The National Bank of Denmark, Havnegade 5, Copenhagen - winning design in the closed competition of 1961, built in two phases and completed in 1978
Arne Jacobsen was the most important and the most innovative Danish architect and designer of the 20th century. Certainly he has a well-established International reputation but perhaps some do not automatically associate the work of Jacobsen with the idea of innovation, in part because many of his buildings are well-known and familiar and probably half the homes in Denmark have at least one Jacobsen chair but also because we are all now so used to seeing buildings that are taller, bigger, more exciting or more dramatic. That is unfair … obviously it's not, to use an English phrase, a case of familiarity breeding contempt but his buildings have to be seen and judged in the context of the period through which he lived. It is then that you can see just how innovative and important his buildings and his furniture designs really were.
Jacobsen trained as an architect in the 1920s, established his own office in 1929 and continued to work on major projects through to his death in 1971. Born in Copenhagen at the very beginning of the 20th century, the buildings of his child hood were cluttered middle-class apartment buildings and grand new, or then relatively new, public buildings in red brick that piled together motifs from Renaissance Germany, French palaces and Danish buildings from the 17th century. At the end of the road where he grew up was a new dock, the Free Port opened in 1904, that had huge warehouses and administrative buildings that owed more to pattern books of bits from north European baronial halls than to anything we would now see as appropriate for industrial buildings yet little more than 20 years later, as an ambitious and recently-qualified young architect, Jacobsen was designing a house “for the future” that was circular with a garage on one side - at a time when few owned a car - and with a boat house on the other side for a swish motor launch and a landing pad for a sort of helicopter, an auto gyro, on the roof. A fantasy of sorts - a winning entry for a competition organised by the Federation of Danish Architects in 1928 - but actually realised if only for a short time in 1929 for an exhibition on housing at the Forum in Copenhagen.
Through the 1920s and into the 1930s Jacobsen trained with and then worked with the young Danish architects who were looking at architecture in a much more rational way - the Functionalists - building new and better and more practical versions of all those apartment buildings of the late 19th century but trying to improve the quality of mass housing. Many of those buildings, despite many ‘modern’ features seem rooted in the 1930s but Jacobsen developed a sharper, cleaner aesthetic - a remarkably refined use of new technologies and new building methods that exploited and developed to the full the relatively new combination of concrete and steel and he made the use of standard windows and doors and fittings, produced in a factory rather than on site, into a positive and strong characteristic of his buildings. In essence he designed modern buildings that from this view point, well into the 21st century, look good but nothing special but when they were built must have been astounding. Perhaps, in a curious way, Jacobsen’s building look less significant than they really were because we have finally caught up with him.
Housing for young couples, Ved Ungdomsboligerne, Gentofte 1947-1949
And he designed a remarkable range of buildings from a large number of compact family houses, mostly in brick, larger villas, apartment buildings, theatres, factories and town halls, buildings for sport and leisure, including an indoor riding school, and what was, at its completion, a groundbreaking hotel and air terminal for SAS in Copenhagen, along with major international commissions and of course his design of the National Bank in Copenhagen, one of his last works.
He was and is equally well known for his furniture - many of the designs still in production - and that is where you begin to see the intriguing contradictions in his work. It seems difficult to reconcile, as the work of a single imagination, the elegant but flat, almost-mechanical and certainly graphic and strictly geometric design of the exterior of the SAS hotel, the product of precise lines on a drawing board, with the sculptural boldness of the Egg Chair and the Swan Chair designed for the same building and then see the same hand, let alone the same design aesthetic, in the water colour drawings he produced and the floral wallpapers he designed when he was in exile in Sweden in the mid 40s … just a few years before he designed the hotel.
3316, The Egg, designed for Fritz Hansen in 1958 and displayed here at their showroom at Pakhus 48 in Copenhagen
What is also remarkable - in a period when major architects seek and win commissions all over the World - is that Jacobsen remained in Copenhagen, the city where he was born, and so, within a relatively small area, it is possible to see a large number of the buildings he designed. He worked on the town hall in Århus, designed factories in Germany and designed a complete college in Oxford but even for those projects he had a small team in his office and they worked from his studio in his home, first in Ordrup, on the north side of Copenhagen, and then after the war, less than 2 kilometres away, in a new house that was one of a row that Jacobsen designed just above the beach and overlooking the Øresund at Klampenborg.
With relatively good weather and the sharper light of the Spring, this seemed like a good time to look at and photograph a number of Jacobsen’s buildings in and around Copenhagen and to produce a number of posts for this site and also a pretty good excuse for the first trip of the summer to the Bella Vista beach.
Over a period of a month or so, it was clearly not possible to do a lot of detailed or original research for a series like this but a good time to look and think and the advantage of an online format is that it’s possible to present a lot more images than in a magazine article or a book and, if it is possible to get access to more buildings or return to buildings in better weather or different light, new photographs will be added to these posts.