introduction to apartment buildings in Copenhagen

A proposal for enlarging the city that was drawn up in the late 1850s, after the outbreak of cholera. It shows in pale grey the area of the old city still, at that stage, surrounded by ramparts but here on the drawing the walls and gates and the Kastellet, which in the end was retained, have been removed and the plan shows the new squares and streets that were proposed in dark grey over the site of the defences and out to the lakes. All those blocks would have been apartment buildings. Many, including those around Israels Plads, were built although, as the development of the area progressed through the 1860s and 1870s, large areas of park - the Botanical Garden and the area around the National Gallery in particular - were left as open public space and the area around a new city hall was not completed until early in the 20th century and that area of the city is now very different to what was proposed in the 1850s and shown on the left part of this plan. Note also how few buildings there were beyond the lakes in what is now the densely built-up inner areas of Vesterbro, Nørrebro and Østerbro.

 

Most of the purpose-built apartments in the centre of Copenhagen date from the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century and their number are the tangible evidence that shows just how rapidly the city grew in that period - in 1870 there were about 180,000 people living in the city but by 1900 the population was 360,000. 

Some of those new citizens were fortunate and moved into new apartment buildings in the new districts of Vesterbro, Nørrebro and Østerbro … all outside the old city gates and ramparts. Curiously, that building work was not, at first, a response to a growing population and a demand for more housing but was just the opposite - a response to a very dramatic decline in population. The development of the areas outside the old city started because of an outbreak of cholera in 1853 when the deaths of over 5,000 people through a single summer was correctly attributed to overcrowding and poor sanitation and immediately after the outbreak, plans were drawn up to enlarge the city to provide more and better housing so people could move out of the centre.

 

Poor working families rented one or two rooms and there was little security either for work or housing. This painting by Erik Henningsen from 1892 shows a family being evicted and is now in Statens Museum for Kunst

In fact, the huge numbers of new people who began to arrive in Copenhagen, for different but mainly economic reasons, meant, of course, that the rate of new buildings could not keep up. Although many new apartment buildings were constructed, many families continued to live in the overcrowded older houses in the old part of the city and, simply to provide places for all those people arriving, the old practice of building in the courtyards started again, even in the new areas. The population of Vesterbro and Nørrebro grew rapidly and by 1910 houses around Blågårdsgade - poor-quality apartments, built cheaply and quickly only twenty or thirty years earlier and with even poorer quality buildings in the courtyards - was being described as slum housing with serious problems of overcrowding and poor health. 

It was only with the construction of large new social housing blocks in the 1920s and 1930s, in outer Nørrebro and on the edges of Vesterbro and Østerbro, that the problem with overcrowded worker’s housing was finally tackled. Those apartment buildings have huge open courtyards for air and light at the centre of the block and the only structures allowed in the courtyards were wash houses and so on that were usually only a single storey high so did not block light or fresh air.

As for architectural style, the development of apartment buildings in the city is easy to trace by just walking the streets. In the 17th and the 18th centuries large houses would have been subdivided and rented out with families renting one or two rooms and the more affluent would have a series of rooms or even a whole floor but there is rarely anything on the exterior to show how this division of the building worked on the inside.

The 18th-century houses are generally plain in form with painted plaster to the front with simple classical features such as pediments over the main doorway and moulded cornices. More elaborate treatment of the windows at the first or second floor will indicate where the better apartments could be found. The best apartments seem to be to the street with poorer and smaller apartments higher up or further back in the courts.

By the mid 19th century purpose-built apartment buildings appear with distinct features like a central doorway and symmetrical apartments on each side and an elaborate front staircase marked by more ornate windows, often at intermediate levels, where there were landings. In style this is generally described as the period of historicism so the exterior details became more and more elaborate even if the apartments behind the facade were relatively small. In the 1850s and 1860s many still had a classical restraint with pedimented doorways, pilasters and cornices taking motifs from Italian Renaissance buildings but slowly more and more ornate French-inspired facades appear with turrets and domes and some look to north Germany and to Danish architecture from the 17th century with the appearance of mullions, ornate brick work and shaped gables.

In the period around 1905 to 1910 there was an economic downturn and many of the new apartments were vacant and building work slowed down. Then, from 1920 and with the expansion of the docks and industry in the city, there was a severe shortage of housing for workers and that was when building large-scale social housing begins. In style there was a return to a stripped-back classicism with building in brick and the design relying on simple but good proportions which in the larger apartment buildings can look quite severe. Clearly the restraint was more to do with keeping down the cost than with aesthetics.

Through the 1930s and 1940s balconies become a common feature - across the street frontage as often as towards the courtyards so reflecting that well-established tradition of having the best rooms towards the street.

In the second half of the 20th century materials change to concrete and steel and windows are much larger but the communal courtyard; the through apartment, with windows to the front and rooms to the back, and a series of entrances and staircases along a block rather than a single entrance and internal corridors is still the common form and tower blocks are rare.

In the building boom from the 1990s and on, the plan of apartments changes little although penthouses have appeared and some exteriors have become much more extravagant and dramatic although, perhaps in reaction, some architects have returned to the restraint of the 1930s with plain white facades and balconies with rounded ends.

 

This series of posts (below) has been about the development of apartment buildings in Copenhagen … in part because I live here and can wander the city taking photographs but also because of the number and range of apartment buildings in the city. However, an assessment much like this could be undertaken in Stockholm or Helsinki where apartment buildings also dominate and are a major part of the housing stock and, for social housing in particular, many important modern or experimental ideas about planning appear first in Stockholm or Malmö.

 

On the main Copenhagen site there is a gazetteer or time line with major examples of apartment buildings in the city from each period.