Australian perceptions of modern Danish architecture have been dominated by three eminences: Jørn Utzon, Henning Larsen and Arne Jacobsen. The first two are still practising, but a younger generation is also delivering notable works—some featured in a touring exhibition opening at RMIT’s Storey Hall this month. After a recent visit, Davina Jackson reports on the Danish scene.
Australian architects began to revere the integrity of Danish architecture and design even before Jørn Utzon ignited Sydney’s sensibilities in the late 1950s. But general knowledge here of Denmark’s creative productions has been confined to Utzon’s own works (the best not in his home country), vague awareness of Copenhagen’s splendid stock of neo-Classical buildings (constructed after the fires of 1794, 1795 and 1807), and wide appreciation (thanks to importers like DeDeCe, Georg Jensen and Bang & Olufsen) of its modern household products.
Word has spread thinly about the talents of an Utzon contemporary, Henning Larsen, who continues in his seventies to produce significant buildings. (Utzon also is still working on key projects at 80; his current project is an extension to the Louisiana Art Museum north of Copenhagen.) And other great 20th century Danes—Flemming Lassen, Vilhelm Lauritzen and C.F. Møller—have some recognition here.
Many Australians from arty families have grown up dining at home on Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 or Ant chairs; instant signifiers of Danish modernity since they began production in the early 1950s. Yet we remain in the dark about Jacobsen’s much more significant architectural accomplishments. He is nowhere to be found in Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History, nor in Charles Jenck’s Modern Movements in Architecture or Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, and he only rates a paragraph in the latest Banister Fletcher. But his buildings in Denmark are mind-blasts. While none delivers the pure democratic piety of Utzon’s white chapel at Bagværd, Jacobsen’s three key institutional landmarks—the National Bank and Royal Hotel in Copenhagen and the Town Hall at Århus—all show great spatial clarity, technical assurance, dexterity in detailing and imagination in finishes and furnishings. The National Bank’s foyer staircase, soaring 20 metres to the stratosphere of a monumental marble chamber—10 flights tethered by six dangerously slender red cables—is one of modern architecture’s seriously sublime achievements.
It’s regrettable that Jacobsen’s diverse oeuvre—schools to taps—still hasn’t been thoroughly documented in English. There are ample grounds for comparison with Finland’s Alvar Aalto, who has been far more influential on Australian architects. The best book so far appears to be Arne Jacobsen: Architect & Designer, by Poul Erik Tøjner and Kjeld Vindum (Danish Design Centre, 3rd edition, 1996); but we’re assured there’ll be a translation of a thumping tome released in Danish last year. Perhaps predictably, a Jacobsen Ant chair is the first product illustrated in the catalogue for a new exhibition of modern Danish design and architecture prepared primarily for Australian eyes. The Danish Wave (an allusion to Bondi), is on view at RMIT’s Storey Hall gallery from March 25-May 1, then tours to Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and hopefully Sydney. It’s this year’s main event in a cultural exchange program funded by the Danish Foreign Ministry and Culture Institute. The show has been curated by Eric Messerschmidt, director of communication at the Danske Architektur Center in Copenhagen, who identifies three themes to explain contemporary Danish design.
First, he highlights The Democratic Approach; suggesting that Denmark’s welfare state is inseparable from its achievements in 20th century design. “Throughout the past 70 years, Danish policy has aimed at providing the general population with public facilities and decent housing at a reasonable cost,” he writes in the catalogue. “It is worth noting that many now classic furniture designs were first executed for a supermarket chain whose goal, in part, was to cultivate the sensibility of the average Danish citizen and to ensure that good quality, practical, everyday implements were available at affordable prices.”
Actually, Denmark’s egalitarian mindset is more deeply entrenched: going back at least as far as the Golden Age of the absolute monarchy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is clear from another exhibition held at Copenhagen’s Round Tower late last year. Called Classicism: Architecture in Copenhagen in the Age of C.F. Hansen, it chronicled the city’s fires and following phase of rebuilding with splendid paintings and drawings from the period.
As an example of earlier egalitarianism, the Amalienborg palace—four Rococco mansions surrounding a city plaza—became the new royal apartments after the 1794 fire destroyed most of the family’s Baroque palace at Christiansborg. Instead of building a grand new palace, the monarchy moved to (and has remained at) this elegant circle of patrician residences, which are scaled in accord with nearby civic buildings and bourgeois housing. The one element of introduced majesty is a colonnade designed by C.F. Harsdorff; built just after the fire to link the apartments of the king and crown prince and provide the ceremonial entrance to the square that was in those days essential for military pageants.
In the book, Classicism in Copenhagen, the exhibition curators noted that the city adapted, rather than adopted, neo-classical precedents from other parts of Europe. “The old winding streets and irregular squares, as well as the individualism of the clients, asserted themselves. There were no rows of completely identical houses to be found here, as in London and Paris …”
It’s often said that Scandinavian societies retain close community values through a shared sense of isolation from Europe, in Baltic gloom. In recent years, novelist Peter Høeg has been revealing (as did Hans-Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard) how that sense of place fosters a national psyche of Gothic mythology. But the Danes also display an irrational compulsion to cavort athletically under grey skies and drizzle. Like Australians, they worship the beach—and the sun, when it deigns to shine.
Messerschmidt’s second Danish Wave theme is Craftsmanship. On this subject, Svend Kindt, editor of the design magazine Rum + Form, explains in the catalogue that while craftsmanship is dying out in terms of traditional hand tools, new implements of fabrication still require “a craftsmanlike approach to the processes, a craftsmanlike understanding of the importance of detail, and a craftsmanlike pride in delivering one’s work with a perfect execution.”
Denmark’s capacity for immaculate craftsmanship was introduced to the rest of the Europe during the 18th century, when a Danish furniture store opened in London. Today, it ranks among the world’s top six nations for manufacturing quality (not quantity). Only the Germans, Italians, Swiss, Swedes, Finns and Japanese compete at the highest standards. (The French, Spanish, Dutch, Belgians and British, plus Aussie prodigy Marc Newson, are rivals as product designers.)
In architecture, contemporary Danes certainly respect the craftsmanship of our leading practitioners. Three Australians (more than any other country) were among the nominees for last year’s Carlsberg Prize: the world’s richest architectural award, sponsored by the Danish beer company. Although Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor won, Australians Glenn Murcutt, Peter Wilson (a Melburnian now based in Germany) and Richard Leplastrier are almost certain to be nominated again. Auspiciously, the jury has consistently shown a preference for humane modernists.
Messerschmidt’s final explanation for Danish design is Regional Sensibility: “the hereditary and developed mixture of the fantastic, the prosaic and the introspective, which has its roots in the individual and the extroverted opening to the practical, communal spirit.” He continues to suggest that “Danish architecture has a glow in its coldness, a simplicity in decoration and a compliance in monumentality.”
While those readings are well-founded, he hasn’t emphasised an important contradiction: that Danish design has always advanced by infection with visual viruses from other countries. The sources have tended to be European—particularly Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. It’s interesting that Danish cities are devoid of both American-moderne skyscrapers and Russian onion domes (except in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, a kitsch Victorian amusement park). Also questioning Denmark’s ‘regional sensibility’, is the fact that its current architectural culture and design agendas are eerily relevant to the scene in Australia. Although our cultures are bubbling away at diagonally opposite points on the planet, with different climates to deal with, we share an assumption that we are oases of calm reason on the periphery of turbulent continents. We also share a compulsion to psycho-analyse ourselves—and a desire to become influential in world affairs, even though we are addicted to imported ideas and practices. Despite our different climates, we have similar relationships to our harbours and beaches and common ambivalence about the dangerous seas beyond our shores.
But let’s compare architectural waves and currents:
Aside from the unassailable exemplar of the Opera House, Sydney drags behind Copenhagen in the production of fine contemporary waterfront landmarks. Although Sydney has no lack of architectural talent, its best designers—the ones who could add powerful icons to help market the city’s image overseas—are not being commissioned for major harbour developments. Indeed, Sydney now prefers to build private housing, rather than public institutions, on key harbour sites; and those jobs are going to commercially pragmatic firms rather than design-focused offices. In Copenhagen, by contrast, the commissions for several recent institutions on the city waterfront have been awarded to young firms from their equivalent of Melbourne: Århus.
The Århus architectural culture has been galvanised over the past decade by Gøsta Knudsen, dean of its architecture school until recently, and now the head of Denmark’s institute of architects. A charismatic character, he is comparable to Melbourne’s Leon van Schaik (in the academy) and Sydney’s Chris Johnson (in government) as an in-the-system advocate for design progress and debate.
Two Århus architectural offices are leading Denmark’s younger generation: Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen (architects for Denmark’s new Embassy in Berlin and House of Architects in Copenhagen) and Schmidt Hammer & Lassen (architects for the Greenland Cultural Centre at Nuuk and the Royal Library extensions in Copenhagen). Also of note is Cubo (architects for a new university at Odense).
In Copenhagen, three recent waterfront projects argue about new directions for Danish architecture. They’re all designed as singular pieces to contrast a homogenous 19th century city of brick buildings washed with harmonious local oxides. (Oxide recipes are given in Bente Lange’s inspirational book, The Colours of Copenhagen, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 1997.)
When Australians talk to Danes, they seem burdened by the same cultural cringe that we have been dissolving, via the mirror of foreigners’ enthusiasms, over the past 10 years. Denmark now is beginning to benefit from a Wallpaper-led fashion swing back to Scandinavian modernity, but its design community is searching, as is ours, for fresh scenarios to take forward.
Davina Jackson is the editor of Architecture Australia. She travelled to Denmark as a guest of its Foreign Ministry, Kulturinstitut and Centre for Architecture.
Taastrup pharmacy by Kim Utzon
Paustian furniture showroom in Copenhagen, by Utzon Associates (1989).
Cultural Centre at Nuuk, Greenland, by Schmidt Hammer & Lassen.
Henning Larsen’s BT newspaper house in Copenhagen.