the harbour and the future of Nyholm

The Danish Navy maintain an important though reduced presence in Copenhagen - with the main naval bases for the country now in Frederikshaven and Korsør - but there are plans for much that is still here to be moved away from the city and recently there have been discussions to decide on the most appropriate use for the historic naval buildings on Nyholm.

This is an important part of the harbour and not simply because Nyholm is prominent on the east side of the entrance to the historic inner harbour but also because the island has an important and symbolic place in the history of the city. On the emplacement at the north end of the islands are guns for official salutes to mark royal and national occasions and the flag flown here has huge significance.

When the royal yacht returns to Copenhagen, it is moored immediately north of Nyholm.

There are important historic buildings here including two of the most extraordinary buildings in the city … the Mast Crane that is an amazing example of maritime engineering and the Hovedvagt or Main Guard House with a feature on the roof that looks like a giant chess piece. Both date from the middle of the 18th century and both are by the important architect Philip de Lange.

photograph taken from the harbour ferry as it pulled in at the landing stage just below Skuespilhuset - the National Theatre.

Nyholm is the island between the Opera House and Refshaleøen and at the centre of this view is the distinct silhouette of the 17th-century Mast Crane

the cormorants are on an artificial reef that was created in 2017 to encourage biodiversity in the harbour. The University of Aarhus has produced a report on the Restoration of Stone Reefs in Denmark


land from the sea

With the ongoing development of the north harbour and the large new island that is planned to, in effect, link Nordhavn with Refshaleøen, it is too easy to think that claiming large areas of new land from the sea for building is a modern phenomenon achieved with modern engineering and modern technology but, of course, in reality, the city has been building out into the sea for over 400 years.

If you are standing on Gammel Strand now, then you are right in the centre of the built up city but if you had stood there at the end of the 16th century you would have looked across a wide area of open water to the low-lying island of Amager about 2 kilometres away and with just a few islands between including the island with the royal castle standing just off the shore.

Even back then Gammel Strand was hardly on rock-solid ground as wharves and warehouses had been built out from the shore as the importance of the port meant more and bigger ships trading here but it was Christian IV who deliberately and with foresight developed the naval dock and used Dutch engineers to set out and construct a series of canals and islands for a new town for merchants that is still at the heart of Christianshavn.

Initially, naval docks were developed on either side of the castle with warehousing for supplies and shipyards and rope works.

Christianshavn was protected across its east and south sides by high banks and a defended gate to get to and from Amager - in case armies landed on the island and attack the city from the south - but the main development of the harbour came in the middle and the late 17th century when these defences were extended in a great arc eastwards and north to provided sheltered and defended moorings for the naval fleet … a segment shaped area that is over 1.5 kilometres from, Christianshavn to the entrance to the harbour at Nyholm, and, at the widest point, almost a kilometre across.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries more and more islands were constructed within this area leaving canals and areas of open water so that naval stores, shipyards, barracks and so on could be moved out from the area around the castle.

With all this major work, commercial merchant shipping also moved out from the centre both north, eventually as far out as the Free Harbour opened in 1904, but also south with new wharves built out from Islands Brygge that remained busy until the 1960s. The last stage of the development, in terms of claiming land from the sea, was as recent as the 1950s with the development of Refshaleøen and its ship yards beyond the naval area and later again, at the north edge of Amager, oil facilities and waste and sewage and water treatment works.

If you are looking at the source of the wealth and the political and economic strength of the city, and therefore, to some extent, the country, then the greatest single resource, over half a millennium, has been relatively shallow and relatively sheltered coastal waters where it has been possible to construct artificial islands so the city can expand and prosper.

That is precisely why any future development out into the sea has to be debated and considered and questioned because it is an exceptionally important resource and like so much else it is running out … or at least the areas close to the city has been exploited. New islands will be more of a challenge, will demand more infrastructure - as they are further from the centre - and will have at least some impact on the character of the city as it is now.

future development on Nyholm

In Danmarks hovedstad Initiativer til styrkelse af hovestadsrådet / Denmark's capital city Initiatives to strengthen the metropolitan area - a government report published in January 2019 - it was suggested that there could be housing on Nyholm but surely the island is too important to be relegated to an expensive development plot unless perhaps new buildings are linked back to the navy so, for instance, for a naval hospital or naval retirement home.

Intensive development on Amager and at the South Harbour was justified because releasing land there for dense housing developments was lucrative for the port and city authority and money raised was used directly to finance the construction of the Metro. There is no such financial imperative for Nyholm and very expensive and, presumably, very exclusive apartment buildings should surely not be the immediate go-to solution for any and every planning scheme in the city.





detail of map from 1860
this shows the Nye Dok - the first stage of what is now the island of the Opera House - and ‘Toldbod Bom’ which restricted access to the moorings of the inner harbour but was also a foot bridge from the city side of the harbour to Nyholm … at the beginning of each working day men would wait at Toldbod and if selected would cross to the dockyard but If not selected there was a possibility of work in the afternoon although only if they waited
What is now Reshaleøen was then open water so from the Kastellet there was a clear view out to the sound and guns could be fired across the entrance to the harbour if the city and the harbour were attacked


1  Rigets flag og batteriet Sixtus / Kingdom Flag and Battery of Christian VI
2  Elefanten / the Elephant - the quay or mole 1728
3  Nyholms / Main Guard House “Under the Crown” by Philip de Lange 1744
4  Masterkranen / Mast Crane by Philp de Lange 1749
5  Planbygningen / The Plan or Drawing Building 1764
6  Marinekaserne / Marine Barracks of 1910 by Valdemar Birkmand
7  Arresten / Judgement? 1891
8  Spanteloftsbygningenby 1742
9  Østre Takkeladshus  / East Thankyou House store for rigging 1723-1729
10  Vestre  Takkeladshus / West Thankyou House 1729
11  Søminevæsntes værksted / Sailmakers' workshops 1878

looking across to Nyholm from the south - from the canal to the east of the opera house

Spanteloftsbygningen looking across the canal from the south east

The Mast Crane from the south with the low but wide Drawing Building to its east

Søminegraven - the canal along the east side of Nyholm from the south

Hovedvagt - Main Guard House or ‘Under the Crown’ from the east designed by Philip de Lange

Workshops at the south-east corner of Nyholm built in the late 19th-century