One thing has certainly surprised me about my move to Denmark: when Danes realise that I am not just a visitor but have chosen to move my home here they seem genuinely surprised … the almost universal response has been “but why?” as if they really feel that there are better or at least more interesting places to live. As far as I can judge, this really is not a false or feigned modesty.
When I go on to explain that I am here to write about architecture and design there is an even more curious and equally genuine and almost universal response which is to say that Denmark is not as wealthy and as comfortable as everyone else seems to think - for a start, I'm told, the Norwegians are certainly wealthier - and most then point out that Copenhagen had some terrible areas of slum housing in the early 20th century, even in the 1970s Copenhagen was, they tell me, rather gloomy and not prosperous and that there are still areas of poor or bad housing in the city. Again this is not false modesty but seems to be a genuine frustration about Denmark generally being written off as privileged or even complacent as a country.
I have seen the photographs of Nyhavn in the 1960s when it was very much a part of the dock and lined with tattoo parlours and bars that would certainly not attract the tourists that flock to the area now and I have read about the overcrowded apartments, the dark inner courtyards off inner courtyards and the lack of sanitation in the housing in the city around the time of the First World War.
In part, of course, poor quality and overcrowded housing was inevitable in a city that was growing rapidly, in terms of population, but with little land available then for expanding outwards. But what is also clear is that for centuries Denmark has tried to use good design and well-built architecture to enhance and improve the lives of ordinary people and this is most obvious in a number of large well-planned housing schemes to build good homes around the city. Some from a remarkably early date.
The dark ochre-coloured houses are part of the Nyboder housing scheme with 600 houses on the west side of Kastellet for navy personnel. Building work started in 1631 (that is 1631 and not a typing mistake) and some of the single-storey rows from that period survive along Sankt Pouls Gade. The scheme was completed by 1758. There were small “cabbage gardens” between the rows of houses so families could stretch out their housekeeping budget by growing their own food. The king, Christian IV, realised that providing good housing meant sailors were likely to be more loyal in his service particularly as the housing seems to have been available to men after they were too old to serve and clearly the plan to encourage growing food meant that boys, potential recruits to the service, would be healthier and stronger.
The houses with a pale grey upper storey are on the Brumleby Medical Association Scheme in the north part of the city just beyond the Sortedams Sø. These were built between 1853 and 1872 following an outbreak of cholera in the city and were for the “needy classes”. The scheme included a kindergarten, a bathhouse and a meeting hall.
The brightly painted houses are in Olufsvej, a slightly later street immediately south of Brumleby.
The houses that look similar to large Edwardian terraced houses in England are on the city side of Sortedams Sø. These are the Building Society Row Houses otherwise known as the “Potato Rows”. The 480 houses were built between 1873 and 1889 on the initiative of workers from the Burmeister & Wain’s shipyard who saved money in a building society and could win one of the houses in a lottery. The large houses were originally divided into apartments to accommodate more families.
It is clear that socialism, or at least a clear understanding of social responsibility, is not simply a recent political phase of post war Denmark.
What I am interested in is the large apartment blocks in the city that were constructed in the late 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century. Through the summer I hope to explore the city archive for plans of these buildings and look at any documents about regulations and to look for information about the developers and architects who planned these blocks and the artisans who built them. The great apartments of Grønningen with 10 or 12 rooms and accommodation for servants are important to see how the rooms in middle-class homes were furnished and used but from a design perspective the small apartments for workers are just as interesting. Many of these apartments still provide amazing accommodation for the people of Copenhagen but equally they should provide a context and a starting point for the design of all the new apartments and housing schemes that are being built now. If I can make sense of the material and as I get to understand more and discover more as I walk the streets of the city, I will post my thoughts here.