[ This is the first in a new series aiming to strip away the modern edge to offer insight into the history and beauty of cities that may need a bit more digging to understand them. We hope you enjoy, and please comment with cities you'd like to see in the future! - Jay Anthony, author]
(The 17th century canals of Christianshavn, October 2017)
As a resident of Copenhagen it was impossible to ignore the milieu of the city. It's cobblestone pavements hearkened back to centuries of tradition; a time when the city served as a meeting ground for traders, sailors, and diplomats alike- A prideful port for the North of Europe. With influences for its design such as the canals of Amsterdam, the arrondissement of Paris and the statues of Rome, the Copenhagen of today is a city that bursts at the seams with an enthusiasm for architecture much in the same way that it did in the reign of it's illustrious and ambitious King Christian IV. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm wears a very different face today.
Slip into any discussion circle filled with fans of the fashion world, tech, or any up-and-coming market and you'll quickly find yourself in a world of scandiphiles. These are the folks who worship brands like Acne Studios and anything that comes with straight lines and in a dull, matte black. Beige, also works.
This is not to say that it's a bad look. The simplicity of Nordic neutrals has won over millions of hearts and has contributed greatly to the shape of the modern fashion world. Neon is seldom seen, and for this, I am personally grateful and of have benefited much. H&M, the most famous Scandinavian export next to IKEA and those bizarre Bang & Olufson phones, has contributed greatly to my wardrobe throughout the years, and the simple color scheme tends to give everything a more sophisticated air and make for an easier time packing one's suitcase. But alas, clothing is not where the stark, near utilitarian code of the northern realm ends.
It's a bit of a chick-or-the-egg question. Which came first? The love of simple clothes, or the love of simpler buildings? Nowadays Nordic fashion is famed for its approach to going back to the basics. Normcore, before there was a normcore.
Here, reduction is how you stand out. Why add glitter when you can eliminate a stitch? Why add brick, when there's glass. Why own something with color, when the entire nation wears black upon black?
I first moved to Copenhagen in university to study art and history. I later returned as a Master's student to study the immense collection of medieval manuscripts the country owns. Nowadays, I tend to travel there most often for the occasional academic conference or to resolve the lingering sting of nostalgia. So as a historian, I realize my opinion here has a certain bias.
I like old things, not new.
I like things with a patina and a century of dirt between us. Preferably a plague or two and a royal murder plot to spice things up. For many of you reading this, I assume it may be a bit of the same. There is a strange connection after all that comes from standing in a place, surrounded by the air of decades past and thumbing through open air book store finds while people bustle about.
This is often the dream which lingers in the heads of tourists as they make their way to idyllic European cities like Paris, Vienna and Prague. And Copenhagen too, falls into this category, despite the overly simplistic facade many others wish the city could for some reason be entirely comprised of.
( Buildings housing manuscripts at the University of Copenhagen, Amager 2017 ; A 14th century Danish medicinal text )
Denmark today is a nation of architecture, and it has been so since it's revival under King Christian IV. With it's advantageous location, the small maritime country became a global power as trade grew alongside it's naval forces, all with Copenhagen at it's center. Ever-advancing, ever-developing, and only occasionally burning (the 1700's were a bad time), Copenhagen throughout the years has well earned it's crown of spires.
But a contemporary renaissance of architectural design came about in the late-20th century, courtesy of Arne Jacobsen, Bjarke Ingels and other's who saw the country as a trend setter full of potential and human advancement. Suddenly brick was replaced with steel, and Gothic lines or baroque copper roofs gave way to curves, twists, and futuristic shapes that would have likely given their Antiquarian ancestors a heart attack. My own chest too, has felt those pains.
The campus that I studied at in Copenhagen was on the inner-city island of Amager, and was arguably the flashiest and most advanced university campus I had ever set foot in. The spiral staircase was a sleek white, and IKEA lamps hung high in light filled rooms with curved glass and yes, neon lights, surrounding me. Manuscripts were kept safe behind glass and stone walls, hovering high, with a three story window keeping our small departmental library bright and overlooking the city.
To work there was certainly interesting. I will say that there is nothing quite like spending all day looking at oil-stained parchment and medieval illuminations only to look up and feel as if I'd been flung not 500, but almost 1,000 years into the future. But, simply put, the humanities campus (previously KUA, now simply South Campus) was a picture of modernity, and although it was refreshing on some days, I still cannot imagine why they burdened the students most addicted to antiquity to suffer modern design. Especially when the law students studied in a building in that had been in operation since the university's foundation in the 15th century.
( Sunlight on a church window from the historic Latin quarter, 18th century)
A quick search on Danish architecture will show you that many see the subject of my complaint as a benefit. With comments calling the harsh dichotomy of the modern and the old something 'complimentary' and over-and-over again recalling how the sleek glass and curvature of neighborhoods like the ever-developing Amager suburb of Ørestad, only serve to direct the eye to more historic landmarks. This is despite their being a near twenty minute commute apart. It seems like to many, this contrast of the old and the new is what makes Copenhagen such a destination for architectural fans- and, as much as past-me would have protested, it's perhaps they may have a point.
( Bicycles outside a 17th century building near Rosenborg Palace in Downtown Copenhagen ; Interior of Vor Frue Kirke (Church of our Lady Cathedral) )
One thing that becomes apparent after spending some time in the Danish capital is that while the surroundings may seem to be growing ever stark, if you take one step inside, the history is not forgotten. Instead, the two seem to appear hand-in-hand.
When I first began to study Danish, hyggeligt was a new and trans-formative word. Nowadays it has become a hashtag and something to stitch on pillows as a representation of our seemingly universal obsession with everything cozy and intimate. Hygge, you see is less a word that can be summarized with 150 characters or less, or even a well phrased analogy. It is rather more of a state of mind or a sensation to travel up your spine. It's a feeling when you're sitting in a pub with friends and everyone is laughing and you're a little tipsy and there's candles burning and you feel known.
It's also that sensation of coming in from the cold and putting on warm, dry socks and sitting down with your cat while it snows outside and maybe Netflix finally has your favourite movie. It's a kind of cozy satisfaction. An absence of distress. The good stuff.
So why am I talking about hygge? Because in Copenhagen, hygge is in everything. The chic-est of places, the ones dripping in modernity and abstract art, still strive to achieve that feeling of, 'We get you. We're you're friend. There's comfort here'. And for Danes, who have such a long history, and a connection to antiquity, an easy way to achieve that sense of hygge is with something old. It's therefore not abnormal to find candelabras in bars, or velvet Victorian sofas in stores. Wooden shelves in boutiques can look easily 200 years old, and cafe's will be lined with everything from 1940's metal tea kettles, to children's toys, and taxidermy. Here, the new and the shining is respected, but the old is needed to give it life.
(Copenhagen maintains its antique charm out of sight, inside pubs throughout the town. Candles are a requirement; dusk in the Latin quarter)
I spent too many months in Copenhagen frustrated by the Danish idea of progressive design. I wandered streets tracing back to the Elizabethan era, with my feet soaking up puddles from melted snow and feeling like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale. I lusted openly after the palaces, and gardens, and multitude of museums. The canals of Christianshavn became a morning haunt, and I would wander them with a croissant and coffee on my way to class only to have my historic fantasies ruined as campus neared- it's overuse of glass and aluminum reflecting the sun through the misty veil.
But over time, slowly over time, it became clear that the history I so loved was not genuinely lost. Not even the aesthetic of it. My campus there in Amager was a prime example, even if it took a bit to realize. Staring back at me from those manuscript pages on stark white plastic desks was the truth that didn't seem to want to click.
Yes, the bars made me feel comfortable despite their awkward exteriors, and yes I knew it was because of their candles and the fact I could sip wine with colleagues on a beat up 19th century chair. I knew all along how to find history, which meant that I understood all too well this Danish idea of hygge being connected with the old and the familiar. But still, I didn't see the point of having a city filled with eyesores, or the reason why Danes developed such sterile designs in the first place.
Then, like an apple on the head or crack of lightning from above, I realized it. By taking everything away, and reducing it down to the most basic and organic of structures; simple colours, simple shapes, history itself was highlighted. History, was left to be the focus.
Much in the same way that a shadow needs light to take shape, the history of Copenhagen is not so much being covered up in favor of modernity. Rather, the history is being showcased. Which may very well be what all those architecture fans were saying all along.
Take one look at Vor Frue Kirke, the neoclassical structure built by Christian Frederik Hansen in 1829 and you will see a familiar sight. Rings of light, pews, and high ceilings. The classic stuff that's easy to love. Big statues, drama, a towering pillar (or twenty). But this iconic building from the Danish Golden Age is not just old, it is a point of national pride; and if you look closely it can be found referenced anywhere. Even, to my surprise, the Amager campus.
(The bright, neoclassical Vor Frue Kirke ; the main lobby at South Campus, Amager)
The echoes of history are clear in even the most modern of Danish design. It lingers in the psyche through color palettes, shapes, and a subconscious desire to be comforted. The 17th century Round Tower has stood for Danish innovation over the centuries, and it's shape has clearly lent to architects a fascination for rounded walls. Meanwhile the interior of the Round Tower remains old but thoroughly modern. The top is a white and open art space - after you walk up an immense spiral path original with the building. This it true for almost all of the city. Where the old is celebrated on the outside, the interior is left to surprise and remind you of your time in the present; if the outside is too thoroughly now, then the interior grounds you to the past however it can. There exists a constant game of give-and-take. One where new design is celebrated for simplicity but in actuality serves more purposes than first glance may think possible. Each aspect aids the other, and the historic gives inspiration and room for innovation to the new, with but a small homage.
(Exterior of the Round Tower (Rundetårn) ; Interior of the walking path to the top)
So if you venture to Copenhagen in search of that oh-so-aesthetic old, fear not, for I can assure you that you will not be disappointed. After all, it's that not hard to find museums. There's one at every corner and turn away from a palace, and even the breweries own impressive collections (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, anyone?).
The Danes hold a lust for authenticity, and with it, a need for history. So don't worry in your quest for old books and antique stores. You'll find one for just about every fashion design house in Nørrebro or Michelin star restaurant. They'll just be nestled into basements or buildings older than half the bindings they hold, and sure, they may have a half dozen IKEA lamps that look like alien flowers or origami art projects, but the books don't seem to mind. Think of how the barren, austere white walls will help you focus on the marbled papers, and how the crisp clean furniture merely help the pages seem that much older.
[ Want to see more articles like this? Other cities explored beyond their face value? Comment below to suggest a new city or town you think deserves a bit of deeper exploration, and we may check it out! ]