PD Smith

The Round Tower

20 August 2013 | architecture, Bohr, cities, Copenhagen, Detectives, Jan Gehl, Sarah Lund | Post a comment

Until last week, whenever I thought about Copenhagen - and I admit that was not often - three people came to mind: Niels Bohr, Jan Gehl, and Sarah Lund.

Niels Bohr

Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics was at the cutting edge of theoretical physics in the early 1930s, and the setting for a memorable performance of Goethe's Faust by the scientists (much more on this here). Jan Gehl is an influential Danish urbanist and architect who pioneered pedestrianization in cities. In 1962, Copenhagen became the first city to pedestrianize a main thoroughfare. The two-kilometer-long Strøget is Europe's longest pedestrian street or, to be more accurate, collection of streets. And, of course, as all fans of crime fiction know, Copenhagen provides the setting for Detective Inspector Sarah Lund's investigations in the superb Danish TV series Forbrydelsen (The Killing, 2007).

But now when I think of Copenhagen another name springs to mind, and with it a unique building.

Last week I spent a relaxing couple of days in Copenhagen. It's a beautiful city of red-tiled rooftops, bicycles, cobbled streets full of people rather than choked with cars, and colourful houses reflected in canals. Great street performers too, like these two demonstrating an impressive balancing trick.

Copenhagen street performers,

It's also a city that is clearly serious about its environmental responsibilities: for instance, the city recycles more of its waste than any other European capital. But above all it's a wonderfully friendly city.

The man who did most to shape the city you see today is King Christian IV who was known as the "architect king". During his sixty-year reign (1588-1648) he fortified the city and reclaimed land from the sea. He also built the Rosenborg Palace (1606), with its moat and elegant red-brick towers. One of its more unusual features is the Mirror Cabinet, created for Frederik IV in about 1700, a small chamber with mirrors on each wall and even on the floor, which apparently the King used to peer up women's skirts.

Rosenborg Slot, copyright PD Smith

Beautiful though the Rosenborg Palace undoubtedly is, I was more impressed by another of Christian IV's buildings. The Rundetårn, or Round Tower, rises above the pedestrian zone, on Købmagergade. Modelled on Tycho Brahe's famous observatory called Stjerneborg (the castle of the stars), the 42-metre-high Round Tower is Europe’s oldest functioning astronomical observatory. Built between 1637 and 1642, it was part of Christian IV's Trinitatis Complex which combined a church, a scholarly library (holding some 10,000 books) and an observatory into one enlightened architectural structure.

Round Tower, copyright PD Smith

But what is truly remarkable about this tower - and apparently it is unique in European architecture - is the 209-metre spiral ramp that leads up to the viewing platform at the top: a sinuous pathway, paved with ochre-coloured bricks, winding itself seven and a half times around the hollow core of the tower. It's an extraordinary structure that feels almost natural rather than man-made, as if it is a stone tree that has grown out of the heart of the city. As I walked up the spiral path, I was reminded of the fantastical towers of Dutch artist MC Escher or something dreamed up by Borges.

Round Tower, copyright PD Smith

It's said that when Tsar Peter the Great of Russia visited the city in 1716 he rode up to the top on horseback. And in 1902, a visiting German demonstrated the power of the latest Benz-Gaggenau automobile by driving up the spiral ramp. (There's an amazing photo of this surreal moment in technological and architectural history here.) Fortunately, Copenhagen has subsequently decided to keep cars in the city firmly under control. There is little doubt that if, like me, you prefer to explore a city on foot or on bicycle then this is as close as it gets to urban heaven. More people cycle to work in Copenhagen than in the entire United States of America, as Taras Grescoe has pointed out.

Round Tower, copyright PD Smith

From the top of the Round Tower you can gaze out across the roofscape of the medieval city centre, with its winding streets and half-timbered houses. In the distance you can even see the 8-kilometre-long Øresund Bridge that links Denmark and Sweden.

Copenhagen Rooftops, copyright PD Smith

Copenhagen is a memorable city, designed for people rather than cars, and one that other cities have much to learn from. It's a community with a rich history, not a collection of densely populated, Ballardian traffic islands, as so many cities have become. For visitors from Britain, it's not a cheap city though - eating out was certainly more expensive than Berlin, for instance. But we found some great cafés and restaurants. A couple that spring to mind: a really excellent fish restaurant is the Fiskebar, near the central station; and if you like Italian food, La Rocca is the place for you. And of course, wherever you go the many pastries and different types of bread are all delicious. I wish we had a Danish Konditori near us...

So thank you - or "Tak" as they say there - Copenhagen for making me feel welcome (at the airport the border guard actually said "welcome to Denmark!" when he handed me my passport; I bet UK officials don't say that at Heathrow). And thank you Copenhagen for introducing me to the Rundetårn and to your architect king, Christian IV.

Round tower, copyright PD Smith

As ever, you can find more pictures of Copenhagen on my Flickr page.

Danish flag, copyright PD Smith

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