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?

Using a map app on a phone, zooming in and out, seems to undermine any sense of scale or distance so even a sense of locality can be vicarious even when you are there - particularly if the same app recommends the best hotel and the most popular restaurant so there's less and less chance of getting lost or going hungry or, come to that, discovering something that few others have discovered.

At a time when nationalism seems to be dominating politics but globalism seems to be controlling economics, do people still have a strong sense of place and difference and is that sense of place a sense of belonging to their country or perhaps to a more specific and narrower location to a city or a town or a specific rural area?

In terms of architecture and design then, is a clear national or regional style still important when a company might have a strong national image, when it comes to marketing, but it's designers might be anywhere and the manufacturers somewhere else?

Copenhagen does have a very clear sense of identity and much of its architecture and much of the design sold in the city has a strong Danish character but will that change?

The experience of arriving in the city as a stranger has certainly changed and the image a place presents to the outside world does usually tell you much about how a city or a town sees itself.


From the late medieval period and right through to the 1870s the city of Copenhagen was surrounded by military defences. That means little until you look at old drawings of the city that show that Copenhagen was surrounded by a high embankment and wide, water-filled outer ditches, and approaching by land there were just three gateways for entry. These gates and most of the embankments have gone although the surviving defences around Kastellet give a good idea of what the rest of the city looked like and just how imposing and impressive those embankments were. 


The surviving gate and the outer bridges at the castle of Helsingør is close to the form of the three gates into the city that survived until the late 19th century. 

So arriving by land the first clear impression was that the city was wealthy because clearly it had things worth protecting but apart from church spires sticking above the bank and a number of windmills on the bank, you had no idea what the architecture of the city was like until you got through a gate.

For the citizens, their lives were controlled and defined by the defences - the gates were locked at night - so they had a very strong sense of the place where they lived and it was a tightly-packed city of all classes from landed aristocrats, with a home in the city but land elsewhere in the country, through clergy and merchants and craftsmen and within the defences was most of what was needed to supply and maintain a strong army and a formidable navy - the navy and the army between them occupied more than half the area within the defences - and each day the city was filled by farmers and traders bringing in what they had to sell.


Arriving by sea there would have been an even clearer sense of a city whose wealth was based on trade and sea power. Thousands of visitors to the city each year now arrive on cruise ships but surely that gives them a very odd sense of place as they go to bed and get up in the same bedroom but the place outside has changed during the night.

Arriving in the city in the 1950s might still mean arriving by sea, by ferry or cargo ship, or by land it would have been by car or for many people train so their first impression of Copenhagen was the railway station but the airport at Kastrup opened in 1925 and so more and more people were arriving by air. For Arne Jacobsen, building the SAS hotel in the 1950s, the hope was that an international businessman or an international politician would get their first sense of the city, and their first feeling of having arrived in Copenhagen, when they got to the terminal in the hotel, transferred there from the airport by taxi. That was the reason it was fitted out with the very best of modern Danish design.

the lobby of the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen in the 1960s


So was that the point in time when the people of Copenhagen or at least the architects and designers and the planners of the city began to have a clear sense of what modern architecture and modern design in Copenhagen could and would be like? 

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.


At the centre of the scheme is Guldberg School, a large brick block dating from the early 20th century and running back from Prinsesse Charlottes Gade with a public bath (shut in 2010) to its north and further west side the fine church of Simeons Kirke designed by Johannes Magdahl Nielsen that was completed in 1914. To the north of the school are large apartment blocks and to the east, between the those apartments and Prinsesse Charlotte Gade, was the school yard. 


The area in front of the school and church has been closed to through traffic and is now a large public square with play equipment.

The Copenhagen architects Nord redesigned the school yard so it is now open to the street with general access for children living nearby who can use the ball court at the centre or the climbing frames and an amazing sculpture by Hans Henrik Øhlers. Parents, meeting their kids from school, sit and chat while their children play.

Across the east end of yard with a frontage to Meinungsgade is a community centre and after school facility known as Universet (Universe) designed by JJW architects. To take up as little ground space as possible, the main rooms are on the upper floor with a glazed area at ground level so that views through are not blocked but the much smaller footprint of the ground floor means that there are covered or sheltered areas at each end for play. Open staircases at each end are for access to the flat roof where there is more open space.

There is an amazing tube slide down from the roof … I’m oh so tempted but at 6’2” I’m not sure my body is designed to get round those tight turns.


restoration and inspiration - the mast sheds on Holmen


the mast sheds from the south - from the island of Christiansholm - with the north end of the Arsenal to the right and two long ranges of the magasins for naval stores beyond


In the middle of the 18th century the area of the harbour to the north of Christianshavn in Copenhagen was established as royal dockyards for the Danish navy and a number of islands were formed by landfill. Frederiksholm was formed in the late 1740s and the famous map by Christian Gedde shows the two long storehouses of the Arsenal in line - the buildings now behind the modern Opera House - as outlines suggesting that they were planned but not at that stage built and on either end, to the north and south, were shown mast sheds. The northern sheds have been lost but the row of seven mast sheds at the south end of the Arsenal survive.

The Masteskure - the mast sheds - are on the south side of Galionsvej at the harbour end. There are seven sheds in a row each about 10 metres wide and just under 40 metres long with the narrow ends to the harbour with wide double doors to each shed. They were built in 1748 and were used to store the masts and spars of the naval ships … the masts and rigging were dismantled and stored and only re-fitted as the ships were prepared for battle. In line to the south is a later taller building now with two floors dating from 1829 and called the Mærshuset. This translates as maiden's house … the maiden apparently being the round look-out platform towards the top of a mast.

The buildings were restored by the architects Frank Maali and Gemma Lalanda and the work was completed in 2009. Land around the buildings had risen over the years so they were raised up by just over 80cm so they do not appear to be in a hollow.

Work included new gullies and drains and roof lights set back so they are not obvious from the quay. The rain water is thrown out from hoppers into a cobble-lined gulley around the building and there are steps and landings in corten at each door.

The restoration is striking and in a typically Danish way introduces innovative and good modern elements to allow the buildings to be used now as offices and showrooms. The architects were nominated for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Prize for this work.

Frank Maali & Gemma Lalanda - architects


From Infrastructure to Public Space*


Dronning Louises Bro in the evening from the city side


Our Urban Living Room, is an exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre about the work of the Copenhagen architectural studio COBE with a book of the same title published to coincide with the exhibition, and both are subtitled Learning from Copenhagen.

A general theme that runs through the exhibition is about the importance of understanding a city as a complex man-made environment to show how good planning and the construction of good buildings, with the support of citizens, can create better public spaces that improve and enhance our lives.

One graphic in the exhibition, in a section about infrastructure, shows Dronning Louises Bro (Queen Louise’s Bridge) as the lanes of traffic were divided in the 1980s and compares that with how the space of the road is now organised. 

The stone bridge, in its present form dating from the late 19th century, crosses an arc of large lakes on the west side of the city centre and is the main way into the centre of Copenhagen from the north so many people have to cross the lakes on their commute into the city in the morning and then again in the evening as they head home. In the 1980s vehicles were given priority with 6 lanes for traffic - two lanes of cars in each direction and in the centre a tram lane in bound and a tram lane heading out - so the pavements on each side were just 3 metres wide and cyclists had to compete for space with cars.   

Now, the width of the lanes given over to vehicles has been narrowed down to just 7 metres in the middle for a single lane for driving into the city and a single lane heading out but on each side there are dedicated bike lanes that are each 4 metres wide and then generous pavements that are 5 metres wide on each side of the bridge for pedestrians. So the space for cars and the space for pedestrians and cyclists has been swapped around. The bridge is just as busy - if not busier - with an almost-unbelievable 36,000 or more cyclists crossing each day and the pavements are actually a popular place for people to meet up … particularly in the summer when the north side of the bridge catches the evening sun so people sit on the parapet or sit on the pavement, leaning back against the warm stonework, legs stretched out, to sunbathe, chat or have a drink.


graphic showing changes made to the width of the traffic lanes over the bridge ... taken from an information panel for the exhibition Our Urban Living Room at the Danish Architecture Centre

the bridge looking towards the Søtorv apartments on the city side

even in November there can be enough sun so that it is warm enough to sit and wait or sit and chat


How many people crossing the bridge realise just how many dramatic changes to the city are reflected in the history of the bridge itself? Until the late 19th century what is now the inner city was still surrounded by the high banks of the city defences and there were few buildings in the area between the outer ditch and the lakes - so across what is now Nørreport railway station, Israels Plads and the wide streets of apartment buildings beyond was open land. In fact the lakes were irregular in shape and there in part as an outer defence and in part as a source of ‘fresh’ drinking water for the city. The stone edges and wide gravel paths around the lake, now a popular place to walk, date only from work of 1928.


the well known painting of the lakes in the early 19th century by the Danish artist Christen Købke and now in the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst - the National Gallery in Copenhagen


There was a bridge over the lakes at this point from the 16th century onwards but it was only when the city defences were demolished about 1870 and blocks of apartments were built between the lakes and the site of the old north gate - hence the name Nørreport for the railway station - that a new bridge was commissioned that opened in 1887. 

An even grander bridge had been proposed but that scheme was abandoned although this important approach to the city was part of some very ambitious planning. Søtorv - four enormous apartment buildings on the city side of the bridge were designed in the style of French chateaux with a total frontage towards the lakes of 240 metres and in the green areas on either side of the bridge, on the city side, are statue groups - the figure of the Tiber on one side and the Nile on the other - so pretty grand aspirations and pretty grand planning from the worthy citizens ….. even by modern standards. At the centre of the new wide streets and squares and blocks of apartments built after 1870 was a large open square that was a food market so presumably in part the bridge was that wide because it was seen as one main way into the city each day for produce for the market. 

The market? Now the incredibly popular food halls of Torvehallerne and Israels Plads … the square that is another area recently transformed by COBE.


the lake, Søtorv and the bridge from the north in the late evening


* the title of this post is a section heading from the exhibition Our Urban Living Room and a chapter heading in the catalogue


The Danish Chair


Part of the collection of modern chairs at Designmuseum Danmark, has been moved into a newly refurbished space in one of the long narrow galleries in the south wing to the right of the entrance.

The new display is stunning and with each chair shown in a self-contained box and with good lighting and clear succinct labels it is possible to really appreciate each piece of furniture. The chairs are arranged on three levels … the middle row at about eye level, the lower chairs angled up and the upper tier angled down slightly so the gallery has something of the feel of a barrel shape or barrel vault and each chair is angled to optimise the view point for the visitor. Of course, there are some down sides in that it is not as easy to get a sense of the chair as a three-dimensional work but this new arrangement does let you get very close to look at details and for the middle and upper rows it is possible for the first time here to see the underside of the chairs if you are interested to see how they are constructed.


In an initial room there is a short assessment of the place of iconic chair designs in Danish design history with early and foreign chairs, including a Shaker chair from America, that put these designs into a wider context.

There is a Wegner chair before it is assembled to show just how complex the parts and the joints and construction details of a chair can be and there is a clear panel with graphics to show how, for the first time in the museum, the chairs have been displayed by type or typology. So here the groups go from the Folding chairs and stool, to a group of Easy Chairs; then Windsor chairs (essentially chairs with vertical rails across the back) Chippendale chairs (with horizontal rails and often with arms) then a group derived more closely from the Shaker chairs, the distinct Chinese chair and steambent chairs, the Round arm chairs and Klismos chairs (of which The Chair by Wegner is a famous example) and finally Shell chairs.


Galleries on the courtyard side of the range have also been rearranged. The chairs were originally there - either in a line along the inner wall or arranged on a deep plinth against the window wall - but a less densely-packed display has been moved to the centre of the main gallery so it is possible to see the upholstered chairs and the larger recliners and so on from all sides.

The Danish Chair - an international affair Designmuseum Danmark


Designer: Boris Berlin of ISKOS-BERLIN Copenhagen

Curator: Christian Holmsted Olesen.
Graphic design: Rasmus Koch Studio.
Light design: Jørgen Kjær/Cowi Light Design and Adalsteinn Stefansson.
Graphic design: Rasmus Koch Studio.


the view down through the galleries showing one section of the old display of chairs in a line against the wall


one of the main galleries without the old display of chairs against the inner wall so new stands can be set down the centre to make it possible to see this furniture from both sides


Ordrup … the garden of the landscape designer G N Brandt


While tracking down material about how Arne Jacobsen used geometry and proportion in the process of design - specifically to see how and where he used the Golden Rectangle - there were several intriguing references to work by the Danish gardener, landscape designer and teacher G N Brandt.  

Brandt was a generation older than Jacobsen - some twenty-four or twenty-five years older - and they might not normally have known much of each other’s work particularly in the late 20s when Jacobsen had just finished his studies and just qualified as an architect but in 1927 Jacobsen married Marie Jelstrup Holm whose family lived in a villa in Ordrupvej and in 1929 the couple moved to Ordrup - to a house at Gotfred Rodes Vej 2 that Jacobsen designed and had built for them and where in 1931 he then added a design studio and office for his architectural practice … so for some fifteen years, until Jacobsen fled to Sweden in 1943, he lived and worked just a few streets away from where Brandt lived in Ørnekulsvej. The walk from one front gate to the other is 450 metres so each must have known of the house and the garden of the other.

Most books about Jacobsen note that he was interested in plants and both planting and the landscape setting or garden are important for many of the buildings that he designed but at Gotfred Rodes Vej, it is an awkward triangular plot so the house is set with considerable care and skill so, although the garden by Brandt and the garden by Jacobsen are very different in style, they are both designed to control the way spaces around the houses are linked and how views of the house from the garden and how views out from the house to the garden are controlled. 

In any period, but particularly in a period of change or transition, it is interesting to see where new ideas about shape or form or even the use of colour and texture, that are being tried out in architecture, can also be traced through other areas of design so obviously, of course, in the design of furniture and the design of interiors but also in planning and, as with the work of Brandt, in garden design.

In part, as with Jacobsen’s own house at Godfred Rodes Vej, Brandt’s house and garden in Ørnekulsvej is of interest because it was his own home so it was a place where it was possible for him to do what he wanted and a garden where he could experiment without having to satisfy a client.

Brandt had travelled to England, where he was inspired by gardens of the Arts and Crafts period and elements of English garden design, particularly the informal cottage garden, can be seen in his design for his own garden in Ordrup. There are areas of planting that are designed to look natural, like woodland, but also he used geometric proportion to give the whole garden a sense of order and structure and he planted hedges to create a sequence of tightly controlled spaces. That underlying geometry might not be immediately obvious to the visitor but this is never-the-less fascinating as an intellectual game for a design where there is clearly a complicated balance of influences and styles within a relatively restricted space that takes sophisticated ideas from gardens of a grander and more ambitious scale and refines them down to a tighter and more restricted domestic scale.

Although the garden of G N Brandt in Ordrup is compact - the main garden and his house fitted within an area of just 1,600 square metres - there are many influences incorporated in the design. It comes at a distinct point of change in architecture as the garden was laid out in 1914 so at a point when the 19th century was very certainly over but before what we would recognise as definitely modern forms of garden layout had been established. There are references here to English cottage gardens of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century but there are also ambitious references to classical gardens based on geometry as well as an underlying structure you might find in the formal gardens of a country house in the 18th or 19th century as well as areas of natural planting like a woodland glade.


the entrance to the garden from Ørnekulsvej


The garden is at the north-west corner of the cemetery of Ordrup. The land had belonged to Brandt’s father, a horticulturalist, but was later acquired as an addition to the cemetery. Officially G N Brandt was in charge of municipal gardens in the wider area of Gentofte, including the cemetery at Ordrup, so it would appear that the house and its garden became an official residence.

There are six separate areas to the Ordrup garden that are marked out and divided by high, square-cut hedges that form a series of enclosed but tightly linked spaces. 

On the public road, on Ørnekulsvej, there is a small, unassuming and modest gate that leads into the first part of the garden where there is a gently curved path, lined with mature trees and shrubs, that runs roughly parallel to the main path on the axis of the cemetery to its left. This path and the area of planting were long enough to hide the house and its garden from the public road and gives them a sense of seclusion. That path brings you to first a high gate and then, immediately inside the gate, there is the second area of the garden that is a long and very narrow area that runs across the line of approach. It is simply grassed but slopes gently down away from the path to the right and is a curious space, almost like an alley. It also extends to the visitors left for a short distance where it ends in a high hedge and there is now a seat on the central axis where you can sit and look down the full length of the alley. This appears to be a buffer or a break that is there to prepare you for the enclosed and contained areas of the garden beyond but might also have been a way of implying that the garden was larger than it really was because although it runs for the full length of the plot there is nothing to suggest that the garden might not extend somehow into the trees beyond. 


the view down the alley from the seat with the gate and the path to the road on the right and the path to what was a door into the house on the left


A gate directly opposite the path from the street, on the far side of the alley, is in the position of a door into the house on its side gable. Although the house was demolished in the 1960s its outline is now marked out with pale blocks of stone that are inset into the grass. It was a modest villa with one main floor but over a basement and with attic rooms that were lit by large dormers to the front and to the back. There was a large bay window to the front and with a small front garden that faced north-east towards the main path of the cemetery. The house was surrounded by planting of flowers but the area is now relatively clear, laid to grass, but with the remains of a back terrace of the house facing south west.

Perhaps one point that is important but is no longer obvious because the house no longer survives but for the visitor arriving at the cross alley, the only way to get into the main garden would have been, apparently, by first entering the house.

At the back of the house was a paved terrace and from there, stepping down the gentle slope, there is a series of three narrow rectangular gardens that are set across the slope, and all three are defined by high hedges to form a series of tightly-enclosed spaces like outside rooms. 


from the gate from the cemetery, the front garden of the house with the outline of demolished building showing the position of the large bay window on this side and the remains of the paved terrace at the back of the house with the way into the series of gardens to right end of the hedge

the canal garden from the west

the canal garden in Winter from the lower south-east corner


First is an orchard with apple trees. Then the second garden has a deep ditch running across the main axis, filled with water to create a narrow canal - described in some accounts as a moat - with the banks planted with marsh plants. There are low stone arches at each end of the channel where the water flows in and and out and the area around is paved. Beyond, further down the slope, is the third garden, again defined by high hedges but planted as a woodland.

It is the canal garden and this last area of woodland that are laid out with the proportions of a Golden Rectangle …  an underlying geometry that Brandt used in other gardens … and this hints at the complexity of the ideas and theories he employed even in such a small space. A Golden Rectangle has specific proportions that are considered by some to not only be significant in terms of their mathematics but also to be inherently beautiful. However, in an area such as this, defined by high hedges that, even when trimmed, take their own outline and in a space broken by shrubs and planting then, without being told beforehand, it would surely have been impossible for any visitor to see, let alone appreciate, that underlying geometry. It is, at the very least, a romantic conceit.

Throughout the garden there are challenging juxtapositions … of compact scale but grand concepts, informal planting but within a formal structure so natural planting but an over-riding sense of being contained within carefully controlled spaces. That sounds as if I didn’t like the garden but in fact it is really very beautiful - a fascinating garden that is worth seeing at any season and a garden that feels private and enclosed and very tranquil … so a garden for the introvert for contemplation.



the last or lower garden ... the woodland from the west



background notes:

Gudmund Nyeland Brandt (1878-1945) was a horticulturalist and a garden and landscape designer and a teacher; a writer as well as being the gardener for the municipality of Gentofte … the large suburban area immediately north of Copenhagen.

Brandt designed a number of public gardens around Copenhagen including the courtyard garden of the Design Museum; the park in Hellerup around the house at Øregård; a small park around the marina in Hellerup and the famous garden on the roof of Radiohuset in Copenhagen. 

Away from the city, in 1920 he was responsible for remodelling the garden of Marienlyst - a country house on the outskirts of Helsingør - and in the mid 20s designed the grounds around the Cathedral School in Viborg.

The site of Brandt’s house and the surviving garden are at Ørnekulsvej 3, at the north end of the cemetery in Ordrup, with one gate into the garden from the main central path of the cemetery and a separate gate for access to the garden from Ørnekulsvej. 

There are frequent trains to Ordrup station on suburban line C from Copenhagen and the garden is 400 metres walk to the west of the station on the far side of the high street and on the far side of the cemetery.


the alley from the bottom of the slope looking up towards the seat with the gate leading to the path to the road at the top on the left and the trees of the cemetery beyond

defining our urban space


The last 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.

What Dan Stubbergaard and his team at COBE seem to do so well is analyse how people might use the space and then they move their new building or the elements of new landscape into the gaps to reinforce and define the spaces and enable the activities. That is particularly obvious at Israels Plads or for the public area above Nørreport railway station but also at Forfatterhuset you can see, for instance, the perimeter walls pushed in to form spaces where parents and kids can stand and chat just off the pavement, half in and half out of the school as they arrive or leave.

The bank buildings and apartments south of Christiansbro might appear to be much more formal, much more detached, much less about being relaxed or entertained but there is a very very complex arrangement of work space and public space but also private housing and private but communal courtyard gardens - so part private but part public space - that provide a back drop to public activity. The architecture and landscaping plays a role in defining where people to do everyday things like sit out on a picnic table by the canal, walk a dog, sit in the sun in the peace of a historic churchyard or have a party and drink with work mates by setting up a bar or a marquee outside. It’s just that maybe there are not so many people or quite as much noise here as at Kids’ City but it is good architecture forming a backdrop to everyday life.


This block of the city is square, roughly 310 metres by 310 metres, and is immediately south of the main bridge over the harbour - Christiansbro or Knippelsbro that crosses from the centre of Copenhagen to Christianshavn - and south of Torvegade - the main road that runs from the bridge through Christianshavn and on to Amager. 

It was part of the area that was claimed from the sea for a new settlement established by Christian IV in the early 17th century and historic buildings survive along the south side of the Torvegade and at north end of the two streets - Strandgade and Wildersgade -  that run down from Torvegade.

At the centre of the area is a fine church dating from the middle of the 18th century that has a forecourt on the north side and a small rectangular churchyard to its east with mature trees and is enclosed by a wall with gates that are locked at night so this is a quiet and semi private green space. All this was retained in the redevelopment of the area and a condition set by the planners was that new buildings would be no higher than the cornice or gutter level of the church.


Burmeister & Wain shipyard and engineering works had been established here in the middle of the 19th century and gradually grew to cover the land on both sides of the church and across its south side.

Initially, it was suggested that some of the workshops, where diesel engines were assembled and tested, should be kept as examples of good industrial buildings that were an important part of the history of the area but in isolation these would have meant little and, although they were large and impressive spaces, it was difficult to justify the cost of repairs and upkeep if there was no obvious new and public use. 

All the shipyard buildings were demolished after the works were closed in 1987 although the piers and lamps of the works' gate survive on the quay side of the canal along with some older buildings at the north-east corner of the site that had been offices for the company.

New buildings had to be a mixture of commercial office buildings and housing. Initially city planners wanted housing along the harbour frontage but in the end agreed that the offices should face west towards the harbour and the housing should be onto the main canal across the south and east sides of the site.

Henning Larsen Architects produced a master plan in 1995 for six large office blocks and three large apartment buildings around courtyard gardens.

Stated like that, it sounds simple and straightforward, in terms of planning, but what was actually built is a very complex area of public and private spaces in a carefully-balanced area of offices and housing.  


There are wide new public quays along the two canal frontages and a large new public square against the church, on the opposite side to the churchyard, and the office blocks were set with their narrow ends to the harbour - to reflect the arrangement of 18th and 19th-century warehouses along the inner harbour - but they are linked by a number of different glass-fronted ranges and bridges to form a combination of public and private courtyards with areas of formal planting. The landscape architect was Sven-Ingvar Andersson.  

A wide quayside walk was also laid out along the harbour side and within the last year the area has been brought within a broader scheme for the harbour with the construction of a striking new cycle and foot bridge - Cirkelbroen by Olafur Elliason - to link the harbour-side walk here with the next section of quay to the south of the canal to form an important new public route from the main bridge down to Islands Brygge and the outdoor swimming area - the Harbour Baths by Bjarke Ingels and Julien De Smedt.


The office blocks all have the same external details which unifies the group but the six blocks are of different lengths running down to the quay and actually pick up on a slight change of angle between the bridge road to the north and the main canal running roughly parallel some 300 metres to the south. So the office blocks fan out almost imperceptibly so it is difficult to appreciate when walking along the quay - because of the large scale of the overall plan - but more obvious from the other side of the harbour. Some of the office blocks are longer, appearing to step forward because the front edge of the quay breaks forward on the south section so although initially it all seems incredibly regular it is actually not rigidly and neatly angular which gives the line of blocks more drama and even a little warmth although my guess would be that few people walking along the quay would be able to explain why it feels better or understand how it could have been much more rigid. There are also two short sections of canal taken back into the site so the quay-side walk is taken over narrow bridges.


All three quay-side walks and the roads within the development and the spaces and courtyards between the office buildings are paved with the dark grey and mauve Copenhagen setts or cobbles. This might look like the conservation of a historic feature but is a deliberate modern introduction to the area and with the use of simple gravel and dark sand for some surfaces in the central public square it provides a uniform colour and tone and an important element of texture to the setting of the starkly modern buildings.

The five-storey apartment buildings are set around courtyards with communal gardens but again there seems to be a game with three different layouts. The block nearest the harbour is around three sides of a courtyard that is open towards the space between two of the office buildings so forms an extension of that space but the courtyard is made rather more private by being raised up from the street level with short flights of steps and is partly closed by a low cycle store. The middle courtyard again has three ranges around an open court but here open towards the canal but made more private by a detached block in the centre of the open side that also helps maintain a stronger and more consistent building line towards the canal. The third apartment building, at the south-east corner, is again three ranges around a courtyard but here narrower and open to the north where the side ranges are in line and form an extension of another courtyard between a block facing the canal and an apartment building facing the church. There is a public footpath cutting across this long courtyard, an alley way between the ranges, so again the courtyard is ostensibly private but with public access.

The apartment buildings and the offices are built over underground car parks so on-street parking or surface parking is kept to a minimum.



below, the view north (8 on plan) of the public square between the church and the offices along the harbour


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.


The plot is between the harbour and the old street of Strandgade with a basin running back from the harbour towards Strandgade forming one side of the plot with an large warehouse on the other side of the basin and with the fourth or south-west side of the plot bounded by another large warehouse running back from the harbour. The site is almost opposite Skuespilhuset (the National Theatre) and opposite the harbour end of the popular tourist destination of Nyhavn. Inderhavnsbroen - the Inner Harbour or Kissing Bridge - a major new cycle and footbridge over the harbour from the end of Nyhavn to the Christianshavn side - opened this summer making the area much easier to reach but much busier.

Several schemes for this site have been proposed but at least one plan included towers up to 14 floors so were rejected by the city council after much debate and after a lot of objections from citizens who generally want to maintain the restriction on the height of buildings in the historic centre where there are very few buildings above six stories apart from church towers and a few turrets.

There is an explanation of the design process for Krøyers Plads in the catalogue of the current exhibition about the work of Cobe at the Danish Architecture Centre. Essentially the scheme is relatively simple with three separate blocks - one set back and parallel to the harbour - across the end of the basin and running along Strandgade - and two blocks running back from the harbour on the south-west side of the basin and all three have a fairly regular arrangement of openings on the ground floor - an interpretation of the arcades seen on several of the old warehouses. There will be mainly commercial areas on the ground floor. However, for the apartments on the upper levels, the small window openings and occasional loading doors seen in the traditional arrangement for a warehouse would not have provided enough light so a more random arrangement of tall, narrow windows and balconies light the apartments. The traditional form or long, straight, narrow arrangement of the earlier warehouses, with gabled ends and level ridges, have also been abandoned and all three blocks are angled or slightly bent at the centre and all have an arrangement of large gables on the long sides with sections of mono-pitch roofs to allow greater and more useable height for upper apartments and there are a lot of roof lights. The result is a number of long slopes and what appear, from the ground, to be almost like a saddle roof in parts.


Perhaps the most serious problem with this is that the façade towards Strandgade is rather cliff like and with a slightly odd kink in the road here the steep mono-pitch gable at the south end and odd views along either side of the elbow-shaped block looks curious as you approach the site along Strandgade.


However, the huge gain from the arrangement is that by pushing the Strandgade block back as close as possible to the road then actually, for pedestrians, the clear route to take is actually away from the road and onto a broad walk on the harbour side of the block - between the block and the end of the basin - and there are also clear views to the old warehouse - Nordatlantens Brygge - along the north-east side of the basin which encourages pedestrians to walk along the quay on that side of the basin to get to the new bridge.

In fact the two blocks on the south side of the basin are set well back from the harbour for a wide walkway there as well so there is very generous public/private space around the buildings.

Those two blocks, with their ends to the harbour, are also angled to form shallow V plans, angled in opposite directions so coming together towards the centre. This gives more privacy and better views out from apartments as windows are not facing directly across from one block to the other and coming together, almost like an hour glass, actually gives a sense of closure to the space visually - making it seem rather more like a private alley than a broad open access to the harbour and careful planting is another signal that suggests to the publicthat this is semi-private space.


There are also flat ceilinged tunnels through each of the blocks that, with the angles in the line of the blocks, createsmuch more interesting sight lines and routes around and through the site than might be suggested by that simple description of two blocks set parallel to the basin with one across the end of the basin.

Some of the passages are lined with mirror-effect cladding that should provide some interesting effects in bright sunlight particularly if light is reflected up off the water.


The main block along Strandgade has brick to the ends and to the street and is clad in dark grey metal towards the harbour and the other two ranges have tile cladding … not traditional in the city. It is a small criticism but the main doorways and tunnels look oddly weak … that's visually weak rather structurally weak - without any sense of framing or architrave. The tiles and the brickwork just finish at the openings. Even without architraves, when you look at traditional brickwork, you can see that openings are coursed in … so on either side of an opening are equally spaced whole and half bricks in alternate courses and brick layers work outwards from each opening and if the spaces between openings are not equal to a complete number of bricks then carefully placed spacers or bats are used traditionally to keep the coursing regular. This is hardly obvious in standard brickwork but does give the opening a subtle strength and headers above openings are there to give a visual sense of strength even when there is a girder or beam behind.


What is good with the hung tile work here at Krøyers Plads is the detail at the corners with a thin diagonally-set metal rib projecting slightly beyond the front face of the walls which just gives a pencil-line thickness of definition to the corner.


The bricks on the main range are also slightly curious as the 'frog' - the hollow for extra mortar - that normally faces up and hidden is here turned to face out giving the wall a stronger and rougher texture.

As with much of the work by Cobe there is a very careful and very subtle balance of public and private space and the scheme, as it matures, could provide some interesting venues for semi public events. One particularly good feature is that the north end of the main range stops to form a frame with the corner of the old warehouse that extends the quay right up to an old but smaller warehouse on the opposite side of Strandgade that has round-headed arcades on the ground floor. When the restaurant NOMA moves from the harbour end of the Nordatlantens Brygge it will be interesting to see if a new use leads to a re-planning on the outer or Opera House side of that warehouse and future developments on what is now a carpark on the opposite side of Strandgade from Krøyers Plads might pull together a wider area of the streetscape. That area is marked on plans as a new square although it is difficult to see at the moment how that will be given any coherence - more specifically a sense of enclosure. If there is one criticism of the plan at the moment it is that space, although tightly controlled around the basin, seems to bleed outwards in an odd way. The buildings do not need to be hemmed in but rather more enclosure of the space around the site could give a stronger sense of urban density in an area now very much in the centre of the city.

COBE - Krøyers Plads


copper and Copenhagen buildings

Børsen - the Exchange in Copenhagen. Dragon Spire 1625

Copenhagen City Hall completed 1905

Apartment building by the harbour about 1900 lit by evening sun



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.

Pure copper is found naturally as an ore that has to be processed or refined to separate out the metal itself which, initially, is a bright pink red in colour but with exposure to air the surface oxidises - particularly near the sea where salts in the air effect the process to produce copper sulphate. The surface of the metal gains a patina that can be a shockingly sharp and bright green and can have irregular stain marks and what appears to be a surface crust. The change to the surface can take five years or more and in some situations thirty years or more but then it forms a complete protective surface that stops further degradation of the material underneath.


ornate Bronze Age weapons in the Danish National Museum


Working with copper is amazing … if it is heated to melting point it can be formed into shapes in moulds but sheets of the metal can also be manipulated and beaten into shape with a hammer - like working iron on an anvil - or can be drawn out into wires and twisted or plaited and it can be joined by welding. Beating out with a hammer, to form a shape or a vessel like a bowl, is often done on a sand-filled leather cushion with a hammer with a rounded end. Beating and working changes the characteristics of the metal so that it becomes harder and more rigid but if it is reheated the original malleability returns although the shape formed is retained so more and more extreme shapes can be achieved.

Combining copper with another metal to form an alloy also changes the workability and final appearance and hardness or durability of the metal so when copper is combined with tin it forms the alloy bronze that has a lower melting point so the metal can be used more easily for casting but is also more resistant to corrosion. Copper with zinc, forms the alloy brass that also has a lower melting point for casting in a moulds but can also be turned in a lathe. Brass has a darker and heavier brown colour, itself attractive, but it has another interesting quality in that it resists microbes so was a natural choice for door handles and for the handrails of staircases particularly in hospitals but actually for anywhere with heavy public use and where people were or are concerned about the transfer of germs.


alloy handle Vesterport building Copenhagen 1931


Not only can copper sheet or thin sheets of the copper alloys be cut and formed into complex 3D shapes but separate sheets can be joined by using rivets or sheets can be welded together, to form water tight vessels, for instance for brewing, or can be crimped or folded together to form weather-tight joins that can be used over large areas to form a light roof covering for domes or dormer windows or spires, particularly if there is also decorative work. Copper is much lighter than clay tiles or stone slates and certainly much lighter than alternative metals, lead or steel, when used for roof coverings and drains and downpipes. Climb one of the church towers or climb up the Round Tower in the centre of Copenhagen and look over the city and you can see just how many of the important roofs and spires and domes in the city are covered with copper.

That copper and its alloys can be cast in a mould but then cut and worked or finished, has made it an important material for decorative work and statues, which, with a form work beneath, can be of almost any size … think Statue of Liberty.


statue in Hans Tavsens Park in Copenhagen with typical 'verdigris' patina


shouldn’t we talk about architecture more?


What a building looks like is important but in the end a building has to be judged by how it works - judged to see if it is doing what it was meant to do - not judged just by how it looks in a presentation drawing or in a beautiful photograph taken in exactly the right light. We judge a building by how it relates to either the crowded busy street in which it stands or to it’s landscape setting.

To understand a building you need to walk up to it, walk around it and walk through it, and, if possible, see it at different times of day and in different seasons.

And it helps if you can look at a number of buildings by the same architect to put the work in some sort of context … it’s that old ‘compare and contrast’ exercises we had to do in English lessons when I was at school though I’m not sure if that sort of thing is still on the curriculum.

Leaving aside the obvious problem of access to a building, it can also be difficult to get an overview of the work of a major architect because, for many, their stomping ground is global … in the past a successful architectural practice might open a regional office 200 miles away, if a long-term project justified the expense, or a second office sorted out some of the headaches of logistics, but now most of the big-name architects, at the very least, have offices in New York and somewhere in China and possibly in the Middle East as well. Architectural practices are truly trans Continental. Star architects can work … and tragically some die … anywhere in the World.

That makes the compare and contrast exercise for major works by major architects almost impossible for any writer or historian or photographer. Of course there are retrospective exhibitions with their catalogues and published monographs but many of those have to use stock images and they inevitably cut out the noise of the traffic, the hot dog stand in the wrong place and often cut out those inconvenient things called people so it becomes really very difficult to judge how a building works day to day or looks in the rain or functions at the end of a busy and hectic day as people try to get away in a hurry. Very few reviews of major buildings look at how many toilets there are or how easy it is to find your way around but surely that is exactly the sort of thing a good architect has to resolve … all that stuff that is important after the wow factor has begun to wear a bit thin.

Of course I admit that I try to take photographs on a good day … not least because I don’t function well in the cold and wet and cold and wet are not much good for the camera either … and I try to adjust the angle of view slightly if it avoids the overflowing waste bin in the foreground and I will wait for the delivery lorry to sort itself out and move on.

One new way of looking at buildings - and certainly a good way to judge a wider setting in a town or city - is to use Google Maps with their satellite and street views although obviously it is better for buildings that are on or close to a road rather than set back in private gardens or in an inaccessible landscape. 

Some major public buildings even have internal coverage by Google so you can explore and pan around the main rooms but that is still relatively rare. Some architects produce very swish, carefully rendered and highly realistic CGIs that are often included in major exhibitions or are published on their web sites but for obvious reasons these are not warts and all. At the very least architects have to admit that those presentations have been sanitised.

Does a detailed assessment for a building matter? In part it’s a done deal, once the building is there and signed off, with all snagging done.   

But isn’t it a bit odd that there are endless reviews of new cars in newspapers and magazines; new restaurants have to face criticism of everything from the size of their plates to the manners and appearance of the waiters and half the internet servers in the World must be straining under the load of hotel reviews good, bad and indifferent, but people buy their next home armed only with an A4 sheet from the estate agent or, worse still, buy ‘off plan’.


Exhibitions in museums and galleries that profile the work of an architect or of a studio are popular and certainly a print run of exhibition catalogues can far exceed what might sell as a monograph through a book shop … the current exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre - Our Urban Living Room about the Copenhagen architects COBE - have sold out of their first stock of catalogues just half way through the exhibition which proves how much interest there can be in contemporary architecture.


The Infinite Happiness, by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, is a fascinating film profile of the 8House  - the large block of apartments in Copenhagen designed by Bjarke Ingels.  It is in their Living Architecture series and looks at the building by talking to people who live and work there … so the best people to understand and appreciate or criticise the design. The film was screened recently by Arch Daily and the series has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.