I am standing in the Absolut Icebar Copenhagen, wearing a hooded parka that management assures me is dry-cleaned thrice weekly, contemplating the walls, bar, and furnishings, all of which are made from ice mined in Lapland. My confreres and I—–we resemble the cast of Nanook of the North—–are sipping guess what from oversize hollow ice cubes and questioning the bartender about whether or not his eight-hour shifts give him colds. (“Not so much anymore,” he replies grimly.) Peeling my lips from my glass, I wonder: Could this be Copenhagen?
Nej! In reality, the 800-year-old port is one of the world’s least pretentious, least trendy capitals. And thanks to its manageable size and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendliness, it’s among the easiest to explore. Most of Copenhagen’s medieval structures were lost to fires in the 18th century, but its historic center, which until the 1850s was segregated from its surroundings by ramparts, remains an exceptionally rich mix of architectural epochs. These include the Dutch Renaissance style promoted by the city’s great builder, Christian IV, which produced the remarkable “dragon tail” spire atop the Børsen; Frederik V’s rococo legacy, personified by Amalienborg Palace; and the classicism that arose following the English Navy’s 1807 bombardment, displayed notably in C. F. Hansen’s courthouse—–all unified by Strøget, the pedestrian street that runs from Radhuspladsen at the quarter’s western edge to Kongens Nytorv in the east.
There are also abundant touristic pleasures: important museums (though the region’s finest, the Louis-iana Museum of Modern Art, is up the coast in Humlebæk); a new opera house, designed by old master Henning Larsen, to be joined shortly by a new Royal Theater, from the leading-edge firm Lundgaard & Tranberg; gastronomic delights ranging from the ubiquitous smorrebrod sandwich to ten Michelin-starred restaurants; and, as befits a nation that produced Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and Poul Kjærholm, a great design center but a stone’s throw from Tivoli, the 164-year-old inspiration for Walt Disney’s Stateside theme park.
Yet Copenhagen’s character is intimate rather than monumental, and what ultimately impresses most are the vernacular buildings that give the multiple quarters variety and distinction: Christianshavn’s Dutch-inspired canal houses, the working-class apartment blocks of Vesterbro, and Holmen’s former naval structures.
Thus it’s no surprise that the architecture leading the capital’s postmillennial transformation is more about city-building than Bilbao-ization. And Copenhagen really is transforming. Consider Vesterbro: Fifteen years ago, Istedgade, one of the quarter’s major thoroughfares, was awash in prostitutes and drugs. Now the tiny student apartments have been combined into co-ops, latterias and boutiques have supplanted the sex shops, and street life is unmistakably boho-chic. (Let history, rather than your correspondent, judge this outcome.)
To find out more, I visit the Danish Architecture Center at its harborside headquarters in Christianshavn. The center’s mission, explains DAC project manager Solveig Nielsen, “is to show architecture as a way of developing cities and society.” She walks me through Copenhagen Changing, an exhibition chronicling major development in six different districts—–a midpoint snapshot of Copenhagen curated by Copenhagen X, the DAC’s ten-year project that surveys and communicates the roughly 80 new projects influencing the city now.