a short history of tall buildings in Copenhagen

 

the Round Tower was built as an Observatory in the middle of the 17th century - the view south from the tower - above - taken in the early evening shows just how few tall buildings there are in the historic centre

 

For many, Copenhagen is an attractive city and a pleasant place to live because it has retained a human scale - both in terms of overall size and in the height of its buildings.

The inner city covers an area that is only about 1.3 kilometres across, from Nyhavn in the east to the City Hall on the west side of the centre, and it’s about the same distance from the quay of the inner harbour to Nørreport metro station. It’s easy to get around the centre on foot - certainly it’s quicker and easier to walk than to drive by car - and even from slightly further out, regular bus services, good suburban train services and, more important, well laid-out cycle routes make the city feel as if it is easily accessed.  

In that central area, few buildings are more than six storeys high. People relate to the streetscape because, to put it simply, they don’t feel dwarfed. For many centuries most of the tallest buildings in the city have been the towers of city churches.

Although it is attached to the Trinitatis Church, the famous Round Tower in the centre of Copenhagen is not a conventional church tower but was built to give access to the university library over the church and had an observatory on the top for the study of astronomy. Inside the tower a spiral ramp takes you up to a viewing platform 42 metres above the pavement and from there you can look out across Copenhagen and, even now, well into the 21st century, that view, across the old part of the city, is unbroken by skyscrapers.

 

Dronningegård housing scheme - a city-centre development begun in the 1940s. With nine floors, taller than historic buildings in surrounding streets.

Why are there so few high buildings in Copenhagen? Neither a compact street plan nor easy access to a city centre can, on their own, stop modern commercial and economic pressure to rebuild in city centres and to build high.

In part, it is because buildings in the centre of Copenhagen are primarily historic and are widely appreciated and have been deliberately retained, protected by planning laws, and have been carefully maintained. But again, in many other cities, a historic centre has not, in itself, constrained redevelopment.

Many of the administrative offices of local and national government, in many cities leading the demand for modern office buildings, have been accommodated within those older buildings and it’s the same with national and international companies who, generally, have managed to fit their offices within the street blocks and within the height restrictions of the inner city.

This relative restraint in Copenhagen, when it comes to rebuilding and new building, is actually more remarkable because Denmark has such a well-established and well-deserved reputation for its engineering and its modern architecture. So it is not that Copenhagen did not have the wealth or the skills to build high.

It is not surprising that the first pressure to build high, or at least to build higher, and to build in new materials and in different less-traditional forms came with post-war regeneration of the city. The Dronningegård housing scheme, under construction through the late 1940s and in the 1950s was the result of slum clearance and was a response to the desperate need for new homes. Clearly, the form is not that of a tower block although vertical emphasis with slightly lower and slightly recessed links between the vertical groups of apartments does make the elevations towards the square look rather like a series of linked towers, particularly in early photographs taken before the trees in the centre of the square grew. With nine storeys of apartments, the housing scheme was the first new building in the centre of the city that broke the skyline of the historic roof scape … the distinct gables being clearly visible from the King’s Garden above the roof line of the grand town houses across the south side of the park.

 

the Solbakken student housing block at Rektorparken from 1956 was the first modern tower to be built in the city

At 39 metres high - so actually shorter than the Round Tower - the first tall modern tower block in Copenhagen was the Solbakken student housing at Rektorparken completed in 1956. With a relatively modest 12 floors, the Solbakken block was designed by Ole Buhl and Harald Petersen. Perhaps more than the height it would have been the use of concrete and the stark and almost brutal form of the design that could have been controversial at the time it was built. Out in the south-west part of the city, it is some distance from the centre - over 3 kilometres or about 2 miles from the Round Tower.

 

Still outside the medieval core of the city but on a much more prominent site, just north of the central railway station, is the SAS hotel with a tower of 18 storeys set on a 2 storey base or podium that, overall, is 70 metres high. Designed by Arne Jacobsen, building work began in 1956 and the hotel and air terminal opened in August 1960. The design is elegant and simple and the blue/green colour of the facing reduces its impact by reflecting the colour and light of the sky and clouds …. or, as the publicity material produced by SAS before the hotel was completed described the design, “the hotel stories will be dominantly glass, in a lighter shade of gray-green a giant mirror to reflect the sky and the drifting clouds …”

 

 

One of the few office blocks in the historic part of the city - the police station on Halmtorvet from 1961

Nørreport

 

 

Kobbertårnet at the north end of the Amerikas Plads development of the former Free Port

In most cities, particularly in capital cities, a significant proportion of modern towers are office blocks, for banks or for the headquarters of national or international companies, or there are offices towers for city or national government. Copenhagen is unusual. Offices for Danmarks Nationalbank, for instance, are dispersed between a number of historic buildings with one central, architecturally important but relatively low mid-century building designed by Arne Jacobsen. Government departments are generally in older be it large buildings near parliament although some have been moved out to outer city or suburban locations.

There are some modern office buildings in the centre but these are generally infill or more often rebuilding and respect height restriction. 

Immediately outside the inner city there are some taller office buildings, one good early example is Borgenhus at Halmtorvet 20, to the west of the main station, from 1961. An area with more obvious and more intrusive modern commercial buildings is around Nørreport station but even there the tallest building, on the junction of Nørre Voldgade and Frederiksborgade, only has 12 floors but rather a lot of stuff on the roof … the proliferation of telecommunication masts being a relatively recent problem that adds to the clutter of our skylines.

Some recent commercial development has been along the harbour rather than in the centre of the city but even there, generally, it has been restricted to relatively low but large buildings around seven floors high. There are exceptions including the Carlsberg tower - originally a silo built in 1962 but since 1997 an office building 88 metres high and there are a number of new office towers including Kobbertårnet - the Copper Tower - in the Amerika Plads district, north of the centre, by Arkitema with 16 storeys and completed in 2004 and the Ferring Tower of 20 storeys that is 80 metres high on Amager by Henning Larsen Architects and completed in 2001 - part of the Ørestad development to the south of the city centre.

the Ferring Tower by Henning Larsen from below the tracks of the Metro

looking towards the city along Gammel Kongevej with the Scandic Hotel to the left built in 1971 and in the distance the tower of the SAS Hotel by Arne Jacobsen

 

There are a surprisingly large number of hotels in tower blocks in Copenhagen, the first being the Europa Hotel from the 1950s and then the SAS Hotel by Arne Jacobsen, as mentioned above, from 1956. The Scandic Hotel was built in 1971 and is 62 metres high but it is not so much the height as the length of the block that means that it dominates the south end of the lakes and not in a good way. 

Other tall hotels include the Radisson Blu, just south of Christianshavn, from 1973 and at present 86 metres high; the Crowne Plaza on Amager by Dissing+Weitling completed in 2009 at 85 metres high and of course the leaning towers of the Bella Sky Hotel from 2011 by 3XN that are just over 76 metres high.

 

Copenhagen has two substantial hospital towers. Close in to the centre of the city, just outside the lakes, is the Rigshospitalet, that was built in 1970 and is 75 metres high with a helicopter landing pad on the top and 10 kilometres from the centre of the city there is Herlev Hospital built in 1976 with 25 floors and, at 120 metres high, it is the highest building in Denmark.

 

the towers of the Bellahøjhusene housing scheme completed in 1956

 

Høje Gladsaxe 1968

Brondby Strand housing scheme completed in 1971

The majority of high towers around the city are apartment blocks but most are some distance out so, curiously, they should be seen as a suburban building type. All of these apartments were built for social housing and are arranged as clusters or groups or with carefully-spaced lines of tower blocks.

The first high-rise apartment buildings in Copenhagen, if you consider Solbakken as student housing and therefore not typical, were those of the Bellahøjhusene housing scheme with 1300 apartments in 29 blocks constructed between 1951 and 1956 and designed by a number of architects including Ole Buhl but these are well outside the historic centre - to the north west of the centre and almost 5 kilometres from the city hall.

Milestedet housing scheme with 2,500 apartments, in both widely-spaced tower blocks and in low housing between, were designed by Kay Fisker, Svend Høgsbro, Svenn Eske Kristensen, Gunnar Milthers and Erik Møller and completed in 1958.

Høje Gladsaxe, built between 1963 and 1968, has five long but narrow blocks in a line with 1,435 apartments but again lower buildings in an area at the west end for a further 486 units of housing. Designed by Hoff and Windinge, Juul Møller & Agertoft and Alex Poulsen, the scheme followed a master plan by Vilhelm Lauritzen that was drawn up in 1943 and the towers were arranged to take full advantage of this elevated site north of the city, with views out over what appears to be countryside, and the building were kept to the north of the site to free up a long park or terrace across the south side of the apartments.

Through the second half of the 20th century, these tower blocks provided the city with a phenomenal number of new housing units. Domus Vista in Frederksberg, designed by Ole Hagen and completed in 1969, was part of an extensive housing scheme and, at 102 metres, is the tallest residential building in Denmark with 30 floors for 470 apartments.

Brondby Strand housing scheme, 15 kilometres out of the city, was begun in 1969 and completed in 1973 with 3,000 units again with low rows of houses between but there are 12 substantial tower blocks 18 storeys high that were designed by Svend Høgsbro and Thorvald Dreyer. They are set in four groups of three with, in each group, a pair of towers on the road and between them the third tower set back. It is difficult to judge the scale of the scheme from photographs but the narrow park running along in front of the blocks is 2 kilometres long.

There have been no new housing schemes on that scale in recent decades although the form, with a series of blocks in line has been used at Indiakaj and at the Tuborg site in Hellerup. In both, the blocks have been kept down in height to six or seven floors. It is only with the redevelopment of the Carlsberg site that apartments in much higher tower blocks are again to be constructed in the city.