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 

for other posts over the year on public space in the city see:



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

P-Hus Lüders - Parking House Lüders - Nordhavn Copenhagen

P-Hus Lüders from the east

looking down the north staircase with the harbour and the sound and in the distance the Swedish coast


Copenhagen is the city of bikes. There are said to be more bikes than people … five bikes for every four people … and the statistics are mind boggling. Each day people in the city cycle 1.27 million kilometres. I’m not sure how that was calculated but if it was organised as a relay race it would be the equivalent of team Copenhagen riding around the World 1,000 times EVERY DAY.

There are five times more bikes than cars in the city but of course that doesn’t mean that there are no cars in Copenhagen … you can pile all your shopping plus all the kids and an elderly relative onto a cargo bike without any problems but how else could you get that lot out to the summerhouse without a car?

So for maybe 20 years, with many of the new apartment buildings constructed along the harbour and around the city, a common solution is to excavate first and build underground parking below the block.

The other planning imperative in the city is for open space where children can play and adults exercise … despite all that cycling an amazing number in the city run and then insist on adding a few pull ups and squats. This means that many larger apartment buildings have a courtyard with play or exercise equipment or apartment buildings are set around a public square or open space with play and exercise equipment. This seems to resolve several problems. Apartments in Copenhagen are generally larger than in cities like London or New York or Hong Kong - many are over 100 square metres and some over 200 - but even with balconies that does not stop people getting stir crazy and needing open space but also, of course, attractive space, used in a practical way, means that public space is appreciated and well used public space is much less likely to be vandalised.

In the new development in Nordhavn a slightly different approach to the problem of parking cars and getting exercise is being tried. The density of housing that is being built on former dock yards is higher than that of many recent developments and presumably excavation of deep car parks, on what has only been solid land reclaimed from the sea about 100 years ago, would be a challenge so here at Helsinkigade the solution is to build a large well-equipped public square and then hoik it up into the air by 24 metres and slip a multi-storey car park underneath.

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model for the extensive new development around Århusgade in Nordhavn that is currently part of the exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre on the work of the architectural studio of COBE. P-Hus Lüders is at the centre of the three buildings - on the far side of the canal - with the pronounced angle of the east end following the alignment of the canal. There are apartment buildings on either side and shows clearly the proximity of the Silo - just to the right - to the north - but set further back and there is the distinct shape of the two giant cylinders of the former concrete silo to the left - to the south - and set back slightly from the wharf of the Nordhavn basin. 


when the lights come on ........

A generalisation I know, but historic buildings in traditional materials are usually best seen during the day because that is when you can appreciate ornate decoration or amazing stone work or complicated brickwork or a beautiful landscape setting of trees and planting. At night those same buildings become much simpler solids and details are flattened and, particularly if they are large buildings, they can be dark and ominous. Walk past a fantastic medieval church or an 18th-century house at night and what might impress is the glow of light and the sense of an internal life from the bright windows but the design of the building, its massing and the design of it's facades and the quality of the external architecture become softened or lost completely in shadow.

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Ofelia Plads Copenhagen



Work on Ofelia Plads - a large, new public space in Copenhagen - has just been completed. 

To the north of Skuespilhuset (the Royal Danish Theatre or Playhouse) is a 19th-century staithe or pier that was constructed parallel to the shore with a basin, Kvæsthusbassinet, and a wharf with a large brick warehouse, now the Admiral Hotel, on the west side and the main channel of the harbour to its east and most recently it was used as the dock for ferries to and from Oslo and to and from the Baltic islands and ports. In an ambitious and extensive engineering project that has just been completed, the pier has been excavated or hollowed out to create a large car park that has three levels below ground (or, perhaps it’s more important to point out, there are three levels below water level in the harbour) and the surface then reinstated with a number of simple, small, low, new, metal clad structures for staircase entrances to the parking levels and ventilation systems.


a photograph from about 1900 showing just how busy the pier was when ships docked on both sides were loaded and unloaded


This hardly sounds devastating or dramatic in terms of city architecture but it actually shows Danish engineering design and urban planning at its very best - very, very well thought through; carefully and efficiently executed and with no attempt or need to show, in any flashy way, just how much money was spent. In fact the project was a gift to the city through a collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Realdania.

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Realdania Kvæsthusprojektet

Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter


the buildings in Klampenborg by Arne Jacobsen


This amazing group of buildings in Klampenborg, within a relatively small area along the beach or set back immediately behind the coast road, were designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1930s, with some houses added in the 1950s that includes the house where Jacobsen lived and had his own studio and drawing office. These are buildings by a major architect exploring a number of construction systems and experimenting with the use of new materials, including concrete, and working on an astonishing range of building types and with a significant influence on the landscape setting.

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SAS Royal Hotel Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen


The SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen - designed by Arne Jacobsen and completed in 1961 - is perhaps the best known and the most widely published building from the Classic period of Danish design.

So, it is not really necessary to go back over the history and the design of the building here but I took a few photographs for a recent post about high buildings in the city for the web site and one thing struck me that, rather stupidly, I had not appreciated before and that is that it is built out over the top of the main railway tracks running into the central station from the north … or at least the lower north part of the hotel and the car park to the west is built across the tracks.

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a new landscape for Arken Museum of Modern Art


The trip out to Bronsby Strand to take photographs of the housing scheme was also the opportunity to revisit the art gallery at Arken to look at how new work on its landscape has progressed over the winter.

Back in 1988 a competition was held to select an architect to design a new art gallery in Ishøj to the west of Copenhagen. A design by the young architect Søren Robert Lund won and the new buildings opened in 1996. Initially, the hope had been to construct the gallery on the beach to look out over the bay but for conservation reasons it was set back behind low sand dunes between a lagoon and the Strand. The setting was stark, little more than a rather exposed and uneven area of car park.

That has all changed and in the most dramatic way with the excavation of extensive areas around the gallery which has allowed water to flow around the building and link through to an extensive area of lagoon to the west to create a new island for the gallery that can now only be reached by three new bridges or causeways. Car parking has been spread out with some along the public road to the north, where public buses also stop, some to the east and, more between the gallery and the sea and reached by a new causeway but with the cars hidden by low dunes.

Only just completed, there has been no time for sedges, grasses and trees to become established but already the transformation is little less than miraculous. Where the building looked rather stark and rather temporary, more like a boat yard than an international exhibition space, light off the water now creates shaper shadows and throws texture into relief and the structure of the restaurant across the south side, with its ribs reminiscent of the hull of a raised and stranded boat, now seems to make sense.

Inside the gallery, the entrance area to the west is flooded with reflected light from the large area of water on that side and light is reflected up into the restaurant. Now all that might be left to do, apart from allowing the natural vegetation to grow, would be to consider breaking through just a few more window openings to bring more light into the gallery spaces.


The partnership of Møller & Grønborg are the landscape architects for the new work.

above a view of the gallery before excavation work for the new areas of water from the gallery web site and (below) drawings of the entrance and of the site by Møller and Gronborg 

Bella Sky Hotel Copenhagen

To build hotels in high towers seems odd if there is not a real shortage of land - unless of course a certain type of frequent traveller demands rooms as high above the street and its life as possible as a sort of mark of status. And even then that seems curious when presumably during the day most hotel guests spend their time in a city and not in their room looking down on it. It can’t be a need to get away from noise as sound insulation from efficient glazing works in much the same way on the first floor as it does on the 20th.

Last year, some friends stopping briefly in Copenhagen in transit booked a night at the Bella Sky Hotel, more out of curiosity than anything, and attached a snap of their view in an email to say they had arrived safely and it showed that if Copenhagen, one of the most beautiful cities in the World, can look ugly, or at least oddly flat and dull, then it is the view across the city from very high up.

The Bella Sky Hotel was designed by 3XN and opened in 2011. There are 814 rooms in the two towers that are just over 76 metres high but twist and lean out by 20 metres at the top.


Surely, if Copenhagen needs another luxury hotel, what might fill a gap in the market is something rather more like a modern version of the Angleterre but possibly on the inner harbour or overlooking the Øresund.

progress on major projects along the inner harbour in Copenhagen

Amager Bakke

The incinerator plant designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group is still not up to its final height of 90 metres but much of the framework is in place. It is at least possible now to see just how high and how steep the ski slope will be on this man-made mountain.


Papirøen - Paper Island 

It has just been announced that the architectural company COBE has won the competition to produce the master plan for Paper Island, an important area on the south side of the harbour, opposite the National Theatre, that was originally part of the naval dockyards and then warehousing where Danish newspapers stored paper for their printers, hence the popular name for the island, and more recently those warehouses have been the venue for a very successful food hall, Copenhagen Street Food, and the science centre for children, Experimentarium, along with covered car parking, offices, studios and display space for designers including Henrik Vibskov, &Tradition and the offices of COBE themselves.

Initial proposals for the island include a large central square, a swimming pool, apartments, a gallery with the island ringed by a public boardwalk or promenade.

illustrations of the proposed development from COBE and Luxigon 



Kroyers Plads

Some of the apartments in the south block at Kroyers Plads are now occupied and the other blocks are being fitted out. Designed by Vilhelm Lautitzen and COBE the overall design appears to be a reinterpretation of the historic warehouses along the harbour.

A large, 18th-century, light-coloured brick warehouse to the east includes the restaurant NOMA although they are about to move further back into Christianshavn. 

Originally to have been completed in 2013, but delayed by technical problems, the new cycle and foot bridge - Inderhavnsbroen - appears ostensibly to be finished but is not yet open - or rather it is permanently open and not opening and closing. Extensive new areas of landscaping are being completed on the quays on both sides. This is the first ‘retractable’ bridge in Europe … rather than swinging or lifting out of the way, the two sides will slide apart to let taller shipping through. 



Bryghusprojektet by Rem Koolhaas bridges a main road and one function is to link the city and the quayside. To be faced with large areas of green and clear glass, when completed it will provide exhibition and conference spaces for the Danish Architecture Centre, now in a warehouse on the other side of the harbour and there will also be shops, a restaurant and apartments in the building.

It might not look like it but all the photographs were taken on the same afternoon this week on a stroll down the harbour … in the late afternoon the cloud began to break up and by the time I got down to Islands Brygge there was at least some blue in the sky.

Gentofte Library, Denmark


Gentofte Library in Hellerup, just north of Copenhagen, was designed by the architectural firm of Henning Larsen and was completed in 1985. Larsen had graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1952 but for 10 months before he graduated he worked in the office of Arne Jacobsen at that point still in the basement of the architects own house in Bellvue, so just up the coast from Hellerup. The influence of Arne Jacobsen can be seen clearly in this building with it’s simple white facades but sophisticated plan, clever use of space and light and the high-quality fittings. There is a freedom of line at Gentofte that is rarely seen in the work of Jacobsen which is based much more on rectilinear forms with almost perfect proportions. What Larsen does at Gentofte is pay homage to Jacobsen by using some of the older architect's vocabulary … so the long proportion of the windows at Bellavista and the relationship of window to blank wall, the completely plain white columns without bases or caps and the recessed large circular ceiling light fittings of Jacobsen’s Rødovre city hall and the restaurant at the SAS Hotel.

Gentofte library is on a large, well-landscaped, plot at the north end of the main street of Hellerup, set back from the road on the west side, on a slope rising up slightly above the road and immediately south of the park and gallery at Øregaard.

There are entrances on either side of the library - on the south side from a car park area and on the north side from a pedestrian area and gardens between the library and the park. These entrances are not in line but form an angled route across the building on the east side of the main library area. The main south door has a flat canopy cut off at a sharp angle with a single column … probably a deliberate reference to the idea of a portico that might have been applied to give dignity to a municipal building in the 18th or 19th century.

The angled porch also makes the transition between the square block of the main building and the gradual stepping in through a number of bold angles to a narrower east end towards the town.

The north door is below the main level, down the slope of the site by half a floor, with a broad flight of steps down to the door and in this lower area is a well-lit cafe, within and open to the main space but set slightly below. To the east of the circulation area is a lecture theatre or meeting room with a large east facing window and there is also a large lobby area used for exhibitions so there is a sophisticated use of space, light and height to differentiate entrance and circulation areas and the areas for books and for study. 

The main part of the building for books and reading, furthest from the main road, is a very large, square, top-lit area for the main reading room and information desk which is open through two storeys at the centre but with deep balconies around the edge with quieter study rooms, the local history collection and administrative office on the upper level and below, on the ground floor, although generally open to the main space, quiet, more enclosed reading and study areas beneath the balconies.

This demonstrates a clever and complicated manipulation of space and light to create views into, through and out of the building … so the initial impression as you enter the library is of light and of spaces which are very open and very welcoming. As you approach there are glass doors and windows so you can see clearly where to go and, after entering, see how each area is used and then, as you are drawn in, the spaces become lower, more enclosed and quieter although you can also sit and read where you can look up and look out to trees and grass.

Externally there are what read as conservatories or single-storey elements with sloping glazed roofs but internally these provide top lighting for some of these more domestic scale spaces. Also of note, in terms of how top light is used is that the centre of the main space has a lower roof and all the way round windows looking into the building, not providing direct light but light that is reflected down by a curved ceiling/wall just in from the windows.

Although the exterior is simple and the clean straightforward interior of white columns and white fittings is deceptively simple, the architectural features such as floors, bookcases and the staircases are of a high quality and very carefully considered.  It has a timeless feel, that is difficult to date but it has certainly worn well and does not look thirty years old. Perhaps the major change since it was completed is that the original desk inside the south door, for bringing back and checking out books by staff, has been replaced by a sort of self-service system and staff have been moved into the centre of the reading room to an information desk. The library is well used and used with respect.  

When I have been to the library it has been full of people and it is obviously a popular and well-used building. Even on a Sunday people are sitting reading magazines or books or using the computer terminals for various library services. Small children clearly love the toys and fittings of their area and there was a mother and toddler group there on one visit. I appreciate that this is a prosperous middle-class area but even so it is clear here that Danish children grow up with good design. It not that it is precious or special but that Danes actually expect this level of design. Nor should that imply good design is taken for granted but broadly there is an underlying sense that it is accepted and understood that if something is done then it should be done well … many Danes will only comment when something is done badly.

But equally this is absolutely not a pedantic or obsessive perfectionism. Buildings like the library are there to be used and enjoyed and seem to be even more appreciated as they gain a patina of age … one important proof that a design is good is that it gets good use. 


Gentofte Library bottom left, immediately south of the villa and park of Øregård - from Google

Skydebanehaven - The Shooting Gallery Park


The children's play ground at the south end of the shooting gallery with the screen wall beyond that was built in 1887 ... apparently to protect people walking along the street beyond being hit by stray bullets


Vesterbro in 1879. Istedgade was still only open in sections. The line of the brick screen wall can be seen but it was not constructed until 1887. The railway, marked as ‘Nedlagt Jernbane’ was still then on the line of what is now Sønder Boulevard and the first areas of new land out into the sound had been claimed and a new gasworks and the first buildings of the meat market constructed.

There is an impressive 18th century building onto Vesterbrogade, set back beyond a forecourt. Most people walking along the street would be hard pressed to guess what its function might have been although it was actually built in 1787 for the Royal Copenhagen Shooting Society. Until this summer it was the Museum of Copenhagen which has now closed pending a move to a building close to the City Hall.

The shooting range itself was a broad strip of open ground behind the building that ran down to the sea shore and can be seen clearly on 19th century maps. Then, the south approach to the harbour was much wider and the sea shore was on the line what is now Sønder Boulevard. First a railway into the city was constructed along the shore and then through the late 19th century more and more land and beyond was claimed from the sea and built over so the shooting gallery became rather cut off and in 1887 a large screen wall in brick was constructed across the south end of the gallery to prevent stray bullets injuring citizens on Istedgade. This is the screen wall that still stands at the end of a short street of houses with a gateway at the centre that now provides a partially-hidden access to the gardens and play area on the site of the shooting gallery. 

After the construction of the screen wall, work began on the Skydebanegade apartments that were built over the south part of the shooting range, on the south side of Istedgade and completed in 1893. 

Skydebanehaven is now an important green space in Vesterbro with a very popular playground for children at the south end. Several blocks of slum houses at the south end on the west side were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s as part of an extensive slum clearance programme and the space was opened up to link through to streets beyond. The space is open but not completely successful … the north part of the shooting gallery feels much more like a large Copenhagen courtyard but, at the south end, the space seem to leach out and break down on the west side creating odd chopped off rows of houses and odd views of the backs of houses that were not designed to be seen.

Even so this is an amazingly important and much used green space.

For more photographs of the park see the Copenhagen site

Copenhagen Opera


Right from the start, I have to confess that the Opera is not my favourite modern building in Copenhagen. Designed by Henning Larsen Architects and opened in 2005 it has seemed to me, and I think to many, to be too large and too dominant in its position on the harbour on the axis of the Royal Palace. There is a fine line between being dramatic and being overbearing. 

But I have to say that views from the ferry looking up at the great bow of the glass front, particularly if light is reflecting up off the water, is actually very dramatic and beautiful and the profile - the side elevation viewed straight on is, I admit, very elegant for such a large building and no one can question the quality of the materials or the quality of the workmanship.

Even inside, from what I had seen, I thought that the entrance area, with the curving and stacked walkways flying across the phenomenal space, is beautiful and dramatic particularly at night but even during the day and again particularly when sunlight is reflected up off the water.

I’m not sure if I would go as far as to say that I am warming to the building … it may be that seeing it most days it is becoming so familiar that I don’t notice the bulk and scale … but two things suggest I might actually have to reassess my feelings.

First, with the new bridge over the harbour, when seen from the south, the gentle arch of the south side of the bridge picks up the angle of the underside of the roof of the opera house and acts almost like a stage flat creating a better buildup to the profile of the opera house. This effect of improving the sense of perspective and the relationship of volumes and scale will have to be a major consideration when and if there are proposals to rebuild on the site of the paper warehouses or to develop the large open areas that immediately flank the opera house. 

The second thing that has made me look afresh at the building was actually getting into the auditorium itself for the first time on Kultur Natten. Obviously some people will accuse me of being unfair, judging a building without having been inside the most important space, but to be fair to me, I had deliberately not written about the building on this site while I could only judge it in terms of planning and its urban setting.

As part of the evening’s events for Kultur Natten, the doors of the opera house were thrown open. An orchestra had been moved up from the pit onto the stage and with children brought in to play alongside professional musicians. Singers performed and explained their work and the work of the opera house. The shape of the space with the sweep of the unbroken circles of seating and the heavy use of wood gives a superb effect of being in the hull of a great wooden ship and the stage itself and the back-stage area is enormous so I suppose that it is hardly surprising that the building itself is so large. And with people wandering in and out; with the enthusiastic performance; with the enthusiastic audience and with the staff friendly and relaxed for this open house, the building came alive.

children's play areas in Copenhagen

Exploring Copenhagen I’ve been amazed by the number of playgrounds in parks and in many of the city squares and attached to schools. It’s probably because so many people in the centre of the city live in apartments that both the playgrounds and the play equipment are so important and so well used. Parents, after picking their children up from school, seem to spend at least some time in the play areas before heading for home and most of the playgrounds attached to schools and nurseries seem to be open and well used at weekends. 

What is striking is just how different each of the play areas is and how well the equipment is designed in a range of styles. There are also skate board parks and climbing walls for teenagers and exercise equipment for adults so however big a kid you are there is something to play on.

These well-thought-out, well-constructed areas introduce kids to good design from an early age and they certainly learn that good design can be fun.

gallery of photographs