Friday, January 29, 2010

An urban showcase lacking street life

COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. Riding Copenhagen’s sleek, driverless metro into the new development Ørestad (see video clip here), you enter an ultramodern urban landscape full of architectural highlights.
As the train leaves the tunnel and continues above ground on the island of Amager you see a celebrated new concert hall, a great new conference center where the United Nations held its climate summit in December, and some of the most exceptional residential buildings anywhere.
But when you get off the train you sense that there is something missing, especially if you linger around at night.
Streets are empty, except for cars moving rapidly along the main boulevard. People hurry into their modern dwellings. Even the huge shopping mall in the center of Ørestad feels desolate.
“There has been too much focus on the architecture of individual buildings, but not enough thought has been given to the urban space as a whole. Everything is in the same scale, and that scale has been adapted to cars”, said landscape architect Jacob Kamp when I met him in Copenhagen last year.
I looked him up after reading a very critical op-ed article he wrote in the Danish daily Politiken, where he described the horror of living a few months in a borrowed apartment in Ørestad last winter.
We met at a popular café in bustling Nørrebro, the lively, multicultural neighbourhood of Copenhagen that stands as a contrast to modern developments like Ørestad. Nørrebro is his home and represents everything that Jacob Kamp (right) loves about Copenhagen.
“This neighbourhood includes everything that a big city should be. There is a scale from the public to the private sphere that makes it very pleasant. And the neighbourhood is not suited for cars”, said Kamp.
In his long and passionate op-ed piece he wrote about the coldness and lifeless atmosphere he experienced while living a few months in Ørestad while his apartment in Nørrebro was being renovated.
It was just one of many stories that have been published in Danish press discussing the lack of life in some of the city’s new developments. The critics, and Jacob Kamp is one of them, do not object to the modern and often spectacular architecture as such (even though there has been criticism of what is seen as a focus on luxury homes). It’s the failure to create street life among the architectural marvels that’s in question.
Ørestad is a huge development on the widespread fields of Amager island, towards Copenhagen’s international airport. When construction began in the late 90’s it was presented as the “crossroads of Scandinavia” because of its proximity to the new bridge/tunnel to Sweden (opened in 2000) and Kastrup airport.
Construction is still on-going. When finished, Ørestad is (according to its original plans) expected to house 20,000 residents, 20,000 students and some 80,000 places of work.
Ørestad is divided into three separate parts, connected by the metro and with vast green areas separating them.
Ørestad North, the initial part of the development and closest to central Copenhagen, is dominated by the university and the vast complex of Danish Radio and its marvellous new concert hall.
In Ørestad City lies some of the celebrated residential buildings, most notably Bjerget (the Mountain) and VM-husene (left), both of which contributed to the fame of rising star architect Bjarke Ingels whom we wrote about in the previous report on Copenhagen.
Here you also find a huge shopping mall called Field’s, which many feel is a big part of the problem with Ørestad. Shops and restaurants that should have been spread out at street level to create urban life are gathered under one roof in a sterile mall environment.
The latest addition, Ørestad South, is still under construction with yet another spectacular building by Bjarke Ingels and his team as its main attraction.
“No matter what you think of Ørestad as such, it has given us architects a lot of opportunities to experiment”, said Ingels, who lives in one of the buildings he helped create, when I asked him about the criticised development last year.
I also asked Helle Søholt of world famous Danish urban designers Gehl Architects of her view on Ørestad.
“We haven’t taken our urban culture with us to some of our new developments. There is no activity on street level. Sometimes people living in Ørestad call us and asks us to do something, but it doesn’t work that way”, said Søholt.
“I don’t think Ørestad will turn into a ghetto, but it must absolutely be improved.”
In fairness it must be said that Ørestad is far from completed. The Danish real estate market has suffered as much as real estate everywhere during the financial crisis. A lot of the high-end, expensive homes are empty and it will take time to fill Ørestad with the number of people it is intended for.
City architect Jan Christiansen, who oversees architectural matters for the City of Copenhagen, thinks it’s too early to pass judgment on Ørestad.
“I think everything eventually will turn out for the better. It takes time for a new district to develop.”

This is the third in our series of reports on Copenhagen. In the next, and final, story we will look at plans for yet another mega-project aiming to be a masterpiece of modern, sustainable urban development.

The Metro arriving at Field's shopping center.

VM-husene with its characteristic balconies.

The "House Snake", one of many exciting buildings in Ørestad.

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