Ofelia Plads

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

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

 
 

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

 

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

 
 

there has been an open-air exhibition on the pier with a lot of background history and information about the recent work ... these illustrations were part of the display

 

The design for this major project was by the Copenhagen architects Lundgaard & Tranberg who completed the theatre itself in 2008 with a board-walk or promenade around the water side of that building so this work on the pier should be seen as the final stage of that project.

About 50 metres wide and over 300 metres long, the pier runs out from the north side of the theatre, and, as rebuilt, it now forms a much more appropriate setting for the theatre in the simplest possible way: it creates a base line or subtle plinth for the theatre when it is seen from the north and it completes and links together an increasingly popular area immediately around the theatre, where citizens meet to sit in the sun or walk to look over the harbour. 

Kvæsthusbassinet, a large basin to the west of the pier, between the pier and a massive historic brick warehouse that is now the Admiral hotel, is 8 metres deep and the refurbishment of the pier has been designed so that large ships can still dock here.

On one of my first visits to the city I stayed in the hotel and was given a room on the harbour side. Arriving in the late afternoon, the first thing I did was unpack a few things but suddenly the room became dark and looking up I realised that a huge ferry was coming into the berth. I watched as the pier came alive with people and goods being unloaded, and was amazed at the speed with which the whole area was transformed with noise and people. The harbour area in Copenhagen is amazing now with buildings like the Opera House and the theatre itself and new apartment buildings and new bridges allowing people to get around the area to the masses of events held on or near the water. It is one of the great planning and rejuvenation projects in the World … but … but although two massive cranes survive near the opera house and some of the old dock buildings have been retained, there is less and less sense of the working dock in all its noisy and scruffy and dirty glory and, after all, the harbour and its trade was and is the reason that Copenhagen is here and was the source of the city’s wealth and power. Perhaps many do understand the historical and cultural significance of the harbour but also I do wonder just how many assume that the warehouses were built as expensive apartments and cannot imagine them full of goods from all over the World.

The pier is near the start or, if you are going in the other direction, at the final stage of a wide and pleasant harbour-side walk that now runs from the the major tourist attraction of Nyhavn, around the theatre, past the historic warehouses and the royal palace and on to the Kastellet - part of the 17h-century fortification of the city - on to public gardens on the harbour side used as a setting for sculpture, including the Little Mermaid, and then around a yacht basin to the quay of the Langelinie where many of the cruise ships arrive and berth, and ending, for now, with a view across to the new building for the United Nations - a distance walking of almost 3 kilometres. Curiously this too is part of the long established social history of the city and not simply the result of recent and enlightened planning … although obviously that helps. Citizens have promenaded along the harbour front for centuries, particularly around the ramparts of Kastellet. In part, this must have been because, with the city defences restricting growth outwards, the city became densely packed with houses and then as now public space was valued as a place to exercise and relax.

 
 

the view across looking from the harbour side with the basin, the north end of the Admiral Hotel and the dome of the Marble Church and part of the royal palace

 

from the pier looking across the basin towards Sankt Annæ Plads (above) and from in front of the Admiral Hotel looking across the basin to the rebuilt pier with the main harbour and the Opera House beyond

 

One key feature of the pier is that it has been kept uncluttered so that it can be the venue for a very wide range of events.

An important feature of the new arrangement of the pier is that in the angle at the end of the basin there are broad shallow steps so people can get down to the water and at the far outer end the pier the surface slopes gently down to the water across the full width to form a beach … again to let people get right down to the water. It also gives a sense of the harbour being open to the sea and tidal as the water rises and drops back or floods with the wash from a passing boat. 

 

Realdania Kvæsthusprojektet

Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter

 
 

* Maybe this sounds more dramatic than it is in reality ... the harbour is tidal but the maximum tidal range is about 12cm which explains why this type of project is possible although ongoing research on the effects of global warming and changes to patterns of severe weather has suggested that, in certain conditions, in the future, there could be tidal surges from the south that could have an impact on the city and on property along the water front.