SAS Hotel by Arne Jacobsen

 

The SAS Hotel in Copenhagen - designed by Arne Jacobsen and completed in 1961 - is perhaps the best known and the most widely published building from the Classic period of Danish design.

So, it is not really necessary to go back over the history and the design of the building here but I took a few photographs for a recent post about high buildings in the city for the web site and one thing struck me that, rather stupidly, I had not appreciated before and that is that it is built out over the top of the main railway tracks running into the central station from the north … or at least the lower north part of the hotel and the car park to the west is built across the tracks.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been on trains in and out of the railway station but never once realised that the oddly gloomy area of concrete catacombs that the trains go through beyond the north end of the platforms is actually under the hotel. I went back to the reference books and found out that, with the building of the station and the construction of new lines between the central station and Østerport station in 1917, the area along Vesterbrogade, north of the Tivoli gardens, became an area of major redevelopment for commercial office buildings. To the concern of the city council, one prominent but oddly shaped plot - a long triangle left along the east side of the railway track immediately north of Vesterbrogade - remained undeveloped. On the back of other planning applications they stipulated that work should also be completed on that triangular plot and, to make the site viable commercially, the area over the tracks was covered and the massive new hotel was completed on the extended plot.

There are photographs of the tower of the hotel under construction with the curtain wall of windows and panels being hung on the outside of the concrete frame, working from the top down, but the realisation that the engineering work also included the extension of the plot over the railway makes the building even more amazing.

There is an English phrase about familiarity breeding contempt. Obviously no one sees the design of the SAS Hotel with contempt - although curiously some critics in the 1950s were not convinced - but we tend too easily to judge historic buildings by our own experience rather than by contemporary standards. There are buildings now that are taller, or more advanced in their engineering or more ‘stylish’ than the Jacobsen hotel but it would be very unfair to judge it without appreciating just how advanced it was for its period.

It has also lost some of its drama and impact since the terminal for arrivals and departure for the airport, originally in the low north half, was abandoned and that part of the building then became a supermarket and gym. 

Kastrup airport opened in 1925 and the hotel terminal, with buses taking passengers to and from the airport, must have been seen as both incredibly sophisticated and ‘international’ in the 1950s but also as crucial for the attempts to promote Danish trade, industry and design as part of a post-war programme for recovery with the SAS buildings conceived, in part, to impress foreign travellers and business men.

All the hotel rooms, apart from one, have been refitted and the furniture and fittings designed by Jacobsen in the 1950s removed. The entrance area to the hotel has retained much of the original layout including its circular staircase but the part that was the air terminal has been altered beyond recognition and the exterior, particularly on the courtyard or car park side, is looking very sorry for itself. 

Along with the National Bank of Denmark in Copenhagen, also by Jacobsen, The SAS Hotel is one of the most important modern, post-war buildings in Denmark and certainly the modern Danish building with a wide, global, recognition and significance, for its iconic style and sophisticated design so perhaps there should be a serious campaign to push for a major restoration of the hotel and the terminal to return them to the prominence they deserve.

 

 
 
 

note:

There is a monograph on the one room in the hotel where the original fittings and furniture have been retained but the book also contains extensive background material, including much about other buildings by Jacobsen, and there is a good selection of contemporary photographs including a photograph of Jacobsen drinking in one of the bars in the hotel. 

Room 606 The SAS House and the Work of Arne Jacobsen, by Michael Sheridan, Phaidon (reprint 2010) ISBN 978-0-7148-6108-1