Functionalism - apartment buildings in Copenhagen in the 1930s

Grønne Funkishus Nordre Fasanvej 78-82

 

In Copenhagen, there is a clear change from the apartments buildings that were constructed in the late 19th century and early 20th century and the apartment buildings from the 1920s and 1930s. 

In the 19th century each building was different from the next, often with relatively ornate doorways, carvings and complex mouldings for the street frontage and inside the arrangement of the apartments was often dictated by a narrow plot with existing buildings on either side that determined where and how windows to the back could be arranged. Even within a building, there were often differences between one floor and the next in both ceiling heights and in the quality of fittings. 

By the 1920s, plans of individual apartments became simpler and they were generally more compact and certainly more rational in their arrangement of the rooms and staircases. Because many of these new buildings were on new sites outside the old city, or if they were within the city a whole block could be cleared of old buildings, so there is generally a greater sense of uniformity within larger and larger buildings. 

In part, this was because, in this period immediately after the First World War, there was a severe housing shortage and, to a considerable extent, the functionalism and the adoption of new building techniques was driven by a need to build as many apartments as possible and as quickly as possible.

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Funkishuset

One of a series of guides published by Bygningskultur Danmark for the main periods of Danish architecture. This is an excellent overview of Funkis or functional architecture with photographs of many of the important houses and apartment buildings that survive but also with contemporary drawings, plans and cartoons. 

Pages of photograph set out examples and information about appropriate and inappropriate attempts at conservation and the book has good examples of fittings from the period, such as door handles and radiators and so on that may have been replaced in the houses and apartments that survive.

Funkishuset en Bevaringsguide, Jeanne Brüel, Bygningskultur Danmark (2014) ISBN 978-87-90915-94-0

Bygningskultur Danmark

 
 

when we get to the future

In 1927, the architects Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen - exact contemporaries and old school friends - won a competition to design a House of the Future which two years later was constructed for the Housing and Building Exhibition at the Forum in Copenhagen. 

The exhibition hall itself was then a new building that had been completed in 1926 with the design by the architect Oscar Gundlach-Pedersen. He was sixteen or seventeen years older than Jacobsen and Lassen but, although he had trained at the time when national romantic architecture was fashionable and his first works were in that general style, he was interested in new materials and new building techniques and as early as 1922 published an article where he talked about buildings that use these new materials “that are not encumbered with tradition.”

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Sir …….... was this old fashioned when it was first new?

 

last summer, on certain days, steam trains were run on the line out from Copenhagen to Klampenborg for families heading off to to Bakken, the amusement park, and the beach at Bella Vista. These engines were used on this line through the late 20s and 1930s so if Arne Jacobsen, who lived first in Ordrup and then in Klampenborg, had come into town by train this is how he would have travelled. Realising that, there suddenly seemed to be an odd contrast between this technology and the clean, simple lines of Jacobsen's buildings. Not everything is modern at the same time ... or in the same way ... or at least not in retrospect

 

One summer, when I was still at university, I went back to the town where my parents lived and spent a month or so helping in the local museum, where I designed and made a few display cases for their loan collection that was sent around schools and I taught some school groups.

It was a new town … built under the New Town's Act as what was called an 'overspill' for London … a town for a bright new future, in bright new homes, as one way to replace the slums and bomb-damaged housing of the capital … or that was the plan. Through the 1950s and 60s the town spread rapidly across fields and open country to one side of a small but well-established market town that was on the main road from London to Edinburgh and had been there for well over a thousand years. Looking back, what was curious was that the newcomers had their own town centre and their own system of local government - a Development Corporation rather than a town council - their own new factories for new jobs - and few of the young couples who moved out from London had any interest in the old town. Most of their kids, the kids I taught in the museum, who were born in the town and by then in their early teens, had never even been into the old town.

For one group I was planning a walk along the old high street to point out ponds where, in the 18th century and probably earlier, cattle driven to market in London were watered for several days to gain a bit of weight after their long walk from either Wales or from Ireland before the last stage of the walk to the meat market and the same ponds were used to soak straw to make hat brims for the local hat-making industry in a nearby town. It was obvious the kids had little understanding of history or social history or any way of understanding why these things might be important - everything they knew about was less than twenty years old - so in the museum, where I could keep their attention rather better, I got them looking through old photographs before the walk, getting them to talk about what they thought about what they were looking at in the photos. 

One photo showed an old timber house dating from the 15th or 16th century but it had actually been used as a garage in the 1930s, when the photograph was taken. Hard against the front wall of the building was a petrol pump with an upright and a long arm so that the nozzle for fuel could be swung out across the wide pavement to any vehicle on the road. In that photo was an amazing motor bike, that was being filled up by a man from the garage in overalls, and there was a smiling bloke in a leather jacket and with a tightly fitting leather hat with ear flaps and a pair of what were called flying goggles jauntily pushed up to sit on the top of his head.

One girl, probably 14 years old, sat looking at the photo for ages. She saw me watching her and said "Sir" and then there was a very long pause. "Sir" ……… and she pointed at the bike. "Was this old fashioned when it was first new?"

Out of the mouths of children …. and all that.

But that simple question actually raises a lot of interesting points about how really clear any of us are about history and what fashion or technical development or even change over time means. Obviously something is new. Full stop. Not first new. But for how long does something very new, in terms of its design, remain a novelty? Do we wait for the next new to come along and realise the old new is now old? How often do we just carry on with something because basically it seems to work - so wonder do we really need something new?

From television and films and from reading and half-remembered lessons from school, most people have a fairly broad view of history, so maybe the main big events in rough sequence, but certainly only a vague idea about everyday life for ordinary people even when our grandparents were small. 

If you talked to a group of kids in their early teens in Copenhagen now and told them about many of the apartments in the city, in the fairly recent past, that shared a toilet out on the communal landing with at least one other family and used a wash house in the courtyard for doing laundry and went to a communal bath house down the street or otherwise washed in the kitchen, sink how would they react? Would they be surprised or shocked or slightly disgusted? Their parents might not remember apartments like that but their grandparents certainly would. And if kids don’t appreciate how different life was in the 1940s or 1920s how do they see change with any sort of context? 

And, perhaps more important, judged by the standards of the day, a toilet on the landing, even if it was shared, was actually something to be thankful for, something strikingly modern, and much better than going down to a toilet in the yard like their parents … a toilet that did not flush but where you used ash or earth to cover over anything until the whole thing was emptied by a man with a shovel and a cart. Modern and convenient? Again all a matter of context.

It’s not nostalgia or any suggestion that the past was a better time but possibly just that it seems to be important to understand and remember how we got from there to here and why. Not just in political or economic terms but for the architecture and the design of the products we use every day.

But I'm also trying to understand why we are all so focused on now and so drawn to the novel and the new and the fashionable. Maybe it's just that I'm getting old and realising that maybe progress is not all it’s cracked up to be. Or maybe I was just old fashioned when I was first new.

 

the petrol station on the coast road just south of Klampenborg designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1937

just to quote ...

In February 2014 the Danish Government set out a policy for architecture in Denmark in a well-illustrated publication with the title Putting people first. This is available on line in English and is important because it helps the visitor and architects and designers from other countries to understand why there is such a broad appreciation of good architecture in the country and why so much value is placed on an imaginative approach to the use and development of public space.

It is not a vague government promise of something that might or might not be done in the future but seems to reinforce and codify an attitude to the built environment in Denmark that has evolved and developed over many decades if not, in fact, over many centuries and it indicates a social and political context without which good architecture and good design could not be so strong or so important.

In the introduction is the crucial statement that:

“Danish architecture and design on all scales has helped shape our welfare society into a form that is characterized by humanism. The architecture reflects our democratic and transparent society. It binds us together and gives us an identity, both in local communities and nationally.”

our sense of place

 

In an age when most airports look like most other airports and our 24-hour media means we can know what happened on the other side of the World as quickly as we find out what happened at the end of our street, are we beginning to loose our sense of place? If architects can work anywhere in the world and people can buy design from anywhere, if they have the money, then do our buildings or our homes, our furniture or clothes belong to a specific place?

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outdoors in the city

the citizens of Copenhagen at Bakken

 

Looking back over the last year there is one theme that seems to stand out for me in architecture and planning and that is the importance of public urban space … how it is used and how it can be improved and how new developments have to add to and have to enhance the public spaces of the city.

At the very beginning of the year was the last week of the exhibition Reprogramming the City at The Danish Architecture Centre and their major exhibition through the summer was Lets Play, on outdoor leisure in the city. The current exhibition, Our Urban Living Room - the work of the Copenhagen architects COBE - is primarily about the interaction between public space and buildings and the role of that relationship in social change. 

I've put together a collection of photographs - most taken through this last year - of public events outside, the outdoor exhibitions and displays of art and sculpture, the importance of eating outside, the gardens - not just parks but also private gardens planted in public space and the amazing courtyards to apartment buildings that are part private and part public space and of course the water … the harbour, the canals, the inner city swimming areas and the beaches along the Sound are all important. Public areas are used for running, taking exercise and skating - on a number of evenings during the summer roads are closed so thousands of skaters can complete a circuit of the city - and there is an organised run where people cut through buildings and gardens on the designated route to show people as much of the city as possible (presumably as quickly as possible).

 
 

At every opportunity people move out of their apartments to sit and talk, to picnic, to play boules on the edge of a city square. There are now roof top playgrounds above car parks with amazing views over the harbour and gardens and restaurants on roofs. I've never lived in a city before this where so much is done outside and where so much of the planning and the new building is focused on encouraging and enabling even more life to be lived outside.

The seminal study of the urban spaces of the city is New City Life by Jan Gehl that was published in 2006. He states that “Copenhagen is one of the cities that has made the most targeted efforts to mould its space to match developments in society” and comes to the crucial conclusion that “In the 21st century, designing good city space where people want to be has become an independent and demanding discipline in terms of planning, design and detailing. The time when useable city space arose between buildings by coincidence or as a post-construction afterthought is definitively over.”

photographs

 

 

New City Life, Jan Gehl, Lars Gemzøe, Sia Kirknæs and Britt Sternhagen Søndergaard, The Danish Architectural Press (2006)

Copenhagen Green, 100 green things to see and do in Copenhagen, Susanne Sayers and Poul Årnedal, Foreningen By&Natur (2014)

 

 

Guldberg Byplads - kids play

 

Public space where children can play and good well-designed play equipment can be found all over Copenhagen. Many apartment buildings have courtyards with play areas but all parks, most public squares and many streets have play areas. Public buildings, particularly libraries, will have play equipment in an area outside and, of course, play areas inside.

In some parts of the city, the provision of play areas has had a much wider influence on traffic control and the wider urban landscape of the area and perhaps what is most important is that these areas are not fenced off or locked up but, even when they are part of a school, these play areas will often be open and available for all the local kids in the evening and at weekends.

One of the most extensive and most interesting schemes is around Guldberg Byplads north of the city centre. This was and is not the most affluent part of Copenhagen and relatively rapid and relatively cheap development in the late 19th and early 20th century has meant that historically the area has not had as many open or green spaces as other parts of the city.

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restoration and inspiration - the mast sheds on Holmen

 

The Masteskure - the mast sheds - close to the new opera house in Copenhagen - are on the south side of Galionsvej at the harbour end. There are seven sheds in a row each about 10 metres wide and just under 40 metres long with the narrow ends to the harbour with wide double doors to each shed. They were built in 1748 and were used to store the masts and spars of the naval ships … the masts and rigging were dismantled and stored and only re-fitted as the ships were prepared for battle. In line to the south is a later taller building now with two floors dating from 1829 and called the Mærshuset. This translates as maiden's house … the maiden apparently being the round look-out platform towards the top of a mast.

The buildings were restored by the architects Frank Maali and Gemma Lalanda and the work was completed in 2009. Land around the buildings had risen over the years so they were raised up by just over 80cm so they do not appear to be in a hollow.

Work included new gullies and drains and roof lights set back so they are not obvious from the quay. The rain water is thrown out from hoppers into a cobble-lined gulley around the building and there are steps and landings in corten at each door.

The restoration is striking and in a typically Danish way introduces innovative and good modern elements to allow the buildings to be used now as offices and showrooms. The architects were nominated for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Prize for this work.

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Frank Maali and Gemma Lalanda architects