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Copenhagen’s Waterfront Development

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Photo: Christian Geisnanes

Copenhagen is working to change its harbor on two fronts. The first is high-end architecture. Frøsiloen, a pair of massive soybean silos in the southern harbor, lay derelict for years, and constantly cropped up in architecture classes as a theoretical problem. The silos have now been converted to apartments: Dutch firm MVDRV hung living quarters around the outside of the concrete cylinders, leaving the inside of each silo as a tall, tubular atrium. The buildings are sinuous yet spectacularly simple, and are conveniently connected by a foot-and-bike bridge to Fisketorvet, the shopping mall in the former fish market.

The city’s second harbor redevelopment tool is the power of culture. Three public buildings act as magnets, pulling crowds toward the waterfront and forcing the rest of the city to shift around them. The Black Diamond is a glossy, crystalline extension to the Royal Library designed by local firm Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen. The new building grows out of the ancient institution’s heart, bridges a street, and lands on the harborfront with such dramatic force that it thrusts toward the water. On its granite façade, dark and polished as a concert grand, the brick warehouses across the canal gleam in perfect reflection.

A little farther north, the new Royal Danish Playhouse, too, seems to want to slip into the water. The theater, by the Copenhagen firm Lundgaard & Tranberg, offers drama even before the lights go down: a slab of darkened blue-green glass reaches westward, anchored to the dock by a copper cube that the sea air will soon turn green. The lobby welcomes everyone, not just ticket buyers; a great glass wall makes the theater feel like a maritime experience; and a field of starlike fiber-optic lights twinkles up above.

From the playhouse, it’s a short trip by water bus across the canal to the Operaen, an opera house built in 2005 on a former Navy pier. Designed by the dean of Danish architects, Henning Larsen, the building features a silvery, wafer-like canopy resting on a glass-and-steel egg. It’s too bulky and self-important to be great architecture, but even so, the Operaen could anchor the ongoing metamorphosis of the adjacent islands of Holmen and Christianshavn, which served as the epicenter of Denmark’s military and industrial complex until abandonment and neglect made it fertile ground for Bohemian chic. (In 1971, a group of youths moved into the disused military base of Christiania and began planting gardens in the polluted soil. The area is now a hippie park, a tourist-friendly enclave easily identified by the permanent scent of marijuana.)

Copenhageners greeted the building with mixed feelings. Some were suspicious of a $470 million project entirely funded by one man, the nonagenarian shipping magnate Mærsk McKinney-Møller. Others took sides in a squabble between architect and donor over the design, or hated the resulting compromise. Many lodged an irrefutable complaint: since the Operaen lacks a subway stop, getting there means making a long drive through downtown Copenhagen. A proposed foot-and-bike bridge between the playhouse and the opera will help, though it’s not clear how many operagoers will park on one side of the canal and walk to the other through the Scandinavian winter wind.

But Copenhagen has made good use of its mistakes. In the early 1990’s, the city allowed developers to put up a shiny but dismal phalanx of offices and apartment buildings in the south harbor, creating a drab strip of boardwalk and sealing off the harbor from the inland neighborhoods. This resulted in an invigorating burst of outrage, and a consensus that the urban waterfront should be a public amenity. Suddenly, Copenhageners understood what they did not want and demanded more intelligent development. Their involvement means that virtually all quayside building is potentially controversial, and every construction site a spur to activism.

The latest battleground is the Bryghusgrunden, site of a now- vanished brewery just south of the Black Diamond. A billboard is festooned with renderings of a new headquarters for the Realdania foundation and the Danish Architecture Center, designed by Rem Koolhaas. In theory, it would be hard to name a more promising project: Koolhaas has a global reputation, and Realdania has $100 million a year to spend on a pertinent altruistic mission to “improve quality of life for the common good through the built environment.” But the project threatens to interrupt the boardwalk and commit what has become a cardinal development sin in Copenhagen: privatizing the waterfront. A few yards away, an artists’ collective, Parfyme, recently set up a temporary harbor laboratory for alternative ideas, right next to the Bryghus site. Volunteers cobbled together a rickety structure—an anti-building, really—linked to a floating “museum” and emblazoned with the slogan alle kan bruge havnen (everyone can use the harbor). That could almost be Copenhagen’s new battle cry.

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