At the end of last week I was cutting through Skydebanehaven, the park just west of the main railway station but tucked away between Istedgade and Vesterbrogade, and saw this stunning colour on the back of an apartment building. Partly the colour of the paint was much more obvious because the trees are still without their leaves and partly there was a dramatic contrast with the sharp green of the grass. There were dark grey rain clouds building up which changed the intensity of the light.
This deep red colour shading to a salmon pink is common throughout the city. This is a red oxide colour that fades over a period but also takes much of its character from the texture of the underlying irregularity of the brickwork or timber frame and plasterwork of the wall itself.
What these colours show is that the Danish sense of design is not actually, despite the reputation, about being conservative and subtle and safely tasteful … this is colour used with confidence and a real sense of style.
Over the last day or so I have taken all these photographs for this post to show that in the winter, with the sun lower and light off dark clouds somehow sharper, the colours of the buildings in Copenhagen are richer and stronger.
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