... of balconies and bays in the 1930s

  1. H C Ørsteds Vej by Thorkild Henningsen 1931
  2. Store Mølle Vej by Frode Galatius 1938
  3. Storgården housing scheme by Povl Baumann & Knud Hansen 1935
  4. Ved Volden, Christianshavn by Tyge Hvass and Henning Jørgensen 1938
  5. Sortedams Dossering by Ib Lunding completed in 1938

Extensive use of concrete and steel for the construction of buildings in the 20th century - from the late 1920s onwards - meant that the outside walls - the facades of a building - became less crucial for supporting the weight of walls and the upper structure - particularly the weight of the roof - and walls could be broken through and pierced with larger and wider openings until the outside wall can, in some buildings, disappear completely with all the weight of the building taken on piers in steel or concrete that were set within the building or with the structure depending on strong internal cross walls.

Particularly for apartment buildings this meant that wider and wider windows could be constructed, sometimes in metal, often made in a factory - even when they are in wood - and then brought to the site, so standardised and by using reinforced concrete, balconies could be cantilevered out from the facades and became larger and, in many buildings, much larger so that they become a dominant feature.

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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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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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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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On a walk down to the shopping centre at Fisketorvet on a good Autumn afternoon and happening to have a camera, it was a good opportunity to take photographs of the apartment buildings at Havneholmen.

These are part of the extensive redevelopment of the south end of the harbour as industries have moved away and most of the industrial buildings demolished.

Much of this area, on the west side of the lower harbour, has not, in fact had a long history as the extensive area on the seaward side of the main railway line was only reclaimed from the sea and coastal marsh from the late 19th century onwards.


There are two courtyard blocks here designed by the architectural firm of Lundgaard & Tranberg that were completed in 2008. The courtyards are slightly angled as the plot is a trapezium with a change of angle on the water front. Clearly water-side apartments have the highest values but to over develop the quay side would have reduced the light and air of the courtyard so for both groups the courtyards are arranged with continuous blocks along the road and down each side but with the fourth side to the water ostensibly open but with a free-standing block at the centre. These smaller blocks project out over the quay, breaking the line of the angled edge and there are inlets with moorings for boats cutting right into the courtyards … clearly a reference to the complicated arrangement of many of the warehouses and the boat yards and so on of the commercial buildings of the harbour where boats were pulled alongside the building or into the building.

This is a large development with 236 apartments and many of them large with up to 200 square metres of floor space and with large balconies - some apartments with more than one balcony - and some with double-height rooms. This scale and density is achieved by taking parts up to eight storeys under long mono-pitch roofs.


Balconies are in part enclosed with parapet walls - rather than glass or open railings - so form complex patterns of projecting boxes which works well on the courtyard fronts, particularly with the bold and solid wood decking and steps of landing stages for boat moorings but the effect is slightly less satisfactory from the water where these same elements appear to be slightly overcrowded and confuse the underlying solidity and geometry of the blocks themselves. Keeping the wall finish to white with thin wood frames for windows and doors is successful and is a reference back to the style of sea-front architecture of the Art Deco period.


a series of posts on the architecture of Arne Jacobsen


The National Bank of Denmark, Havnegade 5, Copenhagen - winning design in the closed competition of 1961, built in two phases and completed in 1978

Arne Jacobsen was the most important and the most innovative Danish architect and designer of the 20th century. Certainly he has a well-established International reputation but perhaps some do not automatically associate the work of Jacobsen with the idea of innovation, in part because many of his buildings are well-known and familiar and probably half the homes in Denmark have at least one Jacobsen chair but also because we are all now so used to seeing buildings that are taller, bigger, more exciting or more dramatic. That is unfair … obviously it's not, to use an English phrase, a case of familiarity breeding contempt but his buildings have to be seen and judged in the context of the period through which he lived. It is then that you can see just how innovative and important his buildings and his furniture designs really were.

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Jacobsen’s own homes


Particularly during the 1930s the design of houses was a core part of Arne Jacobsen’s work including housing developments, row houses and large important villas. 

In 1929 five houses were completed and there was also the House of the Future that was constructed for an exhibition at the Forum in Copenhagen. The plan of that house was a loose spiral with a helicopter landing pad on the roof with a garage and a boat house complete with a motor launch. A further six houses date from 1931, and the same number in 1932 with 10 houses designed in 1933 and the same number in 1934. 

As larger commissions came in, the number of houses he designed was less and for obvious reasons tailed off as Europe became embroiled in war. 

In 1929 Jacobsen designed a house for himself and his first wife that was built on a corner plot in Ordrup, just north of the cemetery, and he remained there until the war when he was forced to flea to Sweden. When he returned to Copenhagen after the war, he began work on a new house and studio - part of a development in Klampenborg, on a plot that was immediately south of the apartment buildings that he had designed in the 1930s.

Both houses, the house in Gotfred Rodes Vej in Ordrup and the Klampenborg house at Strandvejen 413, that was completed in 1951, were acquired by Realdania and were restored. Realdania have published small but good booklets on both houses which include plans.

Together, the houses neatly illustrate marked changes through that period from before the war to after the war.

The house in Gotfred Rodes Vej, with its flat roof and white walls, stark white garden walls, and long horizontal runs of windows with the distinct feature of windows that wrap around the corner, along with the House of the Future at the exhibition at the Forum, helped to established Jacobsen as a leading proponent of the new International Modern Style - then also known as International White Modernism.  In fact, despite its appearance, the house in Ordup was not built in concrete but in white painted brick, because it had to comply with building regulations that were then in place for all house construction.

The house at Strandvejen is clearly built in brick and has mono-pitched roofs, stone garden walls and generally a combination of either simple, almost-square windows or large areas of glazing that in some rooms fill an entire wall of a room - as in the main room on the top level where the windows at the south end give access to a balcony and views out across the Sound. 

Natural light is important in these houses and both show a clever manipulation of space within relatively small buildings.

Apart from heating radiators that were left exposed, rather than being boxed in or disguised, and metal grill fencing and gates, the houses are not dominated by industrial fittings. Some of the features, like plain doors without panels and simple door architraves, we now take for granted but were unusual then. Some fittings do appear to belong clearly to interiors of the 1930s - so the sweeping brass handrail of the staircase at Strandvejen and the brass door handles - while other features seem to be inspired by older or more distant sources including cupboards and drawers in the bedroom at Strandvejen that looks to Shaker furniture from the States.  

There are interesting composite floors in the studio at Gotfred Rodes Vej but generally in both houses there are more traditional and more comfortable high-quality wood floors.

One particularly distinctive feature in the living room at Gotfred Rodes Vej is a wide sill across the full width of the window wall that looks towards the garden and has a shallow brass-lined tray for plants that shows just how important plants and planting were to Jacobsen ... both outside the house in the garden and here in the main room. A photograph of the room that was taken in the 1930s shows the plants on the sill including succulents and exotic plants with distinct and unusual leaves. It is also of interest because it shows the room as furnished by Jacobsen. With a piano, chairs dating from the 1920s or earlier, with balloon backs or splat backs, and a desk with spiral-twisted legs, and a window with a gathered fabric pelmet, this could be almost any middle-class home or apartment in Copenhagen.

Arne Jacobsen - Ørnegårdsvej, Gentofte, Copenhagen

For the row houses in Ørnegårdsvej, built in 1957 for A Jespersen & Son, Arne Jacobsen used a form of curtain-wall construction - with large areas of window for front and back walls of the terraced rows that are not load bearing. Generally, this is a form of construction that is normally associated with commercial and office buildings, rather than housing, and with metal, aluminium or steel, used for a framework that hold panes of glass or opaque panels, but at Ørnegårdsvej the large areas of glazing on the front and back of the the terraced houses between the solid cross walls have relatively thin timber frames for the windows with teak glazing beads. 

The buildings are listed and original colours on the exterior have been retained although inevitably many of the houses have been restored and some the interiors altered. Doors and some parts of the frames are painted a dull olive green; and blind panels, concrete reinforced with asbestos fibre, are painted grey but tall thin panels, on the line of the cross walls and rising unbroken through both floors, are black. The effect is rather like a painting by Piet Mondrian but in a rather more muted colour scheme.

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all in the detail … Bispebjerg Bakke


It would be difficult to find two more different buildings in Copenhagen than the Jepersen office block by Arne Jacobsen and the apartment buildings at Bispebjerg Bakke from the partnership of the Danish artist Bjørn Nørgaard with the architectural practice Boldsen & Holm but what they have in common is that both designs depend absolutely on their focus on every detail of the design … not simply plan and elevations but the profile of window frames, the careful choice of the right finish and exactly the right colour for materials on the facades, the details of unique, custom-made staircases and so on.

Although the apartment buildings were completed in 2007, the initial idea went back many years before that to a conversation between Nørgaard and the chairman of the Association of Craftsmen so, from the start, an important aspect of the scheme was to have a strong link between an artistic concept and its execution with a very high level of craftsmanship.

Nørgaard made an initial model in clay so the design was organic rather than a building, like the Jespersen block, that was primarily about, what was for its date, very advanced engineering. Bispebjerg Bakke is about fluid lines and the potential for architecture to take sculptural form while the Jespersen building is about bringing to reality the beauty of a mathematically precise design. How you view the two buildings; how you experience the two buildings and how you move around and through the two buildings could hardly be more different and yet both depend on understanding completely the building methods that they exploited and both, with huge confidence, play games with forms and with styles that can only be achieved with the support of a client, willing to go with designs that were far from conventional by the standards of contemporary buildings.

Høje Gladsaxe housing scheme


The Spring sunlight was slightly grey and misty which made the tower blocks at Høje Gladsaxe look almost surreal, almost like CGI. Five large towers are set in line on a hillside in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen. Completed in 1968 they were designed by Hoff & Windinge; Jørgen Juul Møller and Kai Agertoft and Alex Poulsen.


Extensive renovation in 1991-1992 by A5 Tegnestuen included glazing in open balconies on the south sides of the blocks although the walkways across the north sides were left open.


Functional architecture in Denmark?

farmstead from Eiderstedt now at Frilandsmuseet in Denmark


To talk about Functionalism in architecture in Denmark, usually refers to buildings designed in the middle of the 20th century and frequently cited as an example is the work at the university of Aarhus by C F Møller. The term implies an architecture where volumes and details have been pared back to what is considered to be essential and the architects take as their starting point the intended function. At a general level the term is linked with buildings that are often criticised by the public as being stark or even brutal and is usually associated with the use of concrete.

To take the word functional literally, as simply the general and practical starting point for the design of a building, then this building, the farmstead from Eiderstedt in Schleswig, now in the open-air museum, Frilandsmuseet north of Copenhagen, is perhaps the most beautiful and the most amazing Functionalist building in Denmark.

It was also possibly one of the most beautiful factories in Denmark. It is, to all intents and purposes a factory farm with a huge hay barn at the centre with a threshing floor across one side, entered through the large double doors in the end, and with stalls for cows, stalls for cows about to calve, stalls for horses and oxen, the working animals for the farm, and then across one end, under the same roof, the well fitted and comfortable home of the wealthy farmer with a diary and cheese store at the coolest corner of the building.



The plan and the division of spaces is determined completely by the structure with a massive wood frame supporting the weight of that great thatched roof. With everything under a single roof there was total control of the working process, security and of course sustainability with little natural heating wasted.

Above all, what is so striking about this vernacular architecture is its self confidence; the complete understanding of the building materials, exploited to the maximum, and the simplicity of the roof profile like an enormous sculpture. 


Below are a selection of photographs of vernacular and mainly rural buildings from Denmark that show just how confident these craftsmen were in their materials and in their own skills but they also had a clear appreciation of form and colour.

Frilandsmuseet, Denmark

Forge from Ørbæk, Funen

Farmstead from True, Eastern Jutland

Farm from Tågense, Lolland

Farmstead from Ostenfeld

are you living comfortably? … apartments and lifestyle in Copenhagen

apartment buildings and shops on Jægersborggade

Architects and historians often discuss buildings in terms of types so, although there are certainly many general books on the historic and modern architecture of a city or a region or a country, it can often be more useful and more informative to look at, for example, all the churches or all the factories in a town or in a region or discuss the way that theatre buildings or petrol stations, for instance, develop and change over time.

For visitors to Copenhagen major buildings in the city like the royal palace or the Opera House or the old warehouses on the harbour are obvious and very good examples of important public and commercial architecture but how many people appreciate that the most common building type in the historic centre, with most examples dating from the middle of the 19th century onwards, is the purpose-built apartment building? And those apartment buildings form the backdrop to most of the major buildings so they contribute much to the visual attraction of the city. 

I don’t know the actual statistics and percentages but certainly most people in the inner city live in apartments, rather than in self-contained family houses, and the tradition of building good apartment buildings, both as private developments or, from the early 20th century onwards, for large-scale social housing, must be the most diverse and the most significant type of building in Copenhagen and therefore, in reality, the building type that most effects and influences how people live.

apartment buildings on Peblinge Sø

The city regularly comes out at the top or near the top of league tables for how content people are with their city and their way of life. Obviously there are many reasons for this, including the relative wealth of Copenhagen, efficient local transport, extensive facilities for culture and shopping, good restaurants, bars and coffee places and, of course, the very pleasant urban environment. 

But high on that list of reasons why people are happy has to be the availability of good housing. In fact I would go as far as to say that the stock of good, well-built and attractive apartment buildings has to be one of the major factors that makes Copenhagen such a successful and therefore such a popular place for its citizens. It is obvious that the availability of good housing has to be a major consideration in any assessment of what makes any city a pleasant or unpleasant place to live but in Copenhagen the quality of housing is significantly more important because of the priority most Danes place on living in a nice home over, for instance, owning an expensive car.

Along with the design of the individual apartment buildings, the setting of the buildings is important and the streetscapes of Copenhagen are varied and attractive with apartment buildings set along wide streets, set around squares, laid out overlooking public parks or set along the canals and quays of the harbour. 

Over a series of posts here I would like to look at the history of apartment buildings from the middle of the 19th century onwards: to look at them in terms of their design and plan and their setting in the urban landscape and try to discuss how the plans and arrangement of the apartments has reflected the way people’s lives in general have changed over the last century or so and also to look briefly at how the plan and arrangement of the individual apartments has influenced the furniture and the decorative fittings that people have chosen.

There is clearly a complex relationship between levels of wealth in a city, the style, the size, the cost and the availability of housing along with the individual expectations and ambitions of people and the skill and work of the design and manufacturing industries who supply furniture, light fittings, kitchens and bathrooms for all those homes.

8Tallet by Bjarke Ingels on Amager


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.

plans of early apartment buildings

There is no standard plan for an apartment in Copenhagen in terms of size or for the number and arrangement of rooms which depended on the size of the plot - both the width of the street frontage and the depth of the building space. For simple practical reasons, for natural lighting and for the depth of rooms that was sensible to build, ranges were rarely more than two rooms deep but a deeper plot might mean that it was possible to build lines of rooms running back from the street in a narrower range. And of course the size of the apartment, the number of rooms, the size of each room and the height of ceilings all depended on the apparent wealth of a street or area and the potential status of future occupants. There were some single room apartments but in some parts of the city apartments might have ten or twelve rooms with separate accommodation for servants.

However, there was a fall back arrangement of rooms … a sort of basic plan that appeared early, worked well, and continues to be used as a practical unit.

This was a front living room, looking down on the street, with a central lobby or small hall and a narrow kitchen and a bedroom at the back of the range with windows looking towards the courtyard. If the main entrance into the building and main staircase was to the front then a second service stair could be placed in line to the back and reached directly from the kitchen. Some buildings were just a single apartment wide but actually it was much more efficient for space if the staircase and back stair could be in the centre with an apartment on each side with their plans mirrored. If both kitchens were to the centre then both could get to the second stair. 

If the apartments were larger with a number of rooms down a range of the courtyard then the kitchen and the second or back stair could be further away from the ‘polite’ rooms.

If all this seems to be placing a huge amount of emphasis on the second staircase, it has to be remembered that the plan was repeated up through five floors and an attic; that many of the apartments could have large families living in them; many of the houses and certainly internal fittings were timber and this was a city where several catastrophic fires had destroyed large numbers of houses.

If you look at early plans of these buildings very few have fireplaces but if you look carefully there are diamond-shaped or square flues at the intersection of internal walls and these were flues to take the smoke from stoves. Again this could be a considerable fire risk as a narrow flue served rooms all the way down a building and wood, particularly pine, when burnt produces resin which builds up and blocks flues with a flammable, tar like deposit.

The very best apartments might have a series of rooms running across the street frontage but that was relatively rare. 

The basic unit worked well and could be scaled up for a better apartment or scaled down in size in poorer areas and where there were wide plots being developed by a single builder then it was common to repeat a number of separate doorways and staircases along the street, each with apartments on either side. Internally there would be no connection although a courtyard and toilets and wash houses, if they were outside, could be shared.

This basic plan - front room, back kitchen and back bedroom - became the basic unit for social housing in the 1920s, 1930s and through to the 1960s and on.

The problem then as now is that that plan leaves little space for indoor bathrooms. Apartments in early social housing might have their own toilet often close to and ventilated into the back staircase but rarely room for a shower, let alone a bath when the buildings are upgraded.

Plans for apartments have become more varied and of course follow trends so kitchens may be within a large open living area or bathrooms en suite might be the latest must have. The overall shape of the VM building in Ørestad was a way of giving apartments both light and views out from a relatively tight plot but I am curious that for 225 housing units there are more than 80 different plans which seems to me to be treating the design as an intellectual exercise be it a very clever one.

One interesting aspect of planning in 19th-century apartment buildings was a greater social mix than might be found in a modern development or in social housing. In many of the early apartments there were clearly better apartments on the first and second floor but less prestigious apartments higher up in the building or across the courtyard.

This is a pair of apartment buildings on Sankt Annæ Plads and date from 1856. The left-hand building has a single apartment towards the street with a series of inter-connected rooms across the front and continuing down a narrow range beside the courtyard and ending with a kitchen and a back staircase. The kitchen had a large hearth for a range. Across the courtyard was a separate apartment with its own main staircase, a small lobby and then four reasonable or good sized rooms plus a kitchen and sharing the second stair with the main apartment.

The house to the right has two apartments to the front each with separate doors from the landing of the main staircase but not symmetrically arranged at the front but each with a set of rooms running back to kitchens that are on either side of the courtyard and again each with back staircases. Across the back of the courtyard at each level there were two much smaller apartments and each with a small kitchen.

Note that all three large apartments across the street frontage have WCs tucked well away from the polite rooms.

Between the two buildings there were six apartments on each level and the plan would have been repeated on at least the first, second, third and fourth floors.

Dating from 1857, this is an interesting building in part because the paint scheme does not do it justice and the location in Nørrebrogade might suggest that it is not particularly prestigious apartments. In fact, the plan shows that above the ground floor there were large apartments on each side of the central staircase, each with a long corridor entered from the main staircase, here at the back of the building, and each with three large interconnecting rooms across the street frontage, a large room, presumably a bedroom at the back and a large square kitchen with smaller rooms and spaces looking over the courtyard and each side had it’s own back staircase rather than sharing a stair. Note that the main stair starts off centre on the ground floor because there is a central archway from the street to the courtyard. The elevation drawing suggests that from the start, the ground floor areas on each side of the arch were shops or commercial space. 

Social block in Tavsens Gade designed by Povl Baumann dating from the 1920s. This appears to have the standard unit plan with a front living room to the street and a bedroom and kitchen towards the courtyard but in fact the design has a clever asymmetry so although adjoining apartments are the same at the back, every other apartment is wider with a second narrow room to the front that interconnects with the living room by central double doors. The larger apartments are just over 53 square metres and the smaller apartments 43 square metres. Both apartments had a toilet off the entrance hall with windows venting out into the back staircase and both apartments have access to the back staircase from the kitchen.

At first glance, this plan looks as if the apartments had a standard arrangement with a front living room and a back bedroom and narrow kitchen and that there were a pair of apartment buildings together. However, there were no back or second staircases so although each apartment had it’s own front door off the landing the internal lobbies were actually interconnected so that in theory, if there was a fire that filled one staircase with flames and smoke, families could cut through an adjoining apartment to get to the staircase on the other side. For a start this gave little privacy. In some buildings the interconnecting openings were just covered with sacking or paper. In some buildings, families piled up furniture against the opening making it impossible to use as a fire escape. And even if these look like reasonable places for a single person, the reality was that they were occupied by large families and might even be occupied by extended families with lodgers. Each apartment was about 30 square metres in area. Note the toilets off the lobbies without ventilation. These buildings in Saxogade in Vesterbro were demolished in slum clearance.

the old courtyards of Copenhagen


When I tell Danish friends that I love the courtyards of the city they tend to become serious, slightly dour, and suggest that if I did but know and then talk about ‘third courts’ and ‘fire courts’ … courtyards that were within courtyards that were within courtyards so courtyards three in from the street and dark and damp and a very real fire risk, hence presumably the name, and many remained like that through into the 1960s or 1970s.


Courtyards and gardens in the area around the royal palace and the Marble Church in the 18th century

Some of the courtyards, particularly in the 18th-century part of the city, were large and filled with gardens and others had the stables and carriage houses of the grand residences along the street frontage. Some courtyards, particularly in the older parts of the city, had store rooms and workshops but many were packed tightly with buildings that were crowded with people renting just one or two rooms and the alleys and courts could be dark, full of washing and stench, and with little light or air reaching the lower rooms. Photographs from the late 19th century show washing strung across from side to side, ladders and carts, timber piled up and channels in the cobbles to take away water and worse. Water must have been drawn from wells or come from fountains and pumps in the street. 

The east part of the city in the 18th century and the Google view from the air now showing how houses and courts were cleared for wider streets but in many courtyards open space has been lost to car parking or to infill to enlarge commercial buildings

One area of tightly-packed houses and alleys just west of the King’s Garden was notorious for not just its slum housing, “suspicious characters” and public houses but through the 19th century it was said to be the part of the city with the most blatant and open prostitution described in the newspaper Socialdemokraten in the 1880’s: 

”Lille Brøndstræde consists of a collection of shacks, 7 of which are brothels that however usually also house other residents than the tarts and their hosts. Anything more disgusting and miserable than these huts is hard to imagine …the shared characteristic of these buildings is decrepitude and limited conditions, which allows the sin and dirt the most excellent conditions for a fertile life ... The first thing, which stops the visitor is the darkness and the stench from the gutter or the filth in the yard. Light can only be mentioned once you have elevated a little and the air in these back building residences never gets sufficient renewal.”

If you are curious to seek out the street, the buildings there were demolished sometime after 1900 and if the ghosts of the women and their pimps are to be seen anywhere it will be in the Danish Film Institute built on the site.

So just how densely packed with people was Copenhagen?

In the 1840s - so shortly before the outbreak of cholera in the city - the population of Copenhagen has been calculated to have been about 120,000 people but of course then Copenhagen was much smaller than now - just the inner city, the new town around the royal palace and Christianshavn. Both the latter areas were relatively spacious with large houses and both Holmen and Gammelholm, south of Kongens Nytorv, were working docks and ship building yards so few lived in those parts. It is difficult to find the figures to compare like with like but the old city from the east gate, by what is now the Hotel Angleterre, to the west gate, close to the city hall - so the length of what is now Strøget or the walking street, is about a kilometre and from north to south, from Nørreport to Gammel Strand, the old quay, was only 750 metres and the irregular shape meant that the area was much less than a square kilometre although, even in the 19th century, there were some large squares, some broad streets and of course public buildings. There were probably getting on for 100,000 people living in that area.  

To give that some context, the most densely-packed area of modern Copenhagen is Inner Nørrebro where the most recent figures suggest that 31,000 people live in an area of 1.72 square kilometres … so in the centre of Copenhagen in the middle of the 19th century, at the time of the cholera epidemic, there were more than three times the people living in less than half the space. And that was at a time when there was no running water and no sewerage system.

If I have just alienated all my Danish friends by implying that their beautiful city was some sort of seething slum in the 19th century, then I would hasten to point out that parts of Paris, much of east London, large parts of Hamburg and Amsterdam were just as densely packed with people at that time. To placate Danish friends and alienate French friends I would also point out that in Paris the authorities feared revolution in their overcrowded city so, in the middle of the 19th century, demolished densely built-up areas and laid out wide new streets, the boulevards, in part so they were too wide for people to build barricades and so that troops could be moved quickly around the city to quell rebellion while at the same time the authorities in Copenhagen decided that one good way to stop a revolution was to keep Tivoli where the workers of the city would be entertained and distracted. To placate my working class friends and alienate my middle class friends I would suggest an interesting but impossible social experiment: 103,000 people live in Frederiksberg - now seen generally as the poshest part of the outer city - so just about the same number as lived in the centre of Copenhagen in the middle of the 19th century, although they have about 12 square kilometres of space. It would be fascinating to see how they would cope if they all had to move into the central area of the city with something like 8% of the space they have now.

To be rather more serious, Jan Gehl - who has done more than anyone else to analyse the plan of the city and its history and look at how it now functions - thought that because so many people live in the centre of Copenhagen - more than in most European capitals - it feels more friendly, more open and more secure at night. He calculated that in 1995 there were 6,800 people living in the centre and I can’t believe that figure has changed much in the last 20 years so less than 10% of the population 150 years earlier.