The Opera designed by Henning Larsen was completed in 2005 and is the most prominent modern building along the harbour in Copenhagen. It’s at the centre of a wide rectangular island or, rather, on the central island of three islands side by side with narrow canals hard against either side of the opera building and crossed by narrow bridges out to the flanking islands.
In the original scheme, these flanking islands were destined to be developed with expensive apartment buildings but then along came the global recession and since then everything has been on hold.
The island to the north, about 160 metres wide and 160 metres deep but cut into by a dock from the harbour frontage, has been covered with tarmac and is used for car parking although there is a fine gantry crane across the north side and a 19th-century brick pumping house. The island to the south, tapering slightly from the width of the opera house site at its north end down to 122 metres deep at the south end, has been left as a wide area of grass with relatively small trees planted as formal avenues but not competing with the scale of the opera house and barely masking its south or side frontage.
Krøyers Plads - a development of large and expensive apartments some 500 metres south of the opera house - also faces onto the harbour and was also built around an existing dock but the that scheme was mired in planning controversies and the original plan for tall tower blocks was modified and modified and modified until it is now a relatively acceptable pastiche of historic warehousing or at least reminiscent of historic warehouses in scale and silhouette.
Papirøen or Paper Island - between Krøyers Plads and the opera - had low concrete warehouses built in the late 20th century - where paper for the city newspapers was stored so hence the name - has been cleared and work recently started on rebuilding the quay side and with major excavations for new buildings but apparently funding for the apartment blocks and a new harbour swimming pool here has slowed so completion dates have moved further away.
Clearly, now is not the right time to build expensive apartments on either side of the opera house so proposals for the area immediately south of the opera have changed. A large underground car park is to be constructed here and a park above it will be densely planted with trees. This scheme has been drawn up by the architecture and planning team of COBE who finally saw the Krøyers Plads buildings realised - although they were not involved in the original proposal - and they produced the initial planning proposals for Paper Island.
However, there seem still to be two problems.
Since it opened, the opera House has been relatively difficult to reach. Until two years ago, and first the completion of new foot bridges over the Christianshavn canals and then the opening of a new bike and foot bridge between Nyhavn and Christiansholm, it was a long walk up from Knipplesbro or an odd route by bus. And it was a longer drive by car around the outside of Christianshavn to come at the opera from the north through the buildings of Holmen - now part of the Royal Academy.
To be able to walk under cover from an underground car park against the side of the opera house, through a tunnel under the canal, and into the opera house at a lower level sounds convenient but I’m still not clear how you will drive there and unclear how it can be justified on ecological grounds where the trend in the city is to remove cars from the centre.
More important, in terms of architecture and planning, is that the opera house and anything on either side hides the four great naval warehouses built in line in the middle of the 18th century, and, with masting sheds and the great crane, these are one of the great and singular features of historic Copenhagen. The warehouses and mast sheds faced across an expanse of open water where the fleet anchored, to the royal palace on the west side of the harbour …….. until the islands were built in front of them and the opera house muscled in.