Susan was the best of hosts! We discovered her house in Airbnb, it lay fifty meters from the shoreline and less than a thousand from Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. She immediately made us feel at home, she already had recommendations for our dinner – a quaint little restaurant in the Nivå harbour – booked a table, lent us bikes and we were on our way. Back home after a solid and delicious Danish burger, she offered us tea and wonderful conversation until midnight.
In the morning, after a sunny breakfast that she’d left us before going to yoga, we went to visit the neighbourhood’s private jetty upon the Øresund. The sun was shining bright and the reflection on the gently wavy water turned it into a yellowish-green up close, or a blinding white far away on the horizon, where a faint silhouette of Sweden’s coastline and a less faint contour of the cliffs of the isle of Ven (Hven in Danish) could be seen.
After a short train ride to North Copenhagen and another north-westward from the city, we reached Bagsværd, a suburb of the capital chosen to become the site of a church designed by Jørn Utzon in the sixties. The design, having little resemblance with a church from the outside, had the natural light as it’s best friend and ally. It’s one of those designs where everything seems obsessively drawn by the head architect, from the free-form concrete ceilings emulating clouds in the sky, to the door plaques and the detailing of the exhibiting cases upon the hallway walls.
Benefiting from a lot of glass ceilings and being mostly built with prefabricated blocs of white concrete and white ceramic casing, we had to wander the long hallways with sunglasses on. While it is nordic and timeless in the process – almost everything seemed prefabricated! – it was international and time-framed in its layouts and free-form ceilings – reminding Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp or several of Niemeyer’s works. It’s a daughter of modernism and a spearhead of Frampton’s critical’s regionalism.
After a few hours spent in the holiday-deserted streets of Helsingør, we caught the train southward to Humblebæk, an otherwise unremarkable small town on the western shore of the Øresund – using the Danish spelling here. What really puts this town on the map is Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, an outstanding building, landscape and institution in the outskirts of Copenhagen. It’s been around since the late 50s, harbouring works from all kinds of well-known artists from all around the world. The exhibitions that were there weren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I rejoiced seeing the tiny permanent Niels Wessel Bagge collection of pre-columbian art. Such objects were there to remind me of the wonders of simplicity in patterns, shapes and colours and also that humour belongs in art! Like three-dimensional caricatures The more we stared at some of the objects, the funnier they got! I love to find that in art.
Outside lies the true richness of Louisiana: it’s carefully designed gardens, with (litterally) tons of sculptures and peaceful viewpoints over the sea. The sun was already low so we took advantage of whatever picnic leftovers we had and called it a day on top of the natural grassy amphitheatre. But our wonderful hostess – whom we hadn’t met yet – still had something in store for us.
There is a great way of travelling around the strategic waterway known as the Öresund: the Öresund Rundt ticket. It gives access to all the trains around the strait on both sides, subway in Copenhagen plus two trips across the strait, one through the Öresund bridge that connects Copenhagen to Malmö, and one via the Helsingborg-Helsingør ferry. For the westbound trip, we chose the latter.
After crossing the gate from the huge access ramp to the deck of the ferry, we gasped, and then we wondered whether we were already on the boat or if we had one more gate to cross because that didn’t look like any boat we had seen before. It was nothing short of a food court in a shopping mall. Mind you, it was not that impressive of a food court, but we were on a friggin’ boat, not a mall! It seemed all the more surreal since the trip would only take about fifteen minutes. I tried to imagine finding the time to place an order, get the food, find a spot to sit, chug the meal and wash it down with coffee before ropes are thrown to the pier. Plus, an ad read: alcohol sold in Danish waters, tobacco in Swedish waters.
Feeling that our memories of an actual ferry experience, filled with the stench of diesel fuel and enamel paint rusting away from steel joints and bolts were being washed away by that glorified image of super-sized lattes and crispy sanitized hot-dogs, we rushed to find an outer deck! Didn’t stay long though. Too cold outside. Wind was blowing from the Skagerrak. But at least, it took us back in touch with an actual ferry experience – the bottom deck loaded with lorries, the seagulls hovering, the old customs buildings and the horns – all things that the inside of the boat was designed to obliterate from perception.
On the Helsingør docks, we proceeded to Kronborg, a 16th century fortification with a knack for drama. It is better known as the source of inspiration for the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But in a more prosaic perspective, it was the fortress responsible for charging dues from passing ships inbound to the Baltic and a great source of wealth for the Danish crown – going as high as two-thirds of the crown’s income at times. Around the fortress, a short strip of rocky shore surrounded by green grass, was home to idlers and leisurely fishermen. We settled, had our picnic with some Portuguese wine, harboured from the winds by the rocks.
In the eastern section of Lund lies a neighbourhood called Planetstaden. It’s pretty much a cul-de-sac with one street that loops around 45 houses on a few hectares of land. Still, those houses hold great interest, because they comprise a housing complex designed by Jørn Utzon, the famed danish architect who came to design Sydney Opera House just a few years later.
Utzon presented this model of houses in a Skåne competition and applied the same project to four distinct locations around the Öresund, both in Sweden and Denmark (Lund, Helsingør, Fredensborg and Bjuv). The houses are inspired by danish barns, a patio with house on two sides and walled on the other two, so that further construction in each patio does not affect the exterior design. But this construction might as well (and probably was) inspired by mediterranean or chinese or middle-eastern patio-houses. It’s such a successful concept that it’s difficult to find a culture that hasn’t absorbed it.
The low-pitched inward-facing roof brings to mind some coastal town houses of the Mediterranean Sea or even the ancient roman colonial villas. The wide windows are easily identified with nordic or maybe japanese architectures. That special yellow-coloured brick makes us think about the rammed earth buildings of Yemen or Mali. It is an international design, no doubt, but also very much local. It is a design that is simultaneously vernacular and modernist. And apart from a few outside air conditioning units, it still preserves its original unity.