In Copenhagen’s grassy Søndermarken park, there are two small glass pyramids – the only indication that there is anything out of the ordinary here. One is open, and I enter down some cellar-like steps into a vast, underground world.
Cisternerne is a dark, cathedral-like space, about the size of a megalomaniac’s palace. The arches are hung with translucent panels, through which spotlights diffract into rainbows. This is Weaving the Light, a kaleidoscopic installation by South Korean artist Kimsooja, in what used to be a reservoir.
This architectural wonder, with a challenging, near-100 per cent humidity, is a remarkable place for a contemporary installation. Kimdooja tells me: “As I entered the cistern, in the dark, I immediately thought of light.”
The panels ripple in the dark, like huge canvases, and reflect in pools below. The installation is part of Copenhagen’s three-year tenure as Unesco’s World Capital of Architecture. The city has taken on the mantle from Rio de Janeiro – both have a legacy of architectural brilliance and innovation for finding solutions to urban challenges.
Denmark has long been fertile ground for creativity, fostered by an education system that promotes teamwork and supported by a strong social safety net. In 2017, the Danish Design Council identified 10 values that constitute Danish design DNA, among them, simplicity, durability, quality and perhaps above all, human.
I have come to see what makes the capital ground zero for Danish design. The contributions are evident in a new permanent exhibition, So Danish!, at BLOX, the canalside Danish Architecture Centre. It charts a course from Viking times to the present day, with the chance to experience the cocooning of a Jacobsen chair and an installation that shows film on four sides to evoke a sense of architecture in the round. I learn that Viking architecture tended to take the shape of an upturned boat, and of the importance of bricks in a country that’s not blessed with timber reserves or quarries.
I join a cycling tour with beCopenhagen, led by architect Asser Munch. He points out how Danish architecture is soberly beautiful and functional, and explains how the Dutch influence brought a less Calvinist approach to building.
To illustrate this, we visit CopenHill, a dry ski slope atop a waste management plant designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, which is responsible for many of Copenhagen’s out-there new buildings, including a pair of spiky, cactus-like towers.
We bike around the university, where the central courtyards have hillocks that are fun to cycle over, and we are shown an area that was once tenements, where flats were built without bathrooms. Families deserted the city for the suburbs post-Second World War, so to tempt the population back, money was spent on building underground car parks to rid the streets of cars, turning the freed-up space into playgrounds.
As we talk, children are playing in the basketball courts. Asser tells us that property prices have risen prodigiously in Copenhagen in recent years. However, restrictions on vacant homes and foreign ownership safeguards the capital against some of London’s afflictions.
It was mid-century when modernist architects and designers such as Finn Juhl, Arne Jacobsen, Nanna Ditzel and Poul Henningsen began to put Danish architecture and design on the map. They honed form and functionality to create what are still some of the world’s most sought-after chairs and lamps.
Copenhagen’s SAS Hotel was the work of Jacobsen, who designed everything from the building to the teaspoons. Kurt Holst, chief concierge at what is now the Radisson Collection Royal Hotel, shows me the pale-blue Jacobsen-designed suite that has been kept as a time capsule.
Danes often wonder at the interest their design inspires, he tells me. “They say, ‘It’s just simple homewares!’” As he demonstrates a desk lamp, which swivels to give different intensity of light, he adds: “For the Danes, the lamp is not just for light, but to make us hygge [cosy].”
I am staying at the neighbouring Hotel Alexandra. Its remarkable furnishings are the collection of Jeppe Mühlhausen, who has been collecting classic 20th-century pieces for decades. There is a room devoted to the work of Juhl while the groovy Verner Panton suite has a Tango-orange sitting room and a purple-walled bedroom – a reminder that Danish design is not all functional white walls.
Inspired, I cycle 20 minutes to Copenhagen’s most extraordinary building, Grundtvig’s Church. Here, I find, perhaps the most glorious evocation of the Danish devotion to the brick. Constructed of around five million, it is busy with architectural students and would-be influencers posing in the aisles of this soaring, modernist-Gothic masterpiece, where even the surrounding housing has been constructed to echo the church.
As I cycle around the neighbourhood, I look up to the slanted roofs, which slope like upturned boats – perhaps, still an echo of the Vikings.
The writer flew with Norwegian from Gatwick to Copenhagen.
Where to eat
POPL: Noma’s affordable burger joint, offering simple-yet-fantastic patties with a range of fermented flavours.
Beyla: A sunny-feeling, superb vegan bistro that blows away any preconceptions about plant-based cuisine.
Llama: Danish and South American cuisine, in a lively tiled basement with serious mixologists.
No. 2: Scandi-chic, low-lighting and the sense you are in an episode of Borgen, with canal views and Nordic cooking.
Aamanns Replik: Harbour views and classic open sandwiches, plus schnapps.