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?