My Kind of Town: Copenhagen is proud of its past without being pompous or arrogant
First published in AT34 (January 1993)
It is difficult to imagine the pleasures of the past. We have charming engravings of the Vauxhall and the other pleasure gardens of London, but what were they really like? Were they really as enchanting and exotic as the prints suggest, or were they just tawdry and seedy? The answer can be found in the very centre of Copenhagen.
One of the most enchanting evenings of my life was spent in the Tivoli Gardens earlier this year. It was the Vauxhall (on which it was modelled, in 1844) come to life. Beyond the entrance arch, an avenue stretched away towards the evening sky with fairy lights hanging in the trees. A brass band of boys in toy-soldiers’ uniforms marched towards the grounds, which were packed with happy promenading Danes enjoying a summer night out – a night with no hint of the unpleasantness such as British ‘yoof’ usually provides. And the attractions seemed endless: fun fairs, big dippers, restaurants, boats on a lake and, best of all, the Pantomime Theatre, a Chinese fantasy by Dahlerup, where the peacock-feathers curtain parted to reveal a mime act, performed with a proper sense of history and style.
The great question is: why has the Tivoli survived, why is it flourishing, when the Cremorne, the Ranelagh, the Vauxhall have so long departed? Why is Copenhagen, an ancient city, happy with its traditions while being free and informal (and still bothering to support a flourishing red-light district)? For that matter, why is Copenhagen still a well-run, efficient and enjoyable capital when London is subsiding into squalid chaos? Copenhagen is, in fact, a standing reproach to Britain. In one of its most shameful acts in our history, the British navy shelled the city for several days in 1807, setting much of it on fire. The only positive result of this outrage against Denmark’s neutrality was that CF Hansen, the great local neoclassicist, rebuilt the destroyed Cathedral of Our Lady. Copenhagen is also a reproach to London because it demonstrates that metropolitan life can still be possible, let alone enjoyable.
Copenhagen is the right size: big, but possible to walk around. It has a great railway station right in the middle and still has trams. It is by the water and is broken up by canals. And, most important, its plan is not boringly formal. It is a city that has grown from its original fortified core and so is full of irregular winding streets and unexpected open spaces – the essence of a European city. Perhaps it is a disadvantage that it is flat, with no hills and, consequently, no vantage point, but there are sufficient compensations including a skyline of exotic towers and steeples. And it is still, visibly, an ancient, royal city. It is charming to see long-haired conscripts in busbies and uniforms straight out of a painting of Denmark’s ‘Golden Age’, changing the guard in the elegant, octagonal public open space of the Amalienborg Palace Square. For perhaps Denmark is a model for Britain of what an ancient and yet modern country can be: proud of its past and identity without being pompous and arrogant.
And then of course there is the architecture – the real purpose of a visit to any city. Thanks to successive fires (not all caused by the British navy) the medieval period is not well represented, but there is rich treasure from more recent centuries. There is splendid Victorian eclecticism-turned-national-romanticism in Nyrop’s town hall but Copenhagen is really a place for the devotee of neoclassicism – of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of the earlier phase, there is Hansen’s work and the Thorvaldsens Museum by Bindesbøll – one of the wonders of the world. It is pure delight: a shrine to Denmark’s great sculptor who returned to Rome at the end of his life to present his work to the nation. The resulting building shows how neoclassicism need not be cold and chilling, for it is beautifully coloured, inside and out, to make a perfect background for the plaster casts. The twentieth century neoclassical revival is equally interesting, producing square, elegant, functional buildings which evolved into an unassertive and well-crafted modernism. The great police headquarters, with its vast circular atrium, has to be seen to be believed.
But architecture is never quite enough. I love Copenhagen because it is dominated by drink. It is a city with great brewery buildings, above all the new Carlsberg brewery with its exotic brick tower resting on huge granite elephants. Nor is all that excellent beer drunk in vain, for Carlsberg has long been one of the great patrons of the arts in Denmark and the brewer, Carl Jacobsen, donated his collections of art and sculpture to the state and housed it in a superb turn-of-the-century classical building – the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This is almost as lovely as the Thorvaldsen Museum. Indeed, Copenhagen is a city of wonderful museums and galleries. The only blot on the record is the removal of the great Versailles staircase in the National Museum of Art by some idiot modernist in the 1960s. But no city is perfect, and a city that can offer the finest of neoclassicism together with the unselfconscious delights of Tivoli (let alone streets of seriously tempting bookshops) is one for me. And you never even notice that wretched mermaid.