Sunday, 3 July 2011

Arne Jacobsen by the side of the road

The summer is here and what a beautiful summer it is turning out to be. Blue skies and sunshine are the order of the day but there is also the feeling that at any moment, the wind will pick up, the clouds gather and a spectacular thunderstorm will pass through the city. Maybe this is why the Danes make the most of every moment of sunny weather. From the minute spring arrived, the covers on the cargo bikes have been peeled back, skin is on show and the parks and beaches are now full. The school year is over and for many this marks the retreat from the city to the summer houses. Those of us remaining in Copenhagen are left with a seemingly endless choice of grassy and sandy picnic spots; indeed, we are spoilt by the number of beaches on our doorstep. Living in Østerbro, when the temperature rises, we jump on the bikes and head off for Klampenborg, Hellerup, Charlottenlund or Swanemøllen. It was on one of our rides up to Klampenborg that I met Arne Jacobsen by the side of the road.

I say 'met' but in truth it was his beautiful petrol station that caught my attention. I had read about it and its iconic mushroom shape but the bright white washed building glistening in the sunshine was something else in reality. Cycling along Strandvejen, the beachside architecture is a constant distraction and as the Klampenborg bay comes into view, there is a sense that one has cycled back in time and I always expect to find the beach awash with 1930s beauties in halter neck polka dot bikinis and sipping 'shakes' and 'sodas'. The whole beachfront vista has a pre-war retro feel to it with the white flat roofed single and two storey buildings that lead to the Bellevue Teatret (also Arne Jacobsen).
The petrol station is like a gateway to this retro world and thank goodness it is now a listed building protected from destruction and redevelopment. Of course, Danish design and architecture are renowned worldwide but it wasn't until I read a little more about Mr Jacobsen that I realised I had already (unknowingly) fallen in love with his work.
For a number of years I attended a law conference at St Catherine's College, Oxford. We stayed in the college accommodation and I always enjoyed the simplicity of the college building; two long rectangular  blocks of student rooms rising to only three storeys in height with two perpendicular blocks of functional rooms - including the JCR and SCR sitting rooms, the dining room, library and lecture hall. In the interior there is a reflection of the building's outer simple and clean form. The lines of the flat roofed box like buildings compliment rather than dominate the beautiful green surroundings. I always thought it must have been a wonderful setting for student life and it turns out that it too was the work of Arne Jacobsen back in 1964. In fact, he won the RIBA bronze medal for it!
As his biographer, Jørgen Kastholm, noted, it must have been a bold move for the master of St Catherine's College to choose a Danish architect and in 1968 he wrote of the college that 'the buildings will age with dignity and thereby create exactly the frame around youth and education which Arne Jacobsen planned'. As a visitor to the college some 40 years later I can say that for me, the college has aged with both dignity and grace. Well into the 'noughties', it appealed to me as a calm but inspirational environment for learning.
And the same can be said for the Skovshoved petrol station completed in the 1930s. Its clean lines and the unique shape of the canopy over the forecourt have made it an icon of the architectural era that it represents. It stands now as a shrine to Arne Jacobsen whose early works dominate the beachfront a little further up the coast. I am thrilled to have stumbled across these two fabulous examples of Danish architecture which appealed to me aesthetically in very distinct and unconnected circumstances. I wonder where I will next bump into Mr Jacobsen now that I'm here in his homeland and my appetite is whetted?


  1. Beautiful pictures! I have never heard of the petrol station, it is stunning! It looks like something out of Miami, rather than Scandinavia!! Hope to see you tomorrow? I will have a little assistant with me also! Emma :)

  2. Thanks, Emma. Won't see you tomorrow as I have the two little people at home and we're heading out to the kids jazz festival. Have fun. Looking forward to seeing the pictures!