historic buildings

historic buildings, mid-century buildings, topography

Kultur Tårnet …. one year on

Since 1620, there has been a bridge at the centre of Copenhagen harbour. Knippelsbro was constructed to link the old city to what was, in the 17th century, a new and prosperous settlement of Christianshavn that was being built on land claimed from the sea and - from a new south gate of the city - there was a way across and on to the island of Amager.

Over the centuries the bridge was rebuilt several times but these all crossed the harbour at the level of the quay so there was restricted headroom for boat traffic to pass through unless the bridge was opened. This became a problem in the early 20th century as the wharves and quays south of the bridge dealt with more and more goods so more and larger commercial shipping was coming through the harbour and as the number of people use the bridge to cross backwards and forwards increased with the building of large new apartments blocks along Islands Brygge and south of Christianshavn with new housing in Amagerbro and then in Sundby.

A new bridge - the present Knippelsbro - was constructed and opened in 1937 with the designs by Kaj Gottlob. This has a much higher deck level - with long ramps up on either side to take road traffic up and over the harbour - so more shipping could pass through without opening the bridge - the current harbour ferries pass under the bridge without it having to open. There were two copper-clad towers - with that to the north for the main control room for opening and closing the centre span and a south tower contained sleeping accommodation for the bridge master and his men.

From the 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, the docks to the south of the bridge prospered with commercial quays extending down on both sides - so the bridge must have been manned throughout the day and the night - but with the decline and then the shutting of commercial wharves on the inner harbour, the number of times the bridge was opened each day declined and the south tower became redundant and was left empty and unused.

Lars Erik Lyndgaard Schmidt and Malthe Merrild saw the waste of abandoning such a prominent historic monument and came up with possible ways of using the building.

Last year, after several years of them putting considerable pressure on the city and after opening for a trial period to see if there was sufficient public interest … there was … and after extensive restoration work, the tower was opened to the public.

It is now an amazing viewing platform from where you can see up and down the harbour but more than that it's a very unusual venue for events; a very unusual place that can be hired for business meetings during the day and, despite the tight space, it's a venue for gastronomic events and concerts.


Today marks the first anniversary for Kultur Tårnet. Congratulations.

Arne Jacobsen, historic buildings

Søllerød Town Hall

In 1939 Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen won an open competition to design a new town hall, a new library and a theatre in Søllerød.

Work on the town hall started almost immediately but, with the onset of war, plans for the theatre and the library were first postponed and then abandoned. 

Completed in 1942, the town hall is stunning but it is a building of curious contradictions …. it is constructed in concrete with concrete and clinker internal walls - making use of new materials and engineering of the most up-to-date buildings of the period - but it is faced with pale, buff-coloured and finely-veined marble from Porsgrunn in Norway so an expensive building material and one more often associated with tradition and status and, certainly, with the implication of a sense of permanence even now not associated with the use of concrete. At the very least, the use of marble for the exterior appears to be a statement that here there had been an investment in a high-quality building that was expected to be in use for many years. 

Although, in many ways, this must have appeared at the time to be an uncompromisingly modern building, the elegant, carefully-proportioned and finely-detailed elevations that Jacobsen designed, owe much to both Functionalism but also to the earlier, well-established Danish architectural style that is generally known as New Classicism in Denmark from twenty or thirty years earlier. 

A new town hall seems to represent stability and optimism for the future, as the old city expanded rapidly out into new suburbs, but it was started in the year that the Spanish Civil War came to an end and just as Europe moved towards an all-encompassing war. 

Above all, although this is the town hall for a new and expanding suburb, the building is not in the densely built-up urban setting of a traditional townscape but has a distinctly rural setting, standing back from the road, beyond a wide area of grass, not in a civic square, but set on a sloping site against the green of the well-established trees of an ancient royal forest.

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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.

historic buildings

Musikkonservatorium, Rosenørns Allé


On Friday afternoon the light across the front of the Musikkonservatorium on Rosenørns Allé was sharp and clear so it was a good time to take some photographs. 

This building was originally Radiohuset, the recording studios and concert hall of Danmarks Radio - the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. 

Work started in 1937 but it was not opened until 1945 when a large concert hall was completed. 

The architect for the work was Vilhelm Lauritzen who was born in 1894 so he was slightly younger than Kaare Klint and Mogens Koch who were both born in 1888 and Lauritzen was slightly older than Arne Jacobsen who was born in 1902. The dates are only significant in that it is important to see Lauritzen within a time frame of contemporary architects and designers. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and, after graduating in 1921, he founded the practice of Vilhelm Lauritzen Arkitekter. 

His earliest works were designed in what is generally described as a classicist style but after traveling in central Europe, where he looked at Functionalist architecture, his designs became much more identifiably Modernist. His first major work was the Daells Varehus department store from 1928, in the centre of Copenhagen on Krystalgade and now the Hotel Sankt Petri. The first designs for the new buildings for Danish Radio are dated 1934 and three years later he won the competition to design the first Copenhagen Airport. So, within a few years, a department store, the headquarters of a national radio broadcasting company and an airport … possibly the three major new building types of the 20th century.

At Radiohuset there were originally two blocks running along the main street frontage and facing south onto Rosenørns Allé with the Lav Fløj (Low Wing) of three main floors over a semi basement that is hard up to the pavement. It is a deep range with a central corridor lit from the ends and offices on both sides. To its west is the Høj Fløj (High Wing) of six storeys in line but set back from the raod and with the canopy of the entrance towards but not at the junction of the two ranges. To the east of the Low Wing and set even further back is the concert hall, a complex trapezoid plan with the entrance into the concert hall from the side street, from Julius Thonsens Gade, and with an open public square at the corner. 

The exterior of the buildings are marked by long continuous runs of window with unbroken horizontal bands of wall above and below and few horizontal or vertical features that project or cast a shadow - so no sill bands, cornice or pilasters - which gives the building its simple, clean,‘modern’ look. If anything rather mundane if not stark now but of course it would have been novel and possibly controversial in the 1930s. A main feature of the exterior is the facing with rectangular, pale yellow, glazed tiles set vertically and set with each row off-set by half a tile from the row below and above … so like brickwork.

The main building material is concrete to create wide unbroken internal spaces. In the area behind, in the angle between the blocks on the street and the concert hall, there are studios and practice rooms on the lower level but an important and early roof garden above.

For lamps and fittings in the new buildings Lauritzen worked with Finn Juhl.

There were further works to enlarge the building in 1958 - when a new wing, the Ny Fløj, was built along Worsaæsvej at the west end - as DR expanded the area used for television. Further work was undertaken in 1972 although by that stage much of the television side had been moved to Gladsaxe to the new TV-Byen buildings.

When new buildings and a new concert hall, DR BYEN, were constructed in Ørestad, both Danish Radio and Danish Television moved to that site in 2006 and in 2008 Kongelige Danske Musikkonservatorium, The Royal Danish Academy of Music, took over the concert hall, studios and practice rooms on Rosenørns Allé after work to update the building were completed, appropriately, by the practice of Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects that continued after the death of its founder in 1984.


The bronze sculpture at the main entrance called, I believe, Radiofonifigurgruppen, was created by Mogens Bøggild, Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Danish Academy from 1955 until 1977. Bøggild, who is known for sculptures of animals, worked slowly and this complex group was started in 1945 but not completed until 1950. It has a naked woman squatting down and placing a small child on the back of a swan that is dropping down, presumably into water to swim away, and a large eagle, carrying a fish, swooping down and over and away from the woman and child.

historic buildings, gardens + parks, drawings + documents

guard houses of the Amager gate

The inner guard house of the Amager Gate on the east side of Torvegade


The guard house on the ravelin - now a restaurant


A map from the middle of the 18th century shows the bridge from Amager to the ravelin with the guard house that survives and then a second bridge across from the ravelin to the south gate into the city. The gate was demolished in the middle of the 19th century. Inside the gateway to the east of the road, is the inner guard house that also survives.

There were heavy batteries of gun facing inwards from the bastions on either side of the gate in case the ravelin was captured and the inner bridge attacked.

Air view, courtesy of Google maps, showing Torvegade, the wide main road into the city from Amager, now on an embankment rather than a bridge. The road cuts across the west side of the ravelin.


View to the east from the road towards Kaninøen with Christianshavn to the left and the edge of the ravelin to the right.


historic buildings, historic maps, streetscape

the Caritas Well

The Caritasbrønden or Caritas Well on Gammel Torv was constructed for the King, for Christian IV, in 1608 when a new city hall was built across the centre of this open space to replace a medieval city hall that had been on the east side of the square.

Just over a century later, that 17th-century building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1728 and a new city hall was built on the same site. When that building in turn was destroyed - in the fire of 1795 - a new city hall was built on the west side of Nytorv and the two squares were joined into a single open space. An outline of the 17th-century hall is marked with stones set into the cobbles of the square.

The group of figures in the centre of the basin of the fountain, representing the virtue of love or charity, was first carved in wood by the German artist Statius Otto before it was cast in bronze.

The fountain was not just ornamental but was part of a system supplying fresh water to the city.

This photograph was taken on the Queen’s birthday, on the 16th April, just after the royal carriage had progressed along Strøget to take the Queen from the palace to a reception at the city hall.

The Caritas Well and the city hall from the upper end of the square in the 18th century

historic buildings, topography, streetscape

workers' housing

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.

historic buildings, museums + galleries

Designmuseum Danmark - the building

Frederik’s Hospital was built in the 1750s during the reign of Frederik V from designs by the court architect Nicolai Eigtved and, after his death in 1753, completed by Lauritz de Thurah. There were four main ranges set around a large enclosed courtyard, generally of a single storey but with two-storey pavilions at the centre of the fronts to Bredgade (at first called Norges Gade) and Amaliegade on the axis of Amalienborg. Those central pavilions on the street fronts had high, hipped roofs and pediments with ornate carved reliefs over the central doorways. Both fronts were set back from the street with forecourts, iron railings and gateways onto the street with ornate stone piers. On either side of the forecourts on both street fronts were tall service blocks of two full stories above basements and with high roofs with dormers. There were also yards with service buildings down each side that were screened off and divided up by high walls and gateways creating an extensive complex.


Detail of a map of 1761 from the collection of Københavns Stadsarkiv

The design museum was established in 1890 by the Industriforeningen i København and the Ny Carlsberg Museumslegat and opened in 1894 in a new building by Vilhelm Klein on what is now H C Andersens Boulevard. From the start, what is implied is that there should be a connection between industry and business and an aim to collect examples of the applied or decorative arts as a study collection for teaching to improve the quality of design and production.

Frederik's Hospital closed in 1910, with no clear new use and there was a rumour it might be purchased by speculators. In 1919 Councillor of State Emil Glückstadt bought the buildings and gave them as a gift to establish a new home for the museum.

The Museum director was Emil Hannover (1864-1923) and a competition was held for “the Future Home of the Museum of decorative Arts.”

There was not an outright winner but the committee preferred the scheme proposed by Ivar Bentsen, Thorkild Henningsen and Kaare Klint. Henningsen withdrew from the project (because of an ongoing personal dispute with Hannover) and the contract was signed by Bentsen although in the end most of the design work was completed by Klint as the project architect … not just deciding on the major arrangement of the internal spaces but designing the main features such as the four new staircases, based on appropriate 18th-century models, determining the form of the display cases and designing, library fittings, doorcases and doors and even handles and hinges..

However, the museum also commissioned work from other major designers of the period; G N Brandt produced the scheme for the courtyard - Grønnegården - with paved alleys and the planting with lime trees; lamps for the new museum were by Poul Henningsen based on a lighting system developed for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1925 and Mogens Koch and Ole Wanscher designed the display cases following a system of basic cube units devised by Klint. The cases were made by the master cabinet makers N C Jensen-Kjær and Rudolf Rasmussen, Otto Meyer and Jacob Petersen.


View of one of the galleries


Drawings by Kaare Klint for door fittings

With the death of Hannover in 1923, Klint took over the responsibility for organising the display of the collection. He was clear that he did not want the museum collection shown in any form of room setting and his drawings for the main galleries show major items lined up formally along the spine walls opposite the widows to the courtyard. He saw the furniture as important works of art to have comparable validity to paintings and sculpture and to be displayed in a similar reverential way. He also designed shelving and storage systems for housing smaller items, drawings, photographs and other teaching collections such as the samples of different timbers.. 

Klint established a studio in the attic of the museum, taught here using the collection and from 1932 had accommodation here where he lived until his death in 1954.


posted first on the Danish Design Review site in February 2015

historic buildings, new building, museums + galleries

Statens Museum for Kunst - the building

The original art gallery was designed by Vilhelm Dahlerup and Georg Møller. Building work started in 1889 and was completed in 1896.

Following a competition, a new addition to the gallery, on the side towards the park, Østre Anlaeg, was designed by C F Møllers Tegnestue and was completed in 1998. The restaurant is by the designer Peter Lassen with the artist Bjørn Nørgaard.

A major remodelling of the forecourt has just been completed with the work designed by Karres and Brands, a Dutch partnership from Hilversum, with the Danish architects Polyform.

more photographs

historic buildings, historic maps, streetscape

every building tells a story

Buildings can give us some of the most substantial evidence from our past … evidence of how our ancestors lived and worked day to day and evidence for major events such as battles or major disasters such as fires that overtook settlements. Historic buildings can also show us how people responded to those disasters.

On a more positive note buildings clearly reflect periods of wealth and success for an individual or for a settlement ... people have always wanted to have more comfortable homes or wanted to have more fashionable homes so looking carefully at the buildings from each period you can begin to see what people then thought was comfortable or fashionable.

Maps, documents and, from our more recent history, photographs can tell us much about buildings that have been lost or altered but actually if you look up and look around there is often important physical evidence surviving that, if you are curious, can tell you much about our history or at the very least suggest that the history of a building and its development is far from straight forward.

historic buildings, historic maps, topography



Detail of a map by Christian Gedde from 1761 in Stadsarchiv Copenhagen

The citadel in Copenhagen, normally referred to as Kastellet, is a well-preserved, star-shaped fortress that was built in the 17th century to guard the approach to the harbour. 

It was well over a kilometre east of the east gate of the city with a clear view over the sound. Work started in 1626, in the reign of Christian IV, with the construction of St Anne’s Redoubt - Sankt Annæ Skanse - but work and ongoing alterations continued through to the 1660s, with major remodelling and improvements after the Swedish Army attacked the city in the war of 1658-60. The complex of defensive embankments, moats and military buildings were ostensibly complete by the 1720s in the arrangement that can still be seen today.

photographs and full text

streetscape, historic buildings, building materials

traditional colours in Copenhagen

In the historic centre of Copenhagen many of the buildings are painted in strong traditional colours. Timber framing, plaster render and stucco, brickwork and woodwork can all be painted. It is the variations of colour, within a relatively restricted range, that helps to create the strong sense of place.

Colours that were fashionable changed as architectural styles evolved. Højbro Plads illustrates some of those different styles, colours and materials. There is a substantial house that copies polychrome brick facades of the 17th century, houses in more restrained colours imitating stone, typical for buildings from the 18th and 19th century, and above is the natural unpainted brickwork of the church of Sankt Nikolaj. This photograph also shows the colour and texture of the most common traditional roofing materials for historic buildings in the city - clay pan tiles, grey slate and, for church spires and more important public buildings, copper. The spire of Sankt Nikolaj dates from 1909 and replaces a spire that was destroyed in the great fire of 1795.


Timber-framed houses on Grønnegade are painted the dark red that was common through the 17th century. These buildings were just outside the part of the old city that was damaged in the fire of 1728


Here the timber framing was also painted red. The paints made from mineral pigments were oil based using linseed which gives a durable but matt finish. The house is on the corner of Gammel Mønt and Møntergade and was on the edge of the large area of the city lost in the fire of 1728.


Buildings across the south side of a square at Gräbrødretorv in an area of the city that had to be rebuilt after the fire of 1728. The traditional red colour has been used along with white window frames. It is important that the colours vary slightly in tone or hue for each individual property - but this is in part inevitable as colours change or fade over a number of years. A consistent colour across the whole group would be monotonous. Texture of the surface is also important effecting the way light is reflected - plaster is rough and brickwork under the paint often of poor quality. Restoration or modern work that is too smooth and consistent can look lifeless in comparison.


A large 18th-century house showing that the use of strong colours continued. It is flanked by houses that were rebuilt or remodelled in the following century. 


Along with the deep reds, a strong dark ochre was also used. This is Magstræde looking east. The houses towards the junction are left as natural brick, much more common in this area that was extensively rebuilt after the fire of 1728.


Nybrogade, Copenhagen. The brick house on the left is typical of buildings constructed after the fire of 1728. The mansion in the centre was built in 1732 forJ Ziegler who was the Court Confectioner and the adjoining buildings to the right, one dated 1748, are typical of the grey and cream stone colours that were common in Copenhagen through the second half of the 18th and in the early 19th century.


Canal-side warehouses are usually robust and straightforward in their architecture but these examples show how important colour is ... particularly the strong colour but matt finish of the shutters.


Where high-quality building materials were used they were usually left unpainted. The window flanked by stone pilasters is on the facade towards Bredgade of Moltkes Palæ (mansion) completed in 1702 and the smaller, less ostentatious brick house on Nikolaj Plads appears to date from roughly the same period.


By the second half of the 18th century larger houses were given ornate plaster decoration including as here pilasters and cornices. In many, pilasters were painted darker buff colours to imitate sandstone. This house is on the Christianshavn side of the harbour on Overgaden Oven Vandet outside the area damaged by fire in 1795.


Houses immediately south of Vor Fruhe Kirke, that were almost-certainly built after the fire of 1795. Pale colours - white, cream and grey - came to predominate in the first half of the 19th century.


Apartments just beyond Østerport railway station. This area was just outside the city defences and building here were only allowed after the walls and gates of Copenhagen were demolished in the 1860s. Fine plasterwork or stucco and the pale cream colour imitates ashlar. White or grey paint remained fashionable but by the late 19th century new apartments, for instance around Nørreport, were built in better quality red brick that was left unpainted.

This post appeared first in Danish Design Review in January 2014

streetscape, historic buildings

the Vartov square

The square from the upper end with the new planting with cherry trees

The Vartov hospital across the far end of the square 


Paving, or what is sometimes called slightly dismissively hard landscape, is extremely important, particularly in historic towns, but this is an aspect of city planning that can often be overlooked by the public ... inevitably most people are in too much of a rush to think carefully about what they are walking on or where they are walking through to get wherever they want to get. 

Partly, as always, people do not notice good design when it works and does what it is supposed to do but do notice if it is wrong … for instance if the spacing or height of steps is just wrong to fit with the normal length of a stride or a ramp or raised feature blocks the route they want to take. It is partly because, so often, the point of the landscape in a town is to simply be the background for buildings or events and partly the problem is that people quickly forget just how bad an area was, in terms of clutter or bad layout, before changes were made.

A good example of high-quality, and very clear, simple but subtle townscape design is the area across the east side of the city hall in Copenhagen recently remodelled with a scheme from the Belfast architectural practice of Hall McKnight.


The square is in the final 40 projects nominated for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe award for European Architecture.


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topography, historic buildings

the castle


The castle by the 17th century


Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde, came from a wealthy and powerful family and owned land in this area. In 1167 he built a fortress here on an island just off the shore of which parts survive below the present palace of Christiansborg.

That first castle was circular in overall plan with a high outer wall built in stone with limestone from Stevns Klint, cliffs south of Køge across the bay from Copenhagen, used to face the inner and outer skins of the wall but the core of the wall was filled with mortar and rubble including large smooth boulders taken from the sea. These first outer walls were about 5 metres high.

Several shaped and carved stones, which appear to have come from a stone-vaulted chapel, have been uncovered in archaeological excavations. These are of a high quality … the stone being sandstone that was brought over from Scania. Other buildings within the wall were probably first in timber and then later in brick.

Brick was more common after the end of the 12th century. The Bagerttårnet - or Baker’s Tower - was a large square tower that was added on the west side of the castle and projected out beyond the curtain or outer wall. The base of the tower can be seen below the inner courtyard of the present building and has the remains of a toilet shute on its north side suggesting that the tower may have had lodgings on the upper floors.

Also excavated and shown in the museum are water wells and oak and iron water pipes. It was crucial that the castle could be self sufficient if and when it was under attack.

On the death of Absalon in 1201 his property passed to the Abbey at Roskilde and remained with them for more than 200 years until, in 1417, the castle was taken by the King.

In 1368 the castle had been attacked by soldiers from the Hanseatic towns of North Germany and captured and in the following year 47 Hanseatic masons were sent to dismantle the castle which they left in ruins.

Work on a new castle on the same site started almost immediately and was completed by 1387. This in turn was enlarged for in 1445 the great Hall on the north side of the castle was extended.

From 1552 extensive work enlarged the royal wing out over the moat and in 1596 Christian IV heightened the Blue Tower on the east side of the castle which, with its ornate roof, was one of the most prominent features shown on drawings of the castle in the 17th and early 18th century.

Models on display in the museum, in the undercroft of the present palace, shows how complex the castle was in its later years with lodgings, galleries and towers tightly grouped around the courtyard. The small island of the original castle had been enlarged, building out across the water for an outer court on the east side, tilt yards, stables and for buildings military and naval stores although the original circular shape of the inner castle survived with what was by then a circular inner moat with a bridge on its east side and an outer gate house for the main entrance from the city. 

The castle must have appeared to be cramped, damp and old fashioned by the late 17th century and in the 1730s the medieval and later buildings of the castle were demolished to build a large new Rococo palace around four sides of a large square courtyard with an outer court and stables to the west. That palace was destroyed by a fire in 1794 and a new palace was completed in 1828 but again, in 1890, there was another disastrous fire and a foundation stone for the present building was laid in 1907.

topography, historic maps, historic buildings

the Copenhagen of Christian IV


Copenhagen in the early 17th century. The new Bourse is at the centre with the harbour to the left with the Arsenal and Provision Warehouse and to the right Holmens Church and further round the ship yards and the long building of the rope works. Beyond Christiansborg, the royal castle, the line of houses marks the line of the wharves and foreshore of the medieval city ... the street now called Gammel Strand. All the major churches in the city are identified.


A map of 1685. Here it has been turned deliberately so that it is orientated to compare directly with the view of the city. The castle of Christiansborg is relatively obvious - centre left. The new Borsen has a canal on both long sides and runs down to a bridge over the harbour. Nyhavn is towards the centre of the map with the rope works and ship yard to its left. Rosenborg with its garden is here at the top of the map within newly extended embankments and Kastellet begun in 1662 is shown on the far right of the map with the Nyboder houses as a regular grid of streets between. Christianshavn is the fortified settlement on the opposite side of the harbour to the Castle and the city. This map dates from before the new dockyards of Holmen were constructed.

Christian IV succeeded his father in 1588 and died in 1648. In the course of his long reign he consolidated the power and wealth of Copenhagen as a city and instigated the construction of key buildings that survive today. These include a new royal palace and the king’s gardens of Rosenborg begun in 1606, Holmen’s Church of 1619, the construction of the Borsen (the Exchange) 1619-25. and the Round Tower of Trinitas Church 1637-56.

However, Christian IV was primarily a strategist and ambitious for the expansion of the both lands and the influence of Denmark and so the fortifications of the city were strengthened and the harbours and docks on either side of the Castle of Christiansborg were enlarged with the reclamation of land and the construction of moles or breakwaters. There was a new harbour basin flanked by long buildings where provisions were stored including beer for the sailors and gun powder, ropes and other provisions could be loaded onto the fighting ships safely and securely. The buildings survive although the enclosed harbour has been filled in and is now the garden behind the Royal Library. To the other side of the castle were yards for building naval vessels and a crucial rope walk.

Nor were the domestic needs of the naval personnel ignored … Christian instigated the construction of the Nyboder houses, which were begun in 1631, and Christianshavn, on the opposite side of the harbour to the castle was laid out as a new planned settlement with extensive fortifications, again for the navy and for new shipbuilding facilities which over the following century was expanded out towards the Oresund … the Arsenal, Holmen and Nyholm … which was the base for the Danish Navy through to the beginning of this century.

As the city prospered this was reflected in the construction of new mansions for the wealthiest merchants, for instance the house of Mayor Mattias Hansen from 1616, and churches in the city were improved or rebuilt.


The Royal palace and gardens of Rosenborg


The Brewhouse west of the castle from the west



The south door of Helligåndskirken


Borsen - the Bourse or Exchange - building work began in 1619

historic buildings, streetscape, topography

Jarmers Tower

Through the Middle Ages Copenhagen was protected by outer defences - initially a timber palisade but later substantial walls and towers. By the early 16th century there were eleven towers around the city but only one, the round tower at the south-west corner of the city at Jarmers Plads, can be seen now and only the lower part of the tower survives. It was covered over when an embankment was constructed to improve the defences in the 17th century but was excavated in the 1880s when the embankments on this side of the city were removed.

This tower dates from the early 16th century with a stone core to the thick walls but faced inside and out with brick. The outer face is decorated with large diamond shapes in the brickwork formed by carefully arranging darker bricks in the bonding. In England these darker bricks are called fired or burnt headers and were formed where bricks were stacked in the kiln to be fired and only the outer bricks of the stack, exposed to the flames and higher temperatures, changed to this dark, grey, colour.

The round tower had a doorway into the lower part from the town side but presumably upper levels were accessed from a walkway on the top of the wall.


gardens + parks, historic maps, historic buildings, topography

17th-century embankments and moats

Historic maps can give a slightly distorted impression of the embankments and outer moats that were built in the late 17th century to defend Copenhagen - from plans and drawings it is difficult to appreciate the scale of the earthworks and to appreciate the extensive engineering work that was required for their construction.

Even walking through Østre Anlæg in the summer, the first impression is of a wooded valley with a wide lake, although this was in fact a section of the original outer moat, and the embankment here on the city side of the lake is one of the best preserved sections of the city defences.

However, if you look across the lake towards the city in the Winter, when the trees have lost their leaves, then you can see the full height of the embankment with two stages of slope rising to the top of the bastion. If you open the image file - to enlarge the photograph - you can see how small the figures of the runners are on the path on the far side of the lake. 


The Østre Anlæg lake in the summer ... this view is looking south down the moat with the city to the left.


The view in Winter from the Stockholmsgade side looking south towards the city. The figures of runners on the path on the edge of the lake give an indication of the height of the double embankment.

If the slopes were bare of undergrowth, as on the embankments of the Kastellet now, you can begin to see just how daunting it would have appeared to a soldier in an army attacking the city. In the 17th century, the grass on the embankments would not have been this well kept but even if you got across the moat somehow, then you still had to climb up that bank, loaded down with your own weapons and kit, and, presumably, against heavy defending fire.

Note the windmill on the embankment in the distance - historic maps show a large number of mills on the circuit of the bastions and embankments through the 18th and early 19th centuries.

A lower embankment but wider expanse of water, the Stadsgraven, survives around Christianshavn and Holmen. These defences were constructed in the 17th century to protect the south side of the city.

historic buildings, drawings + documents, historic maps, streetscape

the City gates


Vesterport, the West gate, in 1857

The embankments, bastions and moats that defended Copenhagen were extended and rebuilt in the late 17th century. To enter or leave the city there were four gates that were built or rebuilt as part of that work. 

Vesterport, the west gate, was at the end of what is now Frederiksberggade - the position of the gate was in the centre of what is now Rådhuspladsen, the large square in front of the present city hall, but then was a much smaller open area that was the Hay Market. The north gate, Nørreport, was at the end of Frederiksborggade, close to the present Nørreport station, and the east gate, Østerport, was then just beyond the Nyboder houses, close to what is now the open area at the entrance to Østerport railway station. All three gateways were demolished in 1857.

Embankments and bastions around the south side of the city survive although the south gate, Amagerport, was also removed in the 1850s.

Although the gateways do not survive there are prints and drawings of the gates and some very early photographs. The engravings show that the outer sides of the gates were ornate with pilasters, niches, pediments and carved stonework including coats of arms and dates.

The gateways were approached by timber bridges so, presumably they could be destroyed before an attack. The bridges were also set at an angle and there was a break on the approach on an intermediate island bastion so that attackers would not have a direct line of fire through the archway of the gates.


A drawing of Vesterport showing the outer and inward facing arches and the plan showing the tunnel through the embakment 

Each gate had a long internal barrel-vaulted tunnel through the earth embankment with an inner gateway facing the approach from the city. These inward facing archways were all much simpler in design.

All the gateways had guard houses both inside and on the outer side beyond the moat.


A view of Halm Torv, the Hay Market, from the south with Vesterport and the guard house. This was probably the busiest gate into and out of the city ... the road here was the route to Roskilde.


This view of Nørreport, the North gate, shows the sloping paths on either side of the gate that went up to the top of the embankment. Clearly, citizens used this to promenade and presumably to cut around the city quickly by avoiding the bustle and crowds of the city streets. Note also the form of the guard house. There was a reasonable amount of space between the embankment and the fronts of the nearest houses so that soldiers could be deployed rapidly to any part of the defences when there was an attack.

Old maps provide crucial evidence about the position of the gateways and for the form of less substantial structures such as the bridges and the guard houses. A series of surveys completed by Christian Gedde in the 1760s is particularly important for the map he produced is given the appearance of an aerial view. Below is a detail of his map showing the Amagerport or south gate.


On the east side of Torvegade, just inside the south embankment, is the Customs House built in 1724 on the city side of Amagerport.

Although the city gates were demolished more than 150 years ago, it is still possible to get a strong impression of how they worked and what they looked like from the two surviving gates at the Kastellet, the fortress that was constructed in the 1660s to defend both the north part of the city and the approach to the harbour.


The bridge from the city to Kastellet and the Zealand Gate


The Zealand or South gate from inside the Kastel. Note the guard house and the sloping path set at an angle to reach the top of the embankment,


The North or Norway Gate from the inner side. Again note the form of the two guard houses and there are pathways up to the top of the embankment on each side.


Leaving the Kastel by the Zealand or South Gate


The slightly later gate to the fortress of Kronborg at Helsingør gives a very good idea of just how grand and how imposing the gates of Copenhagen must have been in the 18th century.