Notes on cities and places. Denmark


“ The architect is a sort of theatrical producer, the man who plans the setting for our lives. Innumerable circumstances are dependent on the way he arranges this setting for us. When his intentions succeed, he is like the perfect host who provides every comfort for his guests so that living with him is a happy experience. ”

Experiencing architecture, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, 1957


Denmark landscape was formed by ice.

The line, on which laid the glacial deposits of the continent, bisects the Jutland peninsula and nowadays it still acts as threshold between the different landscapes of the country. To the west it is a plain of sand, clay and sand dunes along the coast; to the east, where the altitude is slightly higher, it is an undulated landscape of fertile plains, hills and woods, with an indented coastline, engraved by fjords that penetrate deep into: a peninsula, more than 500 mostly uninhabited islands, 7.314 km of coastline and a surface area of 43.000 square kilometres. 


Inhabited by sedentary since 500 BC, a thousand years after Denmark still appeared as a flat landscape dotted with huts, with essential and pragmatically utilitarian character, and fortifications with solid and precise geometries. From 500 seas and rivers were the real scene, where the Vikings dominated by technical mastery and ruthlessness: it is the time of great migrations toward England, France, Iceland and the Mediterranean, until Baghdad. 

In 911 Charles the Simple, King of the Franks besieged in Chartres by Rollo (Hrolf), earl leading a group of Danish marauders, offered the Norman a small feud with the intention of earning his subjection and conversion to Christianity: the Duchy of Normandy was born, from which the Normans, integrating Carolingian culture, pursued their migrating vocation towards France, England and southern Italy, where only a century after the kingdom of Sicily was founded. 

Along with the migration of sailors and adventurers, the Middle Age was a time of prosperity which saw the founding of the first towns and, in parallel with the densification of road networks from east to west and from north to south, the definition of a strategic role on the commercial axis Russia Europe, mainly set negotiating furs and beeswax. It is in these early centuries of the Christian Kingdom of Denmark, that the brick of baked clay made his entrance, probably from Lombardy, giving a new impulse to the religious building activity that at the time already counted almost two thousands churches in tufa or granite. The enormous availability of clay, since then, by fact made the brick inseparable from the constructive culture in Denmark. 


After the battles of Luther to translate the Bible into German, also thanks to the invention of movable type printing, at a time when Magellano baptized “Pacific” the ocean inadvertently proving the sphericity of the Earth, while in Paris the Tuileries were under construction and Andrea Palladio was building villas along the Brenta, in Denmark Lutheranism became the state church and there begun a time of building fervour, that took inspiration from Italian and Dutch Renaissance. 

Because of the economical straits resulting from the exhausting Thirty Years’ War and the continuing conflict with Sweden, at mid seventeenth century Copenhagen counted 42.000 inhabitants in spite of the 415.000 in Paris.


In 1660 the nobles, the clergy and the bourgeoisie, about two hundred people gathered in council, conceded to the king the greater absolute power that had ever existed: the Kongelov began the renovation of the state as a machine, on the directives of the statesman Griffenfeld Peter Schumacher. 

The administration was organized into departments, where officials received fixed salaries; the monopoly of the feudal aristocracy was limited; a chief master for public works was appointed; the first steps to weave a political alliance with France begun. 

This new stability brought during the eighteenth century an economical prosperity witnessed by the numerous public works and the flourishing of commercial activities, opening up new routes to China, India, Africa and West Indies. While in the capital of the kingdom, within the walls of Christian IV, domes and monumental buildings grew next to wooden houses, the countryside remained unchanged.


In the mid-nineteenth century Copenhagen was a small fortified town, with classicist character, fatigued by the series of fires that had occurred in the previous century; at the same time it hosted an intense cultural activity and showed among his citizens illustrious personalities such as the physicist Hans Christian Orsted, which is credited with the discovery of electromagnetism, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the writer of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen. 

The absolute monarchy was transformed into a democratic constitution: modernity began. The first railway line was built; in the capital a new infrastructure network that included electric lines, telegraph and gas was activated; pressure systems for water distribution were introduced; as the city began to expand outside the fortified walls, Tivoli Gardens and plants brewer Carlsberg were built within the centre. In the countryside farms and brick factories, which reflected the need of rational comfort of the new agricultural industry, were spreading, setting Denmark as a pioneer in the field of technology and competitive in Europe.


At the turn of the century, after Napoleonic wars and the conflicts with England, Denmark pursued the ideal of the modern metropolis, declining its own interpretation of the ideals of liberalism that animated the European debate since the days of the storming of the Bastille and the English Acts: a continuity between past and present, between town and country, according to a pragmatic spirit that has always characterized the Danish culture, was proposed. 

After the shift to a parliamentary monarchy in 1915 the Society for a Better Building Practice, which also the engineer architect Peder Vilhelm Jensen Klint joined with the aim of spreading knowledge among citizens and builders, was founded and the women’s suffrage was introduced, after New Zealand and Corsica but before England and France. It was a time of introversion that saw the monarchy taking a neutral position during the First World War. 

After the crisis of ‘29 the movement of “functional tradition”, which saw the birth of the masterpieces of Peder Vilhelm Jensen Klint, Kay Fisker, Arne Jacobsen, was consolidated. The need for a technical rationality, in order to respond to the standardization necessary for mass production, was combined with a craft excellence, knowledge of materials and a naturalness in the dialogue with the context, being it a tradition, a city or a landscape. It doesn’t surprise, then, the frequency of the trips to the East of the Danes and their strong bond with the vernacular tradition. 

Profits related to trade war, favoured by the neutral position, offered the means for a spring in the housing market: blocks of flats, museums, airport Kastrup, schools and hospitals are the evidence.


In 1940 the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund passed away and Germany invaded Denmark, where the daily horse walks of King Christian X became the symbol of a strong and silent passive resistance to the Nazi regime. Jew by origin, Arne Jacobsen was forced into exile in Sweden until the liberation. 

From 1946 to 1960 there was a veritable explosion of the arts, which in the field of architecture and design took the name of “Scandinavian Empiricism.” Under the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and Mies van der Rohe, young architects such as Utzon, Gunnlogsson, Sorensen, Bo and Wohlert produced masterpieces in a combination of freedom and discipline, which became the figure of excellence of Danish architecture of the 50’s.


In 1947 the Danish artist Asger Jorn wrote:

“ Let us not begin providing a framework; let us begin with what is to be framed; let us recreate human existence and let the framework follow developments elastically so that life can test it, instead of having the framework force and form life.”

Poul Henningsen, Wegner, Jacobsen, Kjaerholm put into practice this discipline to integrate the machine rigidity of industrial mass production with a respect for a human consideration of daily life. 

Even today, this is ethical practice is an exemplary reference model, not only in the context of the discipline of architecture, but in a broader civic sense.


Today Danish population counts less than 5.5 million inhabitants with an average density of 123 inhabitants per square kilometre concentrated in an 8% of the territory; more than 90% are Danes, the rest are Swedes, Germans and especially new immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. 

The religion is predominantly Protestant and the state is still a monarchy, the second oldest in the world after Japan. 

The country is at the forefront in all sectors: agriculture is highly technological and is based on a co-operative organization of production and distribution; breeding ranks among the leading European manufacturers of milk, butter and cheese, and fishing activity places it among the top exporters in the world; industrial manufacturing, mainly related to food and fish, is technologically advanced and is based on a sound wage policy; the tertiary sector, which provides 70% of the GNP, benefits of a strategic geographical position and of a tradition of smart political and administrative pragmatism. 

Denmark is member of the European Union but did not join the unified currency and, to date, has a foreign debt was almost null. 

The motto of the Danish welfare model is “flexsecurity”: economic flexibility combined with social security agility proposes contractual forms supported by concerted practice, integration of the learning process cycle to cycle, a lively labour market policy able to respond quickly to changes, an adequate income support. 

Maybe we could recognize the reasons for this social and economic welfare in an “enlightened humanism” or “civic liberalism”, which has had the capacity to recognize in culture and knowledge the basis for the stability of a community.


Denmark is a country of transit, a “crossing point”, a point of connection between the old continent and the Nordic countries, where in fact different cultures and sensibilities meet. 

The country is fairly homogenous in landscape, population and in religious profession, and demonstrates in the course of history of a singular continuity between past and present and a continuity of cultural values , with a mix of civic consultation and individual freedom. 

This surprising stability, while accepting and promoting the transformation, is deeply rooted on the one hand in a responsible pragmatism, forged by the landscape and rural tradition, on the other in the spirit of Protestantism. 

The cultural identity of the country is based on the co-existence of differences in a whole: tradition and modernity, permanence and exploration, rigor and sensuality, industrialization and crafts. 


Denmark is almost an island, a Mediterranean garden so north to overlook, over the sea, ice.


Genova, 2014