historic buildings, streetscape

half up and half down

 

Large houses on Strandgade in Christianshavn - now with shops in the rooms in a half basement along the street frontage and with apartments above

Many of the historic houses and many of the apartment buildings in Copenhagen that date from the late 19th century and the early 20th century don’t have a ground floor - if by ground floor you mean rooms at the level of the ground.

Walking around the city can you see that many buildings have two separate entrances from street level - a main doorway with steps up and a doorway with steps down into a shop or work room lit by windows that may have their sills at the level of the pavement. People sitting inside, in those lower rooms, are looking out at the ankles of people walking along the pavement.

In books on architecture this is often described as a raised ground floor over a half basement - a full basement has its ceiling at about ground level.

Perhaps the most famous examples of this half-up-and-half-down form are found in New York and in Boston with its famous Brownstones or in 18th and 19th-century houses in English cities like London or Bath where well-lit basements are used for kitchens and service rooms. Unlike the Copenhagen examples, these buildings are often set back from the pavement with a sunk open area behind railings and with a full flight of steps down from the street for delivering goods. The Copenhagen examples seem to be for commercial space rather than for domestic kitchens or service rooms or storage such as pantries and so on.

 

A very elegant town house on Ny Vestergade dating from the 18th century. Note the low windows at pavement level lighting rooms that are in a half basement. The tall round-headed archway is for access to a courtyard. Rustication - the effect of banded stonework - marks the service rooms or lesser apartment at the lower level  ... sometimes called the rustic. The level of the most important rooms, on the middle level, is marked on the outside by more elaborate windows with pediments.

 

Most of the Copenhagen buildings with a half basement are directly onto the street … in fact in most the steps that come up from the basement rooms cut outwards straight into the pavement.

Presumably this form of building in Copenhagen, with a half basement, is a practical solution to fit as many people and as many functions as possible into a restricted plot in what was, until the 1870s, a constricted and densely built up urban area. It also reflects the normal arrangement with a vertical stratification in buildings that had multiple uses with trade and work rooms, either in these lower half-basement rooms or in workshops in courtyards to the back of the property and often reached by a high wide arch that carts could go through, and with either business premises or an apartment on the ground floor; more prestigious apartments on the first floor and often on the second floor as well - raised above the noise of the street but with not too many stairs to climb up - and lesser apartments or servants rooms on upper levels. This was long before the idea of a penthouse became fashionable as the most prestigious and therefore most expensive living space. 

These half basements do create problems for modern use: for a start steps down into the basement are steep and usually cut out into the pavement - a bit of a hazard if pedestrians are daydreaming or concentrating on window shopping rather than watching where they are walking - and access is certainly difficult if visitors are old or disabled or have baby buggies.  Even deliveries of goods or materials must be a bit difficult. There can be similar problems with access to the raised ground floor if the steps up are steep.

Lighting the basement areas, if they are shops, and the look of shop windows on the upper level also seem to be problems for modern businesses.

You see different solutions to both these problems when it comes to converting the buildings for more demanding or greedy commercial space to create what owners or companies see as more viable retail space.

 

A modern building on Bredgade by the architect Eske Kristensen, completed in 1958, that does not have a raised ground floor and ignores the levels and heights of floors in the historic buildings on either side

Obviously, completely new buildings on a cleared site in the centre can ignore the floor levels of the neighbours but that causes odd jumps in the arrangement of historic windows along a street frontage. In converted buildings some retain the original first-floor level but drop the main floor down to the pavement level by inserting a new floor across the middle of the basement and abandoning or sacrificing the lower below-street space which no longer has adequate ceiling height. This also creates oddly high spaces at street level which are then open up through one-and-a-half floors. One variation is to drop both the floor and the ceiling of the original raised ground-floor room leaving a strange lost space below the first-floor rooms.

Another solution is to push back a section of the floor from the street frontage on the main floor to create an internal void which brings light into the basement area and it means that from the pavement potential customers can look right into the retail space but this usually means the insertion of much larger windows that alters and disrupts the design of the historic fenestration and, at a practical level, this can also create problems with the staircases and steps so you have to go up into the shop from the pavement and then back down to the basement. The alternative, to insert new staircases inside, is not only expensive but can weaken the floor structure by cutting through original floor beams.

Alteration of these lower half basements is a significant loss … partly because they change beyond recognition historic buildings in the city and remove physical evidence for lost trades and businesses but it also takes away some of the diversity because these spaces can and do function well for a variety of uses including for retail or for craft workshops and small local offices.

 

An important brick town houses facing the church yard of Nikolaj Church. Modern windows have been inserted on the lower two floors that have no glazing bars. The effect is that it looks as if large holes have been punched into the facade ... or rather like the effect on a face of wearing sun glasses and hiding the eyes

A prominent house on the corner of Gothersgade and Kronprincessegade. Note again the rustic and the use of taller and more elegant windows with pediments to mark the main rooms on the upper floor. The photograph of the courtyard shows the complex levels with the large intermediate windows showing the position of the main staircase. The house appears to have had two archways so that carriages and carts did not have to turn round in the courtyard although the archway to and from Gothersgade is now blocked. The archway into the courtyard from Kronprincessegade may be secondary which would explain some of the settlement across that facade.

 

A large block of apartments on Classensgade. The building has three separate staircases that are emphasised with decoration on the facade and are very prominent features on the street frontage. At each of these entrances there are short flights of steps down to the basement shops on either side of a straight flight up to a landing with the door into the apartments and then on either side of the main entrance flights of steps up to the shops on either side  on the raised ground floor. It is a pity that the original steps and railings have had to be replaced.

 

A strangely proportioned facade on Gothersgade. It looks as if the ceiling of the basement rooms has been rebuilt at a higher level to make the space just down from street level more useable but the rooms above are low in height as a consequence. A history of buildings on the street indicates that the earlier building on this site was raised in height twice which would explain the slightly awkward design.

 

This building is also on Gothersgade but here the floor level of the raised ground floor has been taken down to pavement level to create a curiously tall retail space. Floor levels must have been similar to those in the building to the left before rebuilding.

Bredgade has some very expensive shops on both sides. Two of the shops above have taken the floor of the raised ground floor out and inserted a new floor at pavement level but kept a mezzanine at the back. The building above right has dropped the floor down but created a blanked-off void in the upper space and the shop to the right has taken the floor back from the street facade and inserted large plate-glass windows so people on the street can look down into the lower area and up into the upper retail area. The shop to its right has the original floors but has simply enlarged the windows to almost the maximum size possible.