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Copenhagen's Evolving Tivoli Gardens

The merry-go-round at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park.

Photo: Miemo Penttinen

In one of the world’s oldest theme parks, in the city that recently rebranded itself cOPENhagen (a bid to prove its general friendliness), a minor design revolution is unspooling. Revolution may be a heavy term to throw at Tivoli Gardens—after all, theme parks are by definition lightweights. But Tivoli, a charming and compact amusement park, is not only bang in the center of the capital but also sits at the heart of the culture. Danes feel proprietary about it, having grown up riding its 1914 Rutschebanen roller coaster, listening to its resident symphony orchestra, and eating in its restaurants, which range from a café serving Danish smørrebrød and a Croatian buffet to chef Paul Cunningham’s Michelin-starred The Paul. Whether they’ll feel such warmth toward the massive Kim Utzon–designed Tivoli Hotel & Congress Center about to open up nearby, not to mention Tivoli Edge, a proposed boundary development by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, remains to be seen. What’s happening in this petite magic kingdom is a massive brand extension—a starchitect-led growth spurt that’s about as smooth as a ride on the Flyvende Kuffert, the beloved Hans Christian Andersen–narrated flying steamer trunks ride. Which is to say not fast, fairly up and down, and with hairpin turns. But also some good stories.

Since the park’s inception, design has been at the heart of its brand. Walt Disney famously took his inspiration from Tivoli, but although he borrowed its whimsy, he left the serious design behind. Tivoli is downright visionary. Certain motifs that now read as Danish Modern originated from details contributed to the park by great architects and designers—as a glance at Poul Henningsen’s (of PH Lamp fame) iconic spiral streetlights or Frits Schlegel’s sinuous concert hall will confirm.

And so it continues, as successive generations of avant-garde Danes put their stamp on the place, including Lin Utzon (the late Jørn “Sydney Opera House” Utzon’s daughter), Per Arnoldi, Wilhelm Freddie, Søren Robert Lund, and 3XN Architects. The newest slate of big names brought in under CEO Lars Liebst are drawn from farther afield: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Foster & Partners, Matteo Thun, and Kim Utzon (Lin’s brother). Only one, Utzon, must have come to Tivoli on grade-school field trips.

The big changes got under way two years ago with the opening of the Nimb complex—a cross between a Moorish Taj Mahal and a Christmas tree. Altering the iconic 1909 Bazaar building by architect Knud Arne Petersen (who was also director of Tivoli from 1899 to 1940) made the hordes of abonnine (elderly season-pass owners) nervous. But the renovation by the Italian architect and Memphis Group cofounder Matteo Thun—including a 13-room hotel that’s all hand-finished details and costly traditional materials like Douglas fir and Venetian marble—reassured them. And so it should. I was bowled over by my room, with its oiled-oak floor, silver wallpaper, and Philippe Starck bathtub, all atop the Michelin-starred restaurant Herman and an on-site dairy. Completing the picture is the Andersen bakery, which, in a typically Tivolian cross-cultural mash-up, is a Japanese store with Danish pastries that’s named, of course, after Hans Christian himself.

A less successful project, the proposal by London’s Foster & Partners to put a glass-towered hotel and condos on the Tivoli Castle site, was legislated out of existence the year before Nimb opened. “I was disappointed,” Liebst says. “The politicians couldn’t see the potential of the project to be a contemporary landmark and to brand Copenhagen as both a modern capital and a tourist destination.” But it wasn’t only the politicians who objected. Though the present law against too-tall developments in the inner city hadn’t yet passed, the tower’s height caused a populist uproar and, lo, at 262 feet tall, the terrifying chairoplane, Himmelskibet, remains the highest structure in Tivoli.

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