COPENHAGEN  impressions of...


Before the Seattle bean companies moved onto each UK street corner, the smell of real coffee was a rare treat. One small pavilion in Glasgow’s trendy West End provided this aroma, in a heady 1960’s combo with food, Scandinavian products, and artworks. Here was my early introduction to Danish Design, and to the ‘grooks’ of Piet Hein, (1906-1996) a Danish polymath, designer, philosopher and writer, whom I now know produced in excess of 7,000 of these pithy aphorisms.

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“There is one art, no more, no less;

to do all things, with artless-ness”

Hein’s grook concisely presages the ‘no frills’ approach now universally identified with Danish Design.  Clean, simple, uncluttered lines distinguish Danish products:- cutlery; furniture; bicycle frames; even thin ‘flat screen’ traffic lights; and of course, buildings. There appears to be a real public interest in design. Annual Architecture Open Days in May, stylish retail displays, a prestigious riverside ‘architecture exhibition centre’, and a centrally located Danish Design Centre (DDC), beside Tivoli Gardens and the City Hall Square, ensure that even taxi drivers seem well informed and able to talk on design.

The 3 level Danish Design Centre leads by example. Clear and simple analysis of design projects, ranging through health care innovations, toys, and iconic chair design, de-mystifies the process. On entry, just beyond the shop, a ten-point guide to assessment of “good” building design is unequivocal, and easy to use. Characteristics for good value building design in the 21st century are noted as: Intuitive; Innovative; Functional; Honest; Responsible; Shaped and Styled; User oriented; Aesthetic; Durable; and Good business.

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Most would agree with this checklist, but it is also interesting to consider one notable omission:- ‘context’. The Danish Design Centre approach promotes a more clinical assessment for each new building as an entity. This would appear to avoid emotional and sentimental confusion around ‘context’, which so often frustrates and de-rails serious design discussions in the UK. It also allows a more contemporary architectural response within each setting. Consequently, throughout the city there are vigorous glass and steel infill projects abutting half-timbered, and historic frame constructions.

Iconic new cultural buildings also proclaim their contemporary identity. The new Royal Library addition (Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen) is a striking, angular, polished granite building, now known as ‘the Black Diamond’. It massively extends the gentile 1906 original library, built in gardens behind the Parliament building, and creates another new significant landmark on the waterfront. The Opera (Henning Larsen) is the most visible building in the inner harbour due to its prominent site. The tall glazed foyers and generous fore-court, look out across the water and are protected below an enormous cantilevered roof canopy. There is now a dynamic architectural and visual balance here, as the new Playhouse of the Royal Theatre (Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitektfirma) reaches out from the opposite bank. The vast bulk of this Theatre nestling between the rococo Frederiksstaden, and the busy, picturesque, and colourful 17thcentury Nyhavn quayside, originally caused controversy, but now seems to be respected, even by well informed taxi drivers.

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Copenhagen’s maritime roots remain extremely strong. The city centre occupies several islands and successfully presents itself as a series of spacious canals and waterfronts. Even ambitious new master-plans, commence by sub-dividing huge 200 hectare sites, using extensions to existing waterways in order to create manageable development sites. Major new projects are currently proposed at Nordhavn, by architects COBE/SLETH, and even more ambitious, and already under construction, is the New Orestad City, slowly emerging out of open space near the airport, following master-plans by Libeskind and KHR arkiteckter. Already new concepts in urban and suburban living are taking shape and setting new standards, which will doubtless be emulated elsewhere.

Copenhagen has managed its growth over recent centuries  (popn now 1.7m) by embracing the best and most innovative contemporary design and town planning. Classicism; Romanticism; 17th century merchant building, co-exist in unusual comfort with ‘functional modernism’, honed and evolved by Arne Jacobsen, Vilhelm Lauritzen, and others throughout the 20th century. The Danish Architectural Press has coined a nice phrase, and without reference to a ‘grook’, looks forward to Copenhagen’s role developing as an “Architectural Exploratorium for the new Millenium.”

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© stuart campbell 2021