Notes on cities and places. Copenhagen


“A town is made of houses, gardens, streets, sidewalks, shopping centers, shops, workplaces, factories, perhaps a river, sportgrounds, parking...

A building is made up of walls, doors, rooms ceilings, nooks, stairs, staricase treads, doorhandles, terraces, counter tops, flowerpots ... repeated over and again.”

Christopher Alexander, The timeless way of building, New York 1979



Absalon, by virtue of his family’s wealth, was able to study in Paris at a time when Denmark was a wild landscape dotted with a few huts while the sea was dominated by pirates. Once back, thanks to his statesman skills and perhaps also to have escaped, with the future king, a trap, he was later appointed bishop and principal adviser to King Valdemaro. Valdemaro and Absalon spread Christianity, thus beginning the construction of countless churches and monasteries that served as observatories and checkpoints of the territory: a Danish domination was established in the Baltic Sea. Bishop Absalon was a warrior and the city of Copenhagen was born in 1167 as a fortress: a castle and a church on the island of Strandholm.


In the following centuries the town grew disorderly, until the beginning of the 17th century when Christian IV of Denmark, main character of the longest Danish kingdom, initiated an ambitious project of urban renewal. Supported by the advice of Dutch engineers a second city wall was built, which defined the limit of the city until the nineteenth century, along with the fortress of Kastellet (1617); the Nyboder, a marina district, was built (ca. 1630); a consistent urbanization program was started on the base of a rational plot of channels and parallel roads, which granted land property to bourgeoisie entrepreneur in exchange of the construction activity (Christianshavn). In this time a New Copenhagen began to be built, with continuous facade roads, such as Bredgade and Adelsgade. 

The building fervor was accompanied by a strong investment in the naval fleet, which ranged from 22 to 60 vessels, some of which had been designed by the king himself, and an army reform, that drastically reduced the number of mercenaries through a policy of recruiting people from the countryside, was carried out.

It is remarkable to remember that such administrative, urban and economical transformations were made possible by the Kongelov, Lex regia orchestrated by statesman Peter Griffenfeld Schumacher, who gave the king nearly absolute authority and defined a rational and efficient administrative structure.


On the morning of October 8, 1728, a child playing with some candles began the most terrible fire that Copenhagen has ever lived: in four days 28% of the city burned down; twenty years after a second fire, originated in the port area, reduced to ash what remained of the Medieval and Renaissance city.

Immediately a new law was passed that imposed an length of 12-15 meters for the main roads and 10 meters for the secondary ones; the “cut” shapes of the corners of the urban blocks were imposed in order to facilitate the movement of the firefighters’ long stairs; wooden constructions were banned and the brick became the reference material, even for private buildings.


After an apprenticeship in Germany and a trip to Italy as landscapist, architect Nicolai Eigtved, favorite of King Frederick V, opened a new season of public works, overlooking at Paris boulevards and palaces: Frederikstaden, the palaces and the octagonal square of Amalienborg, the Christiansborg palace and the newly-born Royal Danish Academy of Art, the city’s first public hospital and an orphanage were built. The first half of the 19th century is indicated in historical records such as the Golden Age of Danish Arts, although it was a period of great poverty due to the two terrible fires of the previous century and to the English bombing dated 1801.

In 1848 the absolute monarchy was transformed into a democratic constitution: modernity began. The first railway line was built as well as a complete new network of infrastructures which supplied the capital with electricity, telegraph and gas lines and water pressure plants in order to distribute water capillary in the city.

Between 1852 and 1872, the town’s ramparts were demolished to allow building expansion around the lakes, Søerne, which bordered the seventeenth-century defence system and that so far had represented the border of the city. The residential expansion, which created the new neighborhoods of Nørrebro, Vesterbro and Frederiksberg, developed in parallel with the activity of renovating existing structures with housing destination, such as the example of Nyboder, precursor of social housing, and with significant public commissions, as the Tivoli Gardens and the Glyptotek, supported by the commitment of the Carlsberg brewery.


In less than twenty years the population raised from 130.000 inhabitants to 400.000; electricity and reinforced concrete were now part of everyday life, and Copenhagen showed a new character of modern metropolis with theatres, hotels and showcases along the streets.

In 1905 the watchmaker Jacob Ellehammer, contemporary of the famous Wright brothers, built the first monoplane and one year later Nordisk Film was founded, the oldest film production company. In 1909 at the National Exhibition of Arhus, the Danish Architects Association decided to exhibit a city model in scale 1 to 1 as a catalog of Danish historic buildings of the Medieval, Renaissance and so forth.

In Danish modernity an experimental pursuit as well as a rediscovery of tradition seem to cohabit.

In 1901, in a speech for the Society for Decorative Arts, architect and engineer Peder Vilhelm Jensen Klint said:

“ Let us cultivate the object, the surface, the material, in keeping with its essence and the requirements of the day, and never resort to copying old styles, but through a thorough cultivation and acquisition of the unfailing taste and dignified approach to style of ages past, pursue our personal style, with the aim of creating cozy, beautiful and magnificent surroundings for modern man’s life and activities.”


Nearly fifty years later, in 1949, architect Kay Fisker wrote in ”The Moral of Functionalism“:

“ Now, after the first victory of the early raw functionalism, we should be concerned with the development of the more vigorous and human side of functional architecture: a clear and functional frame around modern existence, created with new means; further development of tradition, perhaps, but not a return to forms past and gone. The barren qualities of functionalism came not from the reliquishment of the old, but rather from the failure to utilise in a sufficiently imaginative manner the possibilities of the new - new materials and constructions, new social conditions.”

During the First World War, Denmark took a neutral position; it was a period of introversion that favored the profits associated with war trade, as evidenced by the construction of various public building, such as museums, an airport, schools and hospitals. At the time there were no tools to control or contain the urban expansion of the metropolis, therefore the process of urbanization produced soon a crowding of the most valuable natural contexts along the edge of the forests or along the sea by country houses or small properties.

There was a need to protect the territory and in 1936, just a few years before the Nazi invasion of the country, the Green Network Plan was approved, a plan that had as its first goals the establishment of a cadaster of natural resource, the definition of rules and tools to protect these resources and the pioneering design of the first “ecological corridors”.

Two years after the liberation, in 1947, architects and urban planners Peter Bredsdorff and Sten Eiler Rasmussen presented with a group of young colleagues a new vision for the development of Copenhagen as a metropolis, Greater Copenhagen, combining the first traces of the Town Planning Act dated 1927 with the utopias of Ebenezer Howard (Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902).

The design of the new city, according to Howard, is not a formal plan, but a “diagram only - plan must depend on site selected” and a diagram, where there is a center and a margin structured by a series of concentric rings.

The invention of the Finger Plan consists in interpreting that diagram through the lens of a humanistic pragmatism that characterizes Danish culture: from the center, the historic city of Indre By, five linear segments depart alike the drawing of a hand, from which the nickname “Finger Plan”.

From the first plans of 1927 and 1936 (Green Network Plan) we recognise the will to preserve green recreational and agricultural areas among the urban expansion guidelines. The Finger Plan of 1947 takes a further step, clearly defining the space in between the “fingers”, focusing on protected green space rather than dictating standards on the building, and designing public transport lines according to principles of functionality and simplicity. The plan is a translation into the real and the daily of the will to offer to all citizens as much the benefits of living merged in the landscape and in the nature as these of living in the city.


For 60 years, the Finger Plan has guided the urban development of Copenhagen, both of the buildings and the infrastructures as well as of the green spaces.

The secret of such an astonishing efficacy and longevity lies in the ability of Danish administration and politics to accept social, economic and technological transformations, and to demonstrate intelligence and mental freedom in inventing the most appropriate tools to promote and support changes.

It is exemplary the decision taken in 2001 to define a limit to the expansion of the “fingers”, which coincided with an acknowledgment of the limit of growth of the linear public transport system and with the pragmatic will of a human scale city, where the length of the bicycle lane has in some way become the measure of the radial expansion of the metropolis. Starting from the definition of the limit, a strategy of densification of the center and of its adjacent port areas was founded.

Similarly exemplary is the radical administrative reform dated 2005, which has determined a decentralization of the territorial planning in parallel to investing the Ministry of the Environment of the role of “orchestra director”, and thus protector of the Finger Plan.


Denmark’s surface area is 43.000 km2, not counting Greenland and Faroe Islands: the Jutland peninsula and an archipelago of 406 islands, of which only 75 are inhabited.

The coast stretches for 7.300 kilometers and the land has 67% agricultural use, 12% forest, 11% semi-natural and only 10% urban and infrastructural use.

The population of Denmark is 5.6 million (2014) with a population density of 127 inhabitants per km2. One third of the population (1.85 million people) lives in Greater Copenhagen.

The distribution of production is distributed by 2% from agriculture and primary production, 26% from industry and construction, 50% from private service and 22% from public service. The portrait of a “light” and modern country emerges, which accounts for more than 70% of its services and culture.

Per capita income is DKK 312.662 (2013), or about 42,000 per annum, with taxes ranging between 25% and 45%.


Genova, 2015