Copenhagen

Following a recent team trip provided by the practice, Mal Lorimer, senior architect at Ryder, gives his opinion of the city.

My immediate and lasting impression of Copenhagen is of a place that appears to deal only in quality.  The people are well dressed, coffee shops only sell the proper stuff, and the buildings and spaces between are thoughtfully considered and consistently finished.  For Britain’s concrete flag pavements and plastic manhole covers, see Denmark’s granite sets and corten grilles.  For Britain’s palisade fenced play areas, see Denmark’s stainless steel posts and tensile wire sweeping screens. 

So how do they do quality detail so well?  Firstly, they throw vast amounts of public money into the urban environment - thanks to a large GDP per capita and high taxes, but it is surely more than just deep pockets. 

The Danish national planning policy aims to cultivate an environment of architectural ambition.  They talk about architecture as a matter of national pride.  The private sector is also forced to maintain high standards, with education ensuring public awareness and appreciation of the built environment keeps developers on their toes.

The city benefits from a happier relationship between bike and vehicle than we have in the UK.  Copenhagen has over five bikes for every car, so the streets and bike lanes are ubiquitous and interconnected.  The pedestrian also enjoys the considered interconnection and quality of the public realm, especially along the waterfront.  Here, one can stroll the landscaped promenades and new pedestrian bridges between visits to Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s Black Diamond, Henning Larsen’s Opera Housea and Lundgaard and Tranberg’s Royal Danish Playhouse.

But things could have been different, as Athlyn Cathcart-Keays and Tim Warin recently discussed in a compelling Guardian article.  Post war, plans were afoot to use tons of concrete as a quick fix drive to develop the streets that tormented other European cities in the name of progression and clean living.  It appears that Copenhagen escaped this fate due to lack of wealth at the time.  When one six lane expressway did make it off the drawing board, people soon realised they didn’t share this vision for their city and public pressure finally put a stop to the plans.  As the city got poorer and car use dried up, cycling and pedestrian culture boomed. 

However, some facets of Danish modernist vision did survive and remain part of planning policy.   A 1947 legislation, included the beautifully simple ‘finger plan’.  All developments spreading outwards from the city would be concentrated along defined lines of infrastructure - most significantly, the rail network.  This was further developed in 1987 with a ‘close to station’ policy.  Today, all new developments must be with 1km of a transport hub. 

While this helps us understand the cities evolution and character, there is still something elusive about why the Danes appear to insist on quality in anything and everything.  One theory, points to something deep in the Danish psyche – the concept of Hygge.  Pronounced ‘hooga’, Danes will tell you it’s untranslatable, but sources point towards the lines of ‘cosiness for the soul’.  Whilst it’s ostensibly about low key social interaction and the appreciation of simple pleasures, it also points towards an appreciation of the look, touch and feel of your surroundings. 

One thing’s for sure, the people of Copenhagen have the latter in spades.