"the art of mixing grey"

 

The wonderful book by Bente Lange on The Colours of Copenhagen has a section on the pigments used to make grey paint. On historic buildings in the city the range of greys used is amazing from soft stone colours through dark steel grey to warm greys tending almost to dull green. Of course the pigments used are never simply black added to a white base but might have touches of Prussian blue or ultramarine or even Italian red.

Bente Lange describes the “grey of the Baroque” as “a cold heavy colour made by mixing carbon black into white” and she refers to a painters’ handbook from 1799 that “contains recipes for mixing … silver grey, linen grey and ordinary grey” and there are evocative gems just dropped in to the short account of grey pigments that ground black was made “by charring young shoots from grapevines”, linen grey was with white lead, varnish and Berlin blue “ground separately before mixing” and stone colours might include “shavings” from cut stone in lime putty with “brown ochre as needed.”

Bente Lange, The Colours of Copenhagen, published by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture Publishers in 1997

Copenhagen blue II

Torvegade and Christians Kirke from Overgaden Over Vandet

 

Having said that for me blue is the colour in the urban landscape of Copenhagen that seems to be strong and reflect how I see the city, there are very few buildings that are actually painted blue. 

There are several reasons for this and not least it’s that early blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli for ultramarine were incredibly expensive and the cheaper Prussian blues that were available from the early 18th century onwards were fugitive so they not only faded but could decompose in the air. Although Cobalt blue, an industrially produced blue pigment, was stable and lime proof, even that paint was considered to be too expensive for use across a facade.

Also, I have read somewhere that Danish architects and painters considered blue to be a very strong and dominant colour … ‘stronger’ than red … so to be used carefully.

Some historic buildings in the city are now painted blue in shades that vary from cornflower blue to blues that are much closer to purple and they certainly lift and brighten a line of buildings but there really should be a rule that one blue house in a street is fantastic but two is too much so once one owner has gone for blue that should be it.

 

Det Blå Hjørne / The Blue Corner

The infill building in Christianshavn by the architectural studio Vandkunsten known as Det Blå Hjørne or The Blue Corner (bottom right) dates from 1989.

This is - as the name implies - a corner plot which can be difficult for both the plan of a building and for the design of the facades but here the corner is not even a right angle as Dronningsgade and the side road of Store Søndervoldstræde meet at an angle of about 120 degrees.

In addition, making the commission for a new apartment building here more difficult, this is a part of Christianshavn where relatively modest historic houses have survived so it gives an important impression of what domestic areas of the inner city must have been like in the 17th and 18th centuries before ordinary houses were replaced with grander or more commercial buildings. The building is at the quiet end of a beautiful and complex courtyard that retains more old courtyard buildings than in many blocks. 

But Vandkunsten were bold, dividing the new apartments between two buildings to leave a narrow view into the courtyard at the corner and played with all the rules so the roofs are mono-pitch - the older buildings have pitched roofs with a ridge - and the choice for wall finish is metal sheet so it almost feels like a final parry with convention, that the cladding is deep blue. The total effect works well as it gives the building a semi-industrial feel and if there is any single aspect of the historic centre of the city that has been lost or changed with too little appreciation of the consequences it is that Copenhagen has lost far too many of the workshops and early industrial buildings that once filled many of the back streets and courtyards.

 

Torvegade in Copenhagen ... city planning from the 1930s

 

This post was inspired by a stroll over Knippelsbro - walking back to Christianshavn from the centre of the city in clear but soft late-afternoon sunlight.  

Knippelsbro is the central bridge over the harbour in Copenhagen and I have walked over the bridge dozens and dozens of times - I live just a block back from the bridge - but the sun was relatively low and lighting up the north side of Torvegade - the main street cutting south through Christianshavn from the bridge - and the traffic was light so it seemed like a good opportunity to take a photograph.

It was only then that it really registered, for the first time, that here is a long line of very large apartment buildings and all dating from the 1930s.

Five large apartment blocks in a straight line - two buildings between the wide road sloping down from the bridge and the canal and then three more beyond the canal before the old outer defences of Christianshavn and the causeway to Amager. Five large city blocks over a distance of well over 400 metres and cutting straight through the centre of the planned town laid out by Christian IV in the early 17th century?

Clearly, this is city planning from the 1930s on a massive scale and not something I had seen written about in any of the usual guide books or architectural histories.

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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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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 or so, one theme seems to stand out for me from looking at new architecture and recent planning in Copenhagen 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 enhance or have to add to the public spaces of the city.  

Last year there was a major exhibition here addressing how we use or could use public space - Reprogramming the City at The Danish Architecture Centre - and their exhibition through this summer was Lets Play, on outdoor leisure in the city. The current exhibition at the Centre, Our Urban Living Room looks at the work of the Copenhagen architects COBE and is primarily about the interaction between buildings and public space and looks at how that relationship either has to reflect and respect recent change in society or the provision of public spaces can be proactive and can change how people appreciate and use open space. 

I've put together a collection of photographs - most taken through this last year - of public events outside, so the outdoor exhibitions and displays of art and sculpture, the popularity 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 in the city … 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 actually 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 citizens move out of their apartments to sit and talk, to picnic, to play boules on the edge of a city square. Space for exercise and play for children and also adults is important but large areas of open space are not always available at ground level so there is now a roof-top playground above a car park that has amazing views over the harbour and there are gardens and restaurants on roofs.

I've not lived in a city until now where quite so much day-to-day life is outside and where so much of the planning and the design of new buildings is focused on encouraging and enabling even more life to be lived outside.

The seminal study of urban spaces of the city is New City Life by Jan Gehl that was published in 2006. In that book he explains that “Copenhagen is one of the cities that has made the most targeted efforts to mould its space to match developments in society” and he 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 and longer text 

 

 

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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Hal C Arsenaløen - Christianshavn sports hall

 

from Værftbroen - looking along the canal towards the sports hall

On the opposite bank of the canal to Kids' City in Copenhagen - the school designed by COBE - is a local sports hall called Hal C that was designed by the architects Christensen & Co and completed 2013.

There is a large sports hall open to the roof at the east end that is lit by large tall windows on both sides - to the canal and towards the playing field to the north - arranged in pairs. All these opening have large plain shutters that open outwards and these and the deep red timber cladding are inspired by the 18th-century mast sheds nearby.

The west end of the sports hall is on two floors with an entrance lobby at the corner, glazed on two sides, and offices and changing rooms on the ground floor and a small hall or meeting room on the first floor.

In keeping with the beautifully simple exterior the interior has large area of plain panels much pierced and a very simple straight staircase with a plain solid side panel but the railings of the landings are rather more complicated open grill.

The building makes really good use of natural lighting inside. The sports hall has areas of top lighting. On both sides of the sports hall are wide wood step where spectators can sit and on the canal side there are steps along the length of the building where people sit and a series of landings down to the canal.

 

Christensen & Co

a new bridge across the canal from Kids' City

the windows and shutters of the main sports hall from the other side of the canal

entrance at the south-west corner

large windows to the sports hall on the side towards the canal with pairs of shutters

windows and shutters of the main sports hall from the playing field to the east

defining our urban space

 

A recent post was about a new school - Kids’ City in Christianshavn designed by the architectural studio COBE - where the spaces - both the spaces within the buildings and the spaces outside between the buildings - have to be flexible to respond to a huge range of very different activities - and many of those activities are about creativity and things done together and achieved together.

At the opposite end of Christianshavn, but possibly a world away, is a large city block, that covers more than 10 times the area of the school. A local development plan was drawn up 20 years ago for the site of what had once been an important ship yard and diesel engine works - a tightly-packed group of industrial buildings of different periods and different styles - that were all to be demolished. Now, in their place, there is a line of imposing and expensive commercial office buildings - six blocks lined up along a harbour frontage - and three large courtyards of expensive apartments. But in those buildings and in that plan too there are interesting lessons to be understood about how architects and planners create and manipulate urban spaces and how we, as occupants or as users or maybe simply as citizens walking past, respond to and use those public spaces.

Also, these Christiansbro buildings designed by Henning Larsens Tegnestue seemed to be a good place to end, at least for now, the series of posts on this blog over the last couple of months about cladding on modern buildings. Perhaps more than any other group of buildings in the city, they illustrate an important aspect of modern architecture that is not often discussed in books or in the more general media. That is that we live in an age where the individual - the star architect or the latest iconic building - takes centre stage so we tend to read a facade as belonging to and defining the building … so the facade is the public front to the building behind. On a narrow plot in a narrow city street the public will see and recognise a building from just its single entrance front although on a larger and more open plot, a prestigious new building will have four or perhaps more sides to admire and those facades define the volume of the building and possibly, but not always, define and express how the internal spaces are arranged and used.  

But what you see - and see clearly in the Nordea Bank buildings at Christiansbro by Henning Larsen and the apartment blocks at the end of Wildersgade - is that actually it is the public spaces that are defined by facades and, for people walking through the area or using those open spaces, what is behind the facade is probably not accessible, unknown and, to some extent irrelevant. So, for us, the materials used on the front of those buildings and the design and character of the facades define the urban spaces that we use and move through. At its simplest, a public square or even a space between buildings can be read as a volume - a box without a lid - defined by four walls that just happen to also be four facades. Looked at in that way then maybe our response to the design of some modern buildings should be different. Perhaps we should not see a facade as the interface they, the architect and the developer, provide between our space and theirs but as the walls and boundaries of our space.

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the office buildings by Henning Larsen and landscaping by Sven-Ingvar Andersson with the tower and spire of Christians Kirke - photograph taken from the harbour ferry

Kids' City Christianshavn

 

the front of the school to Prinsessegade - the yellow box-girder structure is courts for sports over the main entrance and the glass roof structure is a greenhouse over the restaurant

The first stages of Kids’ City - buildings along Princessegade in Christianshavn in Copenhagen - have opened although there is still construction work on part of the site and work on hard landscaping and planting is ongoing but already it is clear that the design of this new school will be innovative and inspiring. 

When finished there will be up to 750 children here, ranging in age from babies in the pre-school area through to young adults of 17 or 18 in their last years of schooling so Kids’ City will be the largest ‘pre school and youth club’ in Denmark. 

That presented COBE, the architects, with distinct challenges. On a relatively tight plot of around 11,000 square metres, the buildings have to be extensive but have to allow for as much space as possible outside for sport and play and other activities. As a single unified block it could have been over bearing and even rather daunting for small children but this school also has to provide an appropriate setting and the right facilities for such a broad range of age groups that it could never be a place where a one-class-room-fits-all approach was possible.

The solution has been to link together a number of simple blocks, most of two stories and some with gabled roofs and some set at angles to create groups and small courtyards and to treat the site as a small city with different neighbourhoods and public spaces. The separate parts are even described as if they are the distinct and recognisable elements of a diverse but well-established community so rather than an assembly hall or school hall there is a Town Hall; rather than a dining hall or canteen there is a restaurant,  and there will be a stadium and a library and a museum and even a fire station and a factory.

Play and fun are an incredibly important part of the whole scheme so there will be a beach along a canal where there will be canoes and places to have a bonfire "to roast marsh-mallows." 

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Krøyers Plads

As at the Pakhus by Lundgaard and Tranberg on Langeliniekaj, the development designed by Cobe and Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects at Krøyers Plads takes the historic brick warehouses along the inner harbour in Copenhagen as inspiration but the interpretation could hardly be more different.

Where the starting point for the Langelinie Pakhus was the scale of the earlier warehouses but otherwise the site was open with few other buildings to take into account, the Krøyers Plads site is at the centre of the harbour and within the historic district of Christianshavn and previous designs by a number of different architects for the development have been much more difficult and controversial.

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testing the alternatives

At an early stage in a building project, a trial section of wall can be constructed on the site to get a clear sense of the colour of the main material in the actual location and it is also a chance to judge the effect of different colours or different textures of mortar which can have much more of an impact than many people would expect … dark mortar tends to act rather like the black leading in a stained glass window by making the colours of the main material, stone or brick, darker and will certainly emphasise any pattern in the bonding.

The appearance and the character of a facade will be modified by the light as it changes through the day and materials will certainly look very different from their appearance in the studio or even as seen on an another building. And colours and textures look different if they are in shadow, on a side away from the sun, or face towards the sun and are brightly lit and architectural details can look very different in bright light reflected up off water… bright light can make even strongly-projecting features look thin or flat or bleached out.

ATP Pakhus by Lundgaard and Tranberg on the Langelinie Quay in Copenhagen has just been completed but trial sections of wall were built at the construction site on the quay. Clearly two very different colours of brick were considered. Perhaps the deep orange brick was chosen rather than the very dark brown because a heavier tone, for such a large building, could have looked oppressive. It is interesting to compare the brickwork on the finished building with the appearance of the historic brick warehouses along the inner harbour and in Christianshavn.

ATP Pakhus, Langaliniekaj (2016)

Nordatlantens Brygge, Strandgade (1767)

texture and tone and growing old gracefully

 

warehouses in Christianshavn in Copenhagen - there is a mixture of materials and colours in the building materials but a uniform colour of paint for woodwork helps link the buildings together and the use of stone paving and simple areas of gravel provide a neutral landscape

Generally, until the 19th century, the visual character of towns and cities was determined by the use of relatively local materials unless a building was particularly important and then the cost of importing materials over some distance might be justified.

But today materials can be transported easily and relatively cheaply so one obvious problem now is that new buildings in many cities have lost any specific sense of place.

When choosing materials, rather than understanding the local topography and specific geology, the architect has to consider cost and factors like the sustainability of materials or their insulation properties so, with many new buildings - particularly commercial buildings - there is a feeling that economics or engineering have determined what the building looks like as much as specific aesthetic considerations.

And with some buildings, the design appears to be more influenced by ego … either that of the architect or the client … or at least there appears to be a clear determination to be different or novel rather than having any strong empathy for the location and for neighbouring buildings.

And often there appears to be little consideration for the texture and the tone of materials or for how materials will wear and weather over time.

on the main warehouse the bricks, the stone used for the plinth and the setts used for the road surface all have a mauve or purple/grey tone. The black and white photograph shows that the darkest tones are actually the doors which helps suggest depth to the arcade and, rather surprising, the trees and the water of the harbour basin. Although the clay tiles of the left-hand warehouse looks very different in colour the black and white photograph suggests that actually the depth of colour of the roof is appropriate for the wall of the building below.

copper and Copenhagen buildings

 

Copper and the copper alloys of bronze and brass are amazing metals with a long history of use in Denmark for a wide range of uses including making domestic vessels; for coins; for making weapons, particularly ornate weapons for ceremonial use or to display status, and copper and bronze, because they are relatively easy to work, have been used in jewellery and in the decorative arts, particularly for cast sculpture. From the late medieval period onwards copper and bronze have also been used on a much larger scale in architecture, for covering and protecting the roofs of important buildings and, again, because the metals are durable but relatively easy to work and because they can be used as thin sheets that can be shaped and joined together, copper is particularly good for covering domes and spires where the metal layer can be supported by a strong formwork or framework.

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early modern ... Vesterport, Vesterbrogade, Copenhagen

 

Vesterport on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen, close to the central railway station, was designed by Ole Falkentorp and Povl Baumann and was completed in 1931. It is surely the first truly modern building in the city but if anyone notices it today then it is probably for the striking green colour of its copper cladding which, with patina, has turned a sharp but acid-pale tone. When new, before the copper changed colour, the building was known as the penny.

It was the first steel-framed building in Copenhagen with reinforced concrete floors and was built as an office building. The principle tenant was an English insurance company but the open-floor construction meant that it could be subdivided with non-structural partition walls depending on the requirements of any tenants. It is not just the method of construction but the scale of the block with its flat roof line and the grid-like division of the facades with continuous lines of windows above panels of cladding that is distinctly modern.

Vesterport fills a complete city block - although there is a large service courtyard - and at street level there were shops so, again in a modern way, this was very much a commercial building and it was in what was then a new and growing commercial area of the city.

The building has an important place in design history for another reason ... a significant and influential design gallery and furniture shop, Den Permanente, opened here in 1931 but closed in the 1980s.