Hall McKnight’s elegant remodelling of Copenhagen’s Vartov Square brings a humble-looking but historically significant almshouse building back into the heart of the city’s story,
In November 1962, a stretch of Copenhagen’s principal shopping street was closed to cars, initially on the premise that they would be readmitted after the holiday period. While controversial on implementation, the ban’s impact on custom was so manifestly beneficial that retailers quickly consented to its adoption as a permanent measure.
Over the subsequent decade — in particular, through the lobbying of the planner Jan Gehl — further stretches were pedestrianised to the point that, half a century on, Strøget safely maintains the title of the longest car-free street in Europe.
It extends between two squares, the southernmost of which is a vast expanse laid out to the west of Martin Nyrop’s 1905 national romantic City Hall. Hosting regular pop concerts, political demonstrations and festivals, this space enjoys heavy use but, surprisingly given Copenhagen’s history of investment in its public realm, is of a design that singularly fails to reflect its role as the city’s primary civic forum.
That shortcoming has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent remodelling of a smaller adjacent square that extends down the northern flank of Nyrop’s building. This is Vartov Square, a long, tapering space that takes its name from the medieval almshouses — vartov is Danish for almshouse — that close the end farthest from City Hall Square.
Completed to a competition-winning design by Belfast’s Hall McKnight, the project has stripped the square of the car-parking that formerly colonised it and instituted an intimacy that stands in marked contrast to the atmosphere of its more grandly dimensioned neighbour.
The primary means by which this has been engineered is the introduction of a grove of trees at the squares’ meeting. The architect’s initial plan to specify these as birches fell foul of the objections of Copenhagen’s hay-fever sufferers, so instead we are presented with a close-packed orchard of cherry trees. Of a non-fruiting variety — in the interests of avoiding a splatter of rotting cherries and bird droppings — they fill out an island of fractionally raised ground, the trapezoidal plan of which echoes the shape of the larger site.
The intervention deftly structures the spaces around it. The paved area to its north enjoys a street-like proportion, allowing pedestrian traffic to coexist with the generous provision of south-facing seating in front of the imposing Palace Hotel and the cafés that adjoin it.
A relatively busy road extends along the square’s opposing side so the grove does valuable service in separating these conditions. It also, crucially, provides a defined edge to the paved area — effectively a square within the larger square — that lies to its east and extends towards the elevation of the almshouses.
When Hall McKnight inherited the site, it already enjoyed a strong sense of orientation back towards City Hall Square, not least as the result of the presence of a monument that had been introduced in 1914. This is the Lurblæserne: a 20m-high column on the top of which stands a depiction in bronze of two figures blowing lures, an instrument that was unearthed in 19th century archaeological digs and which figures prominently in the Danes’ sense of their Nordic identity. (The myth — which they sadly declined to substantiate during my time with them — is that they blow their horns when a virgin walks by.)
Located at the junction between the two squares and shadowed to either side by the slender brick towers of the City Hall and Palace Hotel, the statue looks out to the larger space, confirming a sense of Vartov as the gentler backwater.
The Lurblæserne now rises from the middle of the grove: a reframing that brings the primordial mythology evoked by the sculpture into greater focus. Much as Robbrecht & Daem and Marie-José van Hee suggested with their recent remodelling of Ghent’s Emile Braunplein, the project communicates a strong sense — historically justified or otherwise — of its site’s foundational significance within its city’s narrative.
As one of the very few remaining fragments of the medieval city that survived the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 and the city’s subsequent reconstruction, the almshouses make an important contribution to that reading. Uniquely among the competition submissions, Hall McKnight’s project assigned a privileged role to this building, a decision that the architect suggests proved key to its victory.
And yet the fact that others failed to do so becomes less surprising when one encounters the building in question. Of all the facades that address the square, that of the almshouses is quite the least commanding. Markedly lower than its neighbours, it comprises a long parade of identical windows which continues out of view at the square’s northernmost corner. The site might be said to be characterised, therefore, by a basic contradiction: the pronounced axiality that the Lurblæserne imposes on it sets up an expectation that the elevation of the almshouses is not equipped to fulfil.
It communicates a belief in the forceful interaction between myth and daily reality
The grove proves an ingenious means of addressing that quandary. In disrupting the long view down the middle of the square it exchanges the grandeur of the inherited parti for a more persuasively picturesque arrangement. Now when we arrive at the site’s western end we are no longer presented with the full expanse of the almshouse facade but rather with two framed views extending down either side of the grove. To our left, we find the almshouses’ gabled entrance bay nestling coyly in the square’s farthest corner; while to our right, we look down the length of the road that reaches towards the city’s waterfront.
While this move takes a burden of responsibility off the building, the architect has also sought to amplify its presence. With the exception of the area occupied by the grove, an unbroken granite surface has been carried across the whole site, assembled from a mix of reclaimed material and new stones of a lighter colour and more precisely honed finish. This contrast has been used to establish a field of rectangles that take their proportion, spacing and orientation directly from the almshouse facade: a conceit that brings to mind Buster Keaton’s close encounter with a collapsing housefront.
The facade’s height is answered by a line set a corresponding distance into the square. On one side the old granite setts form the ground and the new ones the infill, while on the other that relationship is reversed. Significantly, the almshouse facade follows a line entirely of its own — neither perpendicular to the square’s primary axis nor to the elevations that flank it to either side. In adopting this orientation the paving maintains a lightly disruptive presence across the square’s full 235m length, suggesting an original order onto which all else has been bluntly superimposed.
These themes find their most explicit articulation in a short story by Hans Christian Andersen that has been inscribed in English and Danish on plinths in front of the almshouses. Entitled A View from Vartov’s Window, it describes one elderly resident’s recollection, as she looks out on a scene of children playing in the square, of the occasion on which a child was engulfed by a hole in the ground and buried alive: “The children have never heard that old legend, or else they would hear the poor little one still weeping beneath the mound, and the dew on the grass would seem to them the pearls of her tears.”
It is a grisly narrative and it comes as a shock to find it displayed in a public space, but it communicates a belief in the forceful interaction between myth and daily reality that the architect clearly shares. The basis of Andersen’s legend is perhaps to be found in the square’s origins as a graveyard and, ironically, that history had an all too direct influence on the scheme’s development when plans to incorporate an open-sided pavilion at the wider end of the grove were deemed unrealisable on the grounds that its foundations would interfere with the buried remains.
And yet, its loss is a small disappointment in a project that is beautifully built and rich in poetic implication. With the imminent completion of a new metro station in City Hall Square, attention will surely now turn to the need for that space’s upgrading. Given the success of Hall McKnight’s work on Vartov, the city surely needs look no further to find an architect ideally suited to the task.
Architect Hall McKnight
Client Copenhagen City Council
Planning structural framework Grontmij
Landscape architecture GHB Landskabsarkitekter
Pictures by Stamers Kontor