The Vartov square

The square in front of the Vartov hospital, recently renamed Regnbuepladsen or Rainbow Square, is an open area against the east side of the city hall, - an elongated triangle of public space - and until recently there were roads along both sides that were used for parking and for a taxi rank with just a narrow triangle of paving in the centre. 

The only feature of real note in the space itself is a column dating from 1914 with the sculpture known as Lurblæserne … a substantial column surmounted by two figures blowing lures which are an ancient Danish musical instrument.

Recently the space has been reorganised with extensive new planting and new paving. The road along the west side, hard against the city hall, and often in shade, has been kept for traffic through to the main square but given a new cycle path along its edge. The road along the east side of the space, immediately in front of the buildings on that side, has been paved but the kerbs retained to give a visual clue that although it is now primarily a pedestrian area, the road can be used for deliveries. 

Lavendelstræde coming into the square from the east has been retained and cuts the space into two parts … the point of the triangle to the north and what is now a more regular almost-square area in the south half.

One odd problem with the main square in front of the city hall is that it is not actually square, simply a consequence of how it has developed in a piecemeal way. There is also a wide main road along the west side, a main road running out to the west, away from the square, and a very busy pedestrian route right across the centre with huge numbers of people cutting across on their way between the main railway station and the main shopping street … the famous Strøget or walking street. Essentially the city hall square is so large and so oddly used that space seems to leach or bleed out in all directions. This has not been helped by the nature of the square which, since the 1950s, has been the Times Square or Piccadilly Circus of Copenhagen. Not a bad role in itself but just very messy visually. A main bus station at the top end of the city hall square added to the confusion but that area is now being remodelled radically as the site of a major new metro interchange. On top of all that the city hall square is one of the biggest public spaces in the city that has few or no trees.

The apex of the triangle of the Vartov square actual cuts into the south east corner of the main square but also breaks the shape of the corner as the buildings on the east side along Vester Voldgade, seem actually to be drifting back away from the town hall. To rectify that, and to introduce much needed foliage, the new layout furthest from the front of Vartov has an unusually dense planting of trees - closely spaced cherry trees - that create what is almost a wood and will, as the trees grow taller, form a square corner to the front of the city hall.

The development of the area of the two squares, the Vartov square and the main city hall square, is actually quiet complicated and very important in the history and the development of the city. The buildings along the city side of the squares - were the building plots on the very outer edge of the medieval city and the space of the squares - or at least the east side of both squares was a well-established open space known by the 18th century as the Hay Market with the main west gate, leading in and out of the city, at the centre of the west side of the space. The ramparts, walls, bastions and the outer ditch of the defences cut down approximately running from north to south through the west half of the present square with the gate through the defences in the centre of the city hall square but north of Lavendelstræde and slightly south of the line of Fredriksberggade … what is now the first part of the walking street.

At the south end of the space sticking out beyond the main line of buildings was the Wartou or Vartov Hospital set around a courtyard and built in brick. It is curiously one of the least conspicuous but actually the most important historic building in the area so I would guess that many tourists do not even notice the building. It is now less prominent than it was in the 18th century because when the defensive walls were demolished and a new city hall built on the south side of the new enlarged square, its facade was built well forward of the line of the Vartov Hospital, and certainly overshadows it.

The hospital was not a medical hospital in the modern sense but a charitable foundation that provided accommodation for poorer but deserving people. In English the term distressed gentlefolk often appears in documents establishing such homes.

The Vartov was actually established in buildings north of the city in Hellerup and was then moved first to just within the fortifications at what is now Trianglen before moving to new buildings across the south end of the Hay Market where work started on the east range in 1724 and included a chapel on the south side of the courtyard. The almshouse finally closed in 1934.

The Vartov hospital has an important part in Danish culture for two distinct reasons.  N F S Grundtvig, the Danish poet and theologian, was pastor of the church from 1839 until his death in 1872 and there is an imposing statue of Grundtvig in the courtyard of the hospital. More important, for the recent redesign of the square, is a famous story by Hans Christian Andersen called From a Window in Vartov that was written in 1855 … crucially before the city wall was demolished and when the Hay Market was still an open square just inside the ramparts. In that story Andersen describes an old woman watching from an upper window as children play and then the story, as with so many of the tales, takes a slightly grim path, describing an innocent child lured into a hole in the ground by flowers and fruit and then the ground closing over and swallowing the body and it gradually becomes clear that the old lady is remembering her own child hood and tells of a young fiancee who died just before they could marry - the reason why she had remained a spinster and was ending her life at the hospital. It contains the line: “through the hearts of men, more dark clouds drift than the sky of the north will ever know.”

The remodelling of the square reflects both the history and the story. A grid of paving across the square repeats the pattern of windows across the front of the hospital but also echoes or implies an arrangement of tombs and graves of burial plots that were found here. In fact the presence of graves stopped plans for building a substantial pavilion in the square. Two of the rectangles in front of the Vartov are raised up above the surface like tomb slabs and on the polished granite tops are inscribed the Hans Christian Andersen story in both Danish and English. 

The other features of this main part of the square are a circular bench on the sunny side and a copper-clad sculpture formed with upright rectangular blocks that form a lectern and is designed to encourage impromptu speakers to start a debate. The main part of the square is left free for outdoor events … there are regularly meetings, exhibitions, food markets and flea markets in many of the public squares in the centre of the city.

Vester Volgade continuing to the south of the hospital was also repaved in 2013 under the direction of the architectural practice COBE as part of improvements for a major route down to the harbour and to BLOX ... an important new development for the Danish Architecture Centre.

The remodelling of Vartov square was completed in February 2013 and the design work is by the Belfast architectural practice of Hall McKnight. The quality of the design and the quality of the executed work has been formally recognised as the square has been nominated as one of 420 schemes put forward for the prestigious Mies van der Rohe prize for European architecture and it was announced last week that it has been short-listed and is now in a list of the final 40 for the award. The final five will be announced in May shortly before a winner is announced.

The scheme for Vartov square is important because although it is not particularly obvious it does, in a clever and subtle way, address the shortcomings of this area, in terms of a rather piecemeal planning history, and its new layout does refer to and depict the interesting history of this part of the city. Above all, it is not simply conventional paving or an easy and obvious solution and has been executed with an incredibly high standard of work in appropriate but high-quality materials.