Ahead of Summer Solstice on June 23, Jeff Risom talks about his quintessentially cosy home city
Compact and incredibly easy to navigate on foot or by bicycle, Copenhagen exemplifies the notion that ‘small is beautiful’. What it lacks in landmark buildings, contemporary culture, wild nightlife and raw urban energy is made up for by ‘hygge’ (cosiness), stylish design, beautiful people and lots and lots of bicycles.
It’s common to see a father riding home in his work suit after a hard day (at 4.30pm!), with blond children sandwiched between grocery bags on his ‘station wagon bike’. Copenhageners cycle everywhere – on dates, when going clubbing (you can get a ticket for being drunk in charge of bicycle, but the law is rarely enforced), and when shopping for groceries or DIY supplies.
Strolling along today’s car-free streets and into lively squares with vibrant café life, it’s hard to tell that most of the public spaces in the town centre were parking lots in the ’50s and early ’60s. Cleared of vehicles in 1962, Strøget – the main shopping street – was one of the first pedestrianised streets in the world. At the time, shop owners argued that removing cars would kill business because no one was going to walk in this climate – there are 300 days of overcast skies a year and 180 days of rain. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Copenhagen, which translates as ‘merchant harbour’, supported a Danish empire that formerly encompassed present-day Norway, parts of Sweden, northern Germany and Iceland. Today, the once-bustling channel to the Baltic is largely quiet, dotted with iconic buildings that are high-profile but rarely used. The Opera House (controversially donated to the Queen of Denmark by the nation’s richest man), Royal Library and Theatre Playhouse are an attempt to redefine the harbour as a prime cultural playground. Yet it is the simple Harbour Bath lido and community-designed Islands Brygge park that truly provide an opportunity for people to enjoy the water that runs around and through the city.
Even arriving at CPH Airport is a pleasure. How many other airports offer hard-wood floors and a painless 12-minute ride to the central train station? This is the essence of Danish design: simple, easy to use, elegant and finely detailed.
But how does the city function so well? Watching Copenhageners wait patiently at vehicle-free street corners until the red ‘Don’t walk’ sign turns green provides some insight: they are obsessive about following rules, notably traffic legislation and paying for public transport (so much so that the city’s transport operates on an honour system). About some other issues, however – especially graffiti and smoking (the 2008 indoor smoking ban made an exception for any bar smaller than 35sq m) – they are pleased to remain stubborn Vikings.
Harbour Bath Copenhagen’s ambition is to become, Copenhagen’s ambition is to become, by 2015, the capital city with the best urban environment, and the Harbour Bath illustrates how close the city already is to achieving this. Built out into the harbour in the old industrial area of Islands Brygge, it is a key part of the city’s ‘Blue Plan’, a strategy for revitalising 42km of former docklands with houseboats, promenades, watersport facilities, playgrounds and recreation areas.
Waste water from sewers and factories – as well as pollution from the port’s traffic – has been reduced and controlled so that, for most of the summer (bar a few days of closure when heavy rainfall reduces the water quality), the water of Harbour Bath is clean enough to swim in.
Designed by young local architects PLOT and divided into five separate pools, the Harbour Bath embraces the urban environment that surrounds it with dry docks, piers for sunbathing, boat ramps, cliffs, playgrounds and pontoons imaginatively incorporated into the space. As soon as it opened in 2002, as part of the Havneparken, it was an instant hit. It has become the hub of the city’s summer social activity, attracting families, teenagers, even businessmen and -women looking for some post-work refreshment.
Getting there Austrian Airlines flies to Copenhagen via Vienna from Dhs2,085 return (including tax).
Where is it? Copenhagen occupies the easternmost tip of Denmark, on the islands of Zealand and Amager.
Climate Coastal and windy with mild winters and summers. Despite the northerly location, average daytime temperatures rarely rise above 22°C or fall below 2°C.
Ethnic mix Mostly Scandinavian, with small numbers from Turkey and the Middle East.
Major sights Amalienborg Palace, Nyhavn, Louisiana Modern Art Museum, Rosenborg Palace, Christiania, Tivoli Gardens, Harbour Bath.
Insiders’ tips Vernaedamsvej, Halvandet beach bar at Refshaloeen, a free peek at the Zoo through Frederiksberg Park, Bankeråt café on Nansensgade, Bopa Plads, Blaagaardsgade, the kitsch but fun Absolut Ice Bar, the Library Bar near the train station.
Where’s the buzz? Kødbyen, the old meatpacking district, for trendy bars and galleries; Istedgade for small bars; Sankt Hans Torv along Elmegade and Birkegade for boutiques and cocktail bars; Vega for music; Custom House for cutting-edge trendiness.
Percentage of inner-city commuters who ride their bicycle to work 38 per cent
Amount of pedestrianised space in the inner city 71,000sq m
Number of outdoor café seats in the inner city 7,025 Construction cost of each seat in Denmark Radio’s new concert hall Dkk470,000 (Dhs277,000). The only auditorium in the rest of the world that was more expensive was the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Length of the Øresund Bridge The main span is 1,092m – the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world – plus 3,739m for the eastern approach and 3,014m for the western approach bridges. The famous structure connects Copenhagen with Malmö in Sweden.
Tivoli Gardens opened 1843. It’s the second-oldest amusement park in the world (and the inspiration for Disneyland), and features one of the world’s oldest working rollercoasters.
Immortalised in Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence.