parliament Hill for a first look at London’s new skyline and an inspection of dog walking mores in this prime spot. In contrast to Denmark dogs almost entirely off leash – although up to four per person – and having a good time, interacting in an entirely stress free way. A proposed Dog Control Order on a lamp post emphasised there were no plans to force dog owners to put dogs on a lead on any part of the Heath, although they are not allowed in children’s play areas. Icing on the cake: ‘no cycling’ signs throughout.

After lunch we followed the rest of the Hampstead modernism trail, juggling a laptop and the London A-Z. Highlights: New House at 13 Arkwright Road (1939) with its blue porthole, the six houses at Frognal Close designed by Ernst Freud (1937), where a resident asked us if we were architects, and the multicoloured 66 Frognal (1938). Round the corner on Frognal Way, one of London’s most exclusive streets, is Maxwell Fry’s Sun House and Gracie Fields’ rather less titillating house (which she probably never lived in), both from 1934. On a mild Monday afternoon we encountered any number of east European au pairs with their charges as we walked down to Finchley Road to gawk at the prices in estate agents’ windows.

Leaping forward more than 40 years we finished the day at Neave Browne’s Alexandra Road Estate (1978), made up of 520 apartments in three long crescent shaped blocks and bounded on one side by the West Coast Main Line. The first post-war council housing estate to be listed, in 1994, Alexandra Road has had its problems but retains a pleasing green ambience akin to that of a traditional terrace, if not exactly Bath’s Royal Crescent. Looking at features such as staircases and balconies more closely the evolution of brutalism from modernism comes into focus.

Goldfinger's house (1938)

Goldfinger’s house (1938) in Hampstead

Tuesday: the Thames, London Bridge and Bankside

After mopping up some final West End sights time to go south of the river, with a brief jaunt to Vauxhall for the PoMo classic that is Terry Farrell’s MI6 building (1994) and the Vauxhall Tower (180m) on St George’s Wharf, the latter striking the same bum notes as the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle, neither well designed nor in the right place.

Bypassing the South Bank on this occasion we re-emerged at the for me practically unrecognisable London Bridge, taking in St Olaf House on Tooley Street (1930) before catching Renzo Piano’s Shard (2012, at nearly 310m, the max allowed, the tallest building in the EU; £25 to visit). Then onward to Norman Foster’s bijou City Hall (2002) and More London, our first encounter with the privatised ‘public realm’.

The south bank of the Thames is well laid out for walking, albeit with endless upscale shopping and drinking opportunities on this stretch. The outdated 1980s viewpoints with plaques detailing buildings on the north bank provide some sort of context for the changing skyline and an overview of architectural fashions – what will remain after a further 30 years?

Next, a short stop at Tate Modern, itself undergoing redevelopment with a monster extension due to open in June. The gallery has been open since 2000, but I remember it better as Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station hulk, in operation for a scant 30 years. GGS was also responsible for Battersea Power Station, still ‘under redevelopment’ after being decommissioned in 1983. The Oxo Tower just west of Tate Modern, originally built as a power station but rebuilt as an Art Deco cold store in 1929, has found a new role as Oxo Tower Wharf, with a full raft of shopping, eating, housing and cultural uses.

Then over Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, a bridge story to rival some of Copenhagen’s, to St Paul’s and Paternoster Square, then onwards to Aldgate, where we were stayed for the next three nights.

London skyline

City skyline from More London

Wednesday: the City and the Barbican

A tortured heap of towers? Foster+Partners’ Gherkin (2003, 180m), aka 30 St Mary Axe and previously the Swiss Re Building, on the site of the bombed in 1992 Baltic Exchange, was in situ the last time I visited London, but it’s Richard Seifert’s 1980 NatWest Tower, now Tower 42, I think of first.

In 2016 though there’s a whole City cluster away from St Paul’s sightlines – notably Richard Rogers’ Cheesegrater (1 Leadenhall; 2013, 225m), across the road from his 1986 Lloyds’ Building, as well as Rafael Vinoly’s infamous Walkie Talkie (2014, 160m; Britain’s most hated buildingstory | Carbuncle Cup) at 20 Fenchurch Street with its Sky Garden (from which you don’t have to look at the thing). Less written about or in your face is the Heron Tower (2011), at 230m the tallest building in the City. Which will last the longest?

What effect is all this having? See climate walk article for starters. Then there’s Crossrail, eliminating numerous blocks, and the general privatisation of public space. Bankrolled by oil money, derided as phallic symbols…but a successful city brand, judging by the number of tourist around in the first week of January. If you enjoy looking up, getting some perspectives on things, it feels well done –  at least if you don’t know what was there before.

On another note, the City is one square mile of prime walking country. Even if you are just popping out for your sandwich/ramen of choice, during office hours the streets are never quiet. Visit the City offers a visitor trail map (“one trail: hundreds of stories”), with a main trail and ‘side-tracks’ for London stories, culture, law and literature, skyscrapers and sculpture, and markets. Each square of the map is approx 400m, or about a five minute walk at a steady 3 mph pace, just feel the walking love…in addition there are 10 city walk leaflets, including a tree trail, and for locals a cornucopia of delights including short lunchtime walks for a quick heritage hit. Apparently Harry Potter tours are a thing, as were James Bond tours around the time of Skyfall, plus anti-capitalism tours such as Occupy London tackling inter alia public realm issues. It never stops…

After all that corporate excess on to old friend the Barbican (story) with its nods to culture (we tracked a lad carrying a tuba across the plaza and back over lunch) and upscale brutalist housing, and the gentrifying 1950s Golden Lane Estate

Gropius shopfront

shopfront designed by Walter Gropius in 1936, at 115 Cannon Street

Thursday: the Olympic Park, Poplar and the East End

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park reopened in Easter 2014. In terms of legacy, without coming over all Twenty Twelve, it shows off a lot of current tropes.

It was rainy and pretty deserted when we visited as part of our packed east London programme, so no time to explore the The Olympic Walk from Sporting Tours of London, good wheeze that. While the revitalised park, “the same size as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined”, seems focused on looking forward, a London 2012 trail guide does offer pointers to what happened where. Designed by the team behind New York’s High Line with waterways, woods and wildlife habitats created on the marshlands, there’s plenty to explore beyond the playgrounds and between the building sites, although this kind of designed experience hides rather than reveals.

The four interactive trails on offer include a guide to the 26 permanent artworks in the park. Biggest is the 114.5m high ArcelorMittal Orbit, Britain’s largest sculpture. You can climb it or abseil down it for £85 (£130 to upgrade to live vid), and a slide will be in action later in 2016. Also offers activities and events. Entry: £12, which feels a bit steep for a view of east London. Rather more pleasing are Ackroyd & Harvey’s 10 History Trees, placed at entry points to the park; in total 4300 trees have been planted in the area.

The Olympic Village, renamed the East Village, is the most developed quarter, a dead ringer for any of Copenhagen’s bland new areas. Scandi style, or just modern style? It certainly didn’t feel like London. Oliver Wainwright in July 2013: “making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city”. A shopping centre and a new ‘international’ station doesn’t a place make – the arrival of West Ham may be what’s needed. Update: here’s Olly in August 2016.

From Stratford we took the DLR down to Poplar, formed as a district as long ago as 1855 and encompassing areas including Bow, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs, but from 1965 part of Tower Hamlets. Two town halls remain, both listed: on Poplar High Street (1870) and the Art Deco style New Town Hall on Bow Road (1938), which we missed by turning the wrong way exiting the station.

Poplar plays a key role in the history of social housing in the UK. Between the wars the council built a total of 1500 homes in the area, including the Art Deco Holmsdale House (1938), complete with deck access. In 1951 the first phase of the Lansbury Estate (again; fab article; in 2017 the home of the V&A’s Lansbury Micro Museum) was chosen as the site of the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Live Architecture. Alongside is Chrisp Street Market, the first specially designed, covered and pedestrianised shopping centre in the UK with iconic bell tower by Frank Gibberd, from 2012 a Portas Pilot.

A further round of development took place in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in two ‘streets in the sky’ developments. First, the much written about Brownfield Estate, with fairly unobjectionable low rise punctuated by the cluster of Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (again; 1967, 84m), accompanied by Carradale House and Glenkerry House, aka the rather more well behaved baby Balfron. Goldfinger and his family stayed in Balfron’s Flat 130 for a whole two months in 1968.

The decision to kick off redevelopment of this concrete monster was made as long ago as 2008, since when some flats have provided live-work accommodation for a posse of artists. Other tenants have gradually been ‘decanted’ elsewhere, with the block to be refurbished for sale on the open market. A certain amount of hooha was caused in October 2014 when the Goldfinger flat was done up Sixties style by the National Trust and opened to heritage fans for 10 days as part of Bow Arts’ Balfron Season. Still awaiting refurbishment it all felt pretty desolate with wind of Himalayan proportions – a major treat for concrete fans.

Nearby is the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens (1972), “an urban solution to an impossible site” and perhaps rather too clever for its own good, due (again) to be pulled down soon – there were CPO notices hanging by the entrance. Expecting something on the scale of Sheffield’s Park Hill, the 214 flats actually felt full of potential, and rather more viable than the Balfron wind tunnel, but is seems it is not to be.

Fascinating round here, so close to 1990s Docklands and so clearly on the cusp of 2010s gentrification, with three hotspots on the London campaigns map and cycle superhighway CS3 passing through. More wandering took us to Bartlett Park with its eponymous Brookside style close, complete with two private land signs and a burnt out church.

As for the rest of the East End, despite having visited London countless times from birth and living there from 1987-93 I had no mental map at all, but can now vaguely place what were formerly merely names, known mainly from the Monopoly board, with any number of leads to follow up. Our final impression was the creeping approach of the City, with Commercial Street gradually crumbling away – our bus to the airport left from beside a hoarding surrounding the one remaining wall of the 1929 Fruit & Wool Exchange.

St Leonard's Road, Poplar

converted church and WW1 war memorial at St Leonard’s Road, Poplar

Our trip summed up: a reminder that humanity comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. People just getting on with their lives, without being channelled into an approved lifestyle. People meeting your eye and not looking away (and talking extremely loudly), creating interaction and even a sense of wellbeing. And trees make a city – everywhere should have a Tree Routes app.

Tidy uptight Copenhagen is in a different place on its gentrification journey, with hipsters largely confined to the city centre and few creatives spotted on Vestegnen thus far. Social housing has been rather better maintained than in the UK, and most new housing is going up on brownfield sites left by the collapse of the harbour and related industries, extending King Canute-like onto reclaimed land. But Amager looks like becoming the first front line, as Ørestad pushes its shiny face into the older neighbourhoods of Sundby and Tårnby (which at a pinch translates as Tower Hamlets), creating some awkward transitions.

And Denmark has a different sense of place, very much of the here and now, with style (aka design) winning over substance. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this focus on surface is because there are fewer layers left to unpeel? And that some of the attraction for expat Guardianistas and journos is just how these differences play out? Or is it all just another successful city branding strategy?

Reading: Brutalism:Online | Concretopia: John Grindrod’s book, blog & timeline | London’s: footpathstallest buildings | London Deco FlatsModernism in Metro-Land | Modernist BritainMunicipal Dreams | Museum of London: City & Docklands | Spitalfields Life | Walk London | Adrian Yekkes: East End Modernism & More Hampstead Modernism & London Art Deco part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | yet more. Also Homes of tomorrow, audio on Goldfinger’s “utopian drive to build for a better world”. 

Some East End walks: Alternative LondonBrick Lane and Spitalfields cultural trail | Jack the Ripper tours (at least 10) | The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (Whitechapel) | Memoryscape (inc Royal Docks, Victoria Park) | Soundmap (Brick Lane) | Tower Hamlets walks & trails | A walk through Spitalfields’ stories. See also Richard White’s social walk in QEOP (blog) in May 2015.

Finally, Nairn…two pub walks (London Review Bookshop | Caught by the River), plus Gillian Darley on the bus.