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Photo: (c) Entasis

Carlsberg City, Copenhagen – brewing real urbanity 0

Jacob Stubbe Østergaard from Copenhagen

The Carlsberg breweries, an emblem of Copenhagen for 150 years, have moved away from Copenhagen. The previously closed area has been opened up and a great new urban space revealed. A space for residence? A space for offices? A space for a Carlsberg museum? No. A space for a big dream: The Carlsberg City – dense, urban, complex, cacophonic, open, sustainable, creative, new. A dream which will either turn into nothing or become the pinnacle of Copenhagen architecture. An architectural vision in which art and culture play an intriguing role in shaping the new area's identity. 

Copenhagen architecture

The masterplan has been around since 2007, but the first sod was cut for Carlsberg City only last year. It will take another 15 to 20 years for the dreamed city to rise from the former industrial compound, currently occupied by dozens of 'creative' initiatives: art workshops, art venues, cultural organizers. The Carlsberg area lies right within the center of Copenhagen, and it is shaped by the defining characteristics of Copenhagen architecture in the 21st century. If I ask a random foreigner to tell me the first thing that springs to her mind about Copenhagen architecture, she is likely to go blank. There is no Eiffel Tower in Copenhagen, no Guggenheim Museum and no Big Ben to represent the city. Instead, Copenhagen has achieved architectural fame through its livability. Copenhagen has consistently ranked in the top 5 of Monocle Magazine's livability index, which considers criteria such as crime, connectivity, public transportation, environment, cultural activity and urban design. Copenhagen's livability has caused overseas city developers to look to Copenhagen – a city with no skyline – for a top standard of urban living. Jan Gehl (a Danish architect famous for focusing on city spaces rather than buildings and prioritizing the needs of pedestrians and cyclists instead of cars) has started the “Copenhagenize” project, which has brought many Danish architects across the globe to help other cities become more like Copenhagen.

In the wake of the financial crisis, so-called “green growth” is a major strategy for Denmark. This is evident in Copenhagen architecture. Innovative solutions to waste disposal and energy use are applauded, and bicycles and pedestrians are slowly winning ground from polluting automobiles. Trees and grass are being integrated in dense, urban environments instead of creating distance between grey blocks.

Bicycles and pedestrians in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. Photo: (c) News Øresund – Johan Wessman.

The trend of building dense urban areas on a human scale, to be experienced at walking speed, is gaining momentum globally, in time to the rise in climate consciousness as we approach an oil free future. The value of traditional urban traits (encounters, exchanges, shared space...) is dawning on city builders around the world. We should see Carlsberg City as a manifestation of this paradigm shift. If the dream about Carlsberg City is realized, it could become the pinnacle of Copenhagen style urban livability.
But first, a tiny bit of history... 

A tiny bit of history...

Mr. Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914, founder of New Carlsberg breweries, original proprietor of the Carlsberg complex in Valby, Copenhagen, and son of company founder J.C. Jacobsen) is not your average business mogul. We are dealing with a real character here – a stratospheric Copenhagen celebrity who has already contributed greatly to the identity of the city. For starters, Carl Jacobsen is the man who donated The Little Mermaid, arguably the most famous sculpture in northern Europe, to Copenhagen. A devoted lover of art, he is also the founder of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek – a cherished public museum containing an impressive collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculpture and, notably, an indoor garden of gargantuan palm trees – a tree very seldom seen in these parts. Carl Jacobsen's name is engraved on numerous plaques and statues in Copenhagen, and the 1990's saw a prime-time, high-budget TV series about his life. In short: everyone in Copenhagen drinks Carlsberg.

So what's new? This: In 2008, the Carlsberg breweries left Copenhagen. While the company headquarters remain, the actual brewing of beer is now happening elsewhere. This has opened up a large, central area of Copenhagen for development. An area with such location, size and history is a golden opportunity for anyone with a vision, and as soon as the decision was made to move the brewery, Carlsberg began dreaming about what to do with the land. The result of their dreaming was not to build a theme park or to line their pockets by selling everything to eager property developers. Carlsberg's vision was far more long-sighted and unique. They would build up a new part of Copenhagen under their wing, as bustling, complex and interesting as nearby boroughs Vesterbro and Frederiksberg. When the masterplan was revealed, what we saw was indeed much in contrast to ordinary, profit-driven city planning and much in line with the best ideas of the 'Copenhagenize' architects.

The masterplan. Inspired by the old lager cellars. Photo: (c) Entasis

Carlsberg City: The Soho of Northern Europe, or just another fascinating dream?

The central tenet of Carlsberg City is that the spaces between the buildings are primary to the buildings themselves. While aestheticism is also acknowledged in the project, the goal is to make habitable and vibrant spaces before thinking about beautiful buildings. Words like “contrasts”, “complexity” and “cacophony” spring to the eye when you leaf through the 276-page project folder in which the dream is still contained.

There is much emphasis on the human scale. The city is going to be dense and walkable, and the streets and squares will be built to be the setting of meetings and exchanges between people – strangers as well as friends. This priority has forced other priorities, such as traffic efficiency, into the background. This is part of a greater trend which is picking up pace globally. Real urbanity is once again on the rise. Where modernist architecture served an industrialized, mass-production reality, in which efficiency was the main parameter of success for cities and nations, “Copenhagenized” urban architecture accepts that today's main parameter (at least in Western Europe) is innovation. And innovation comes from exchanges between different people; from letting random things happen and planning for the unplanned.

The creators of the Carlsberg masterplan have used the layout of the century-old lager cellars (underground facilities used in making lager beer) as a guideline for the street layout of the new city. “Here was a plan that was not strictly rational”, the masterplan states, “...A plan that was not beautiful in any classical sense. A plan that included unpredictable lines that one architect or one office could never have created. Therein lay its beauty.”.

The city is subject to the same principles as a work of art. Great art is not the pleasure of having something beautiful to look at – it is the expansion of the mind through challenge and stimulation, new combinations of impressions and movements. The city is the greatest canvas known to man – it holds a work of art that permeates body, activities, lifestyle, vision, sound, smell, encounters between people, encounters between cultures. Much of the choreography is done by those who lay down the buildings, the streets and the spaces inbetween, where you experience the city. In this regard, the modernist tradition of creating harmonious cities that look beautiful from above or from a distance is as inane as using a theatre stage only as an exhibition floor for backdrops instead of staging plays. Ironically, if you think of city concepts as music, the modernist city is like a well-crafted etude in 4/4 and C major, while the traditional, dense and unpredictable city is like a modern piece, full of discords, in which the ultimate harmonies are not readily perceived but more rewarding. There is a wild unrest in the city as an artform; the city may be continuously moulded by its inhabitants. It's an interactive work of art which is never finished. This point is stressed in the Carlsberg City masterplan, with a hidden reference to Umberto Eco's poetics of the open work. The city is always an ongoing, collective work. It is never finished. 

The greatest paradox of the Carlsberg City is that its planners seek to nurture this wildness. They want to plan for the unplanned. Copenhagen has seen its share of grand plans, looking promising on the drawing board but ending up as drab, windswept suburban areas in the real world. Most recently, Ørestad, south of the city center, won several architecture awards before it was even built but is now known for nothing in particular, and its enormous housing blocks stand as still as mountains never climbed.  Many of the people who live there are happy to, but it's not the attractive, lively area it was intended to be. Centralized large-scale planning has usually led to monotonous areas with little activity, while nearly all the greatest urban areas (by the standards aspired to by the Carlsberg City) have grown largely unplanned across several centuries.

“Sadly we don't have that much time on our hands...”, project CEO Lars Holten says about this paradox. “...but we're vain enough to believe we can carry this through.” “Our greatest fear”, he explains, “is the city drawn and directed by one single architect. Such a city might be considered an architectonic masterpiece, but it will never work as a city. To us, a city is a cacophony, including different styles of architecture and different ideas about the relation between buildings and the spaces between them. So we're going to bring in as many different architects as we possibly can. We have yet to prove that we can succeed with this project, but we believe it.”

Carlsberg City in the future. Photo: (c) Entasis

All architecture visualizations, including the one you see above, have one thing in common: people. Walking people with dogs or umbrellas, sitting people with coffee cups, playing people, children and adults. People who all seem very happy to be just where they are. The presence and activity of large numbers of people in the city space is a crucial measure of success for most urban architecture projects.  This is particularly important at Carlsberg City, which strives to become “the part of Copenhagen where you meet the unexpected and where there is always room for surprising facets of city life”. One of the most crucial questions for Carlsberg, then, is how to secure a substantial and constant population, not only of people, but of people willing to make things happen and actively take part in the city life. This is where art takes the stage, and where a new chapter is written in the story of the relationship between art and city space.

Calling all bohêmes

If you take a walk in the Carlsberg area today, May 1, 2013, you come across a largely empty area. Enormous, unshapely industrial buildings, no longer in use, stand shoulder to shoulder with neatly decorated 19th century works, including the picturesque “Elephant Gate” which is to be preserved as part of the future city. But if you take a closer look into the corners and cracks of this strange place, you suddenly notice that it's buzzing with life. Home-made signposts point toward small galleries and music venues. Design workshops and art collectives reside in former factory halls. And there on a patch of grass between two roads, a climbing track has been imaginatively formed in the trees and a group of school children is getting ready to go climbing. It's all part of the strategy.

“We cannot forge a local identity”, says Mads Byder, founder of Urban Help Inc. and “city life strategist” for Carlsberg City. “...what we can do is invite others to come here and then let them define the place. To artists and so-called 'bohêmes' in general, the rough character of the premises here is highly attractive. We set up very good conditions for them – low rent etc. – and they come, knowing they are part of something greater, of defining this new part of Copenhagen.” So how can art define a place? How do the galleries and the dance theatres now in place at Carlsberg make it a better city in the future? “Everything begins with a story.”, says Byder, “'s the same as when you go see a movie or a play: you go because you've heard of it, from friends, from Facebook, from the newspapers. Artists and cultural organizers are so important because they create stories very frequently. What they do is narratable. Architect firms or IT companies might do something you'd hear of once every other year. Artists generate stories at a much faster rate.”  Carlsberg City wishes to move the boundaries of what can be done in the middle of a city. The world must know that at Carlsberg, anything's possible.

“We've been successful at generating a buzz in this way,” Byder concludes –  “an awareness that something is going on at Carlsberg, even though the city is not even there yet.”  Project CEO Lars Holten takes a more historical angle to the role of art at Carlsberg City: “It's in the DNA here,”, he says, referring back to the Carlsberg founders and their love for art.  “Art was integral to Carlsberg right from the beginning, in a way that was very unusual for an industrial company. We hope to keep it like this, to honour the legacy of Carl Jacobsen and J.C. Jacobsen.”

To sum up, artists have been called in to conjure identity from the grey slabs and industrial buildings because art makes stories. This will instill Carlsberg City into the minds of other people in Copenhagen and abroad, and cause the well-endowed 'creative class' to take an interest in the place. And when the creative class moves in, the revenue comes.  The dream scheme is as follows: Developer helps artists make  art  – Artists help developers create attractive area – Attractive area draws well-off buyers for premises – Developers make profit.

And in the meantime, a vibrant, open and human scale city area will have grown up in the middle of Copenhagen, to the advantage of everyone else. According to Mads Byder, people are already queueing for apartments and offices that have not yet been built. 

Photo: (c) Entasis

Future prospects

The question waiting to be answered by the Carlsberg experiment is this: Is it possible for a centralized and commercial agent to create a living, breathing city? Normally, cities evolve in a continuous struggle between commercial developers, who simply want to make a profit, and public authorities who lay out some ground rules to make sure developers can't spoil the area for everyday users and other developers. At Carlsberg, the commercial developers seem to have adopted the ideal role of the public authorities: seeking to create a vibrant area, plesant to the everyday public and smoothly integrated with surrounding areas. Carlsberg City will teach us whether this is a sustainable path for future cities: long-sighted commercial developers, aware of the benefits of real urban diversity and activity, inviting artists and creative minds to help create thriving and unpredictable areas, attractive to businesses and inhabitants alike.

When asked what is the main obstacle to Carlsberg City's dream, Mads Byder replies: “The music must not be stopped. We have been succesful at generating a buzz during the first five years, but if the temporary, creative activities die out during the coming years, as the bulldozers and the construction cranes move in, it will be of no use. All this activity must continue while the city rises from the ground. Identity is not created overnight – or within just five years.”

Let's imagine that the music is not stopped, and that Carlsberg City rises to become the authentic and popular urban area it wants to be. There might still be some challenges. First of all: what will happen to the bohêmes when the broad creative class has moved in and the rough factory halls have been exchanged for state-of-the-art office buildings? Statistics support Mads Byder's assertion that the creative class follows after the bohêmes, but the bohêmes are then often forced to move out because the rent increases. This process is known as gentrification, and at Carlsberg it seems almost pre-planned. Will the developers have any incentive to maintain low-rent facilities for bohêmes when the area is run over by rich people willing to pay fortunes for floor space? The answer is yes, according to CEO Lars Holten. “We have no precise plans for that yet, but art and cultural events are part of our DNA. If you look a little deeper, you can see that this does not conflict with our commercial endeavours. We need to keep the area interesting and keep our profile strong in the future too.”

Another issue is the durability of the 'creative economy', driven by innovation, which is a basis for the Carlsberg strategy. What if growing climate threats and increasing economic instability bring growth economy as such to an end and require the formation of an ecological economy, tied up to the Earth's actual resources? These are inevitable concerns for anyone with an experiment as ambitious and daring as Carlsberg City. The outcome will tell us much about the future of our cities.