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

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.