A long weekend in Copenhagen with Bjarke Ingels

The dazzlingly prolific Danish architect shares his idiosyncratic take on his picturesque – and most well behaved – hometown with Emma Crichton-Miller. Portrait by Mikkel Heriba

Architect Bjarke Ingels in colourful Nyhavn
Architect Bjarke Ingels in colourful Nyhavn | Image: Mikkel Heriba

I grew up in Vedbaek on the north coast of Denmark, but moved to Copenhagen as a student. One of the pleasures of this city is that it is incredibly compact, so everything is within reach. It was one of the first to extensively pedestrianise its downtown area. It also has a fine bicycle network and a spotless, squeaky-clean metro. Devoid of high rises, the skyline is dominated by imaginative spires from the past. The 17th-century Børsen stock exchange, for instance, has a tower consisting of the twisted tails of four stone dragons. The baroque Church of Our Saviour, in picturesque Christianshavn, has a spiralling tower with an exterior winding staircase in copper and gold – it’s something else!

Twenty-five years ago I moved to Vesterbro, the infamous downtown red-light district and former working-class area of Copenhagen. Today, it is actually one of the most fashionable places in town, not just to live but to shop and eat out, with its hipster Meatpacking District, cultural Carlsberg City District and Parisian-style Værnedamsvej. This is a street of cafés, restaurants, wine bars and delis, including Helges Ost, an amazing shop where rounds of great cheeses from all over Europe line the shelves; and French grocer Le Gourmand, where I like to buy pretty tins of delicacies and tremendous charcuterie sourced directly from France. There is also the quirky Playtype concept store, a spin-off from the Playtype foundry, where you can buy Playtype posters, mugs and stationery for all the typeface fetishists.

The Moorish hotel Nimb is in Tivoli Gardens, one of the oldest theme parks in the world
The Moorish hotel Nimb is in Tivoli Gardens, one of the oldest theme parks in the world | Image: Alamy Stock Photos

All the different neighbourhoods have seen a renaissance over the past 10 years. Christiania, for instance – the former military base that was squatted in 1971 and became a self-declared free town – is a autonomous community with an alternative lifestyle; it has a relaxed attitude to smoking weed and a self-policing intolerance for anything stronger. There are no cars. If you go there now, you will find a mix of self-built houses, workshops, art galleries, music venues and cosmopolitan eating places. Spiseloppen restaurant, inside a 19th-century military building, has a great atmosphere. With its ranks of long tables and arched windows, it has the feel of a barracks but with a delicious menu cooked by chefs from several different countries. You never quite know what to expect.

The port is crucial to the city’s identity – after all, Copenhagen means Merchants’ Harbour in Danish and the city is basically a network of islands. My first build, in 2003, was the Harbour Bath at Islands Brygge (Danish for Iceland’s Quay); it was one of the first projects in the rediscovery of the waterfront. You can spot the swimming pool easily, with its iconic red and white lifeguard towers; here you can jump into the sea in the middle of the city.

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Until recently, there were only two bridges linking the two sides of the city. Today, there is an abundance of new pedestrian and cycle bridges – like Olafur Eliasson’s funky Circle Bridge – stitching the two halves together. This has opened up the other side of the harbour. 

For visitors, Copenhagen is a tad underserved on the hotel front, but a must is the fantastical Moorish Nimb in Tivoli Gardens, with its domes and towers, which has had a very handsome refurbishment. There are just 17 suites luxuriously kitted out, and you have access to the joys of one of the oldest and most beautiful theme parks in the world. Not only is it a theme park that employs recognised architects (most recently 3XN and IM Pei), it has artists design its posters and superstars perform on its lawn. It is even powered by its own windmill mounted on the Copenhagen waterfront, so that you can kick back and have fun without harming the environment.

Grøften restaurant is a fun place to eat in Tivoli Gardens
Grøften restaurant is a fun place to eat in Tivoli Gardens

If you are in Tivoli, a great and fun place to refuel is Grøften, which serves classic Danish cuisine in a space that is half old-fashioned mirrored kitsch and half conservatory with pink gingham table clothes. Copenhagen is, on the whole, a very ordered city, but Grøften shows things can go a bit nuts.

Another hotel worth checking out is the grand Hotel d’Angleterre. It has a classical façade dating back to 1755, gilded public rooms, a Michelin-starred restaurant and indoor pool. Fans of Scandinavian modernism, however, might prefer the Radisson Blu Royal, designed by Arne Jacobsen. It’s worth dropping by just to admire the hotel’s glamorous spiral staircase and retro-chic furnishings, including one-off Swan and Egg chairs. 

The autonomous neighbourhood of Christiania was established in a former military base
The autonomous neighbourhood of Christiania was established in a former military base | Image: Alamy Stock Photos

If you are here in summer, take the train north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. It is a little piece of architectural history: discreet 1950s modernism extended several times by architects Vilhelm Wohlert and Jørgen Bo, using some of the original materials. It is the finest Denmark has to offer in terms of coherence in art, architecture and landscaping. And the café has great views over the Øresund to the Swedish coast.

In the past it might well have been that Noma was the reason people came. I was living in Copenhagen when the restaurant opened; I had my first board meeting there. It has, of course, closed down – but we are designing a new location on the borders of Christiania with an urban farm beside it, where it will reopen in early 2018. There has been a renaissance of food culture in Copenhagen over the past 10 years led by the MAD Festival, a summer foodie extravaganza. My good friend Anders Selmer, originally a sommelier and one of the team that started Noma, runs Fiskebaren, the excellent fish restaurant in the Meatpacking District, also known as Kødbyen (a huge carved bull stands above the entrance). The food is excellent and the wine is great. I like the long zinc bar in this raw, relaxed space and kids love the floor-to-ceiling aquarium. You should order the fat oysters, or scallops on a bed of crumbled cauliflower. 

The coast of Sweden can be seen from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The coast of Sweden can be seen from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | Image: Alamy Stock Photos

There are lots of cool galleries here, like V1 Gallery, showing edgy international artists from Europe and America. It showed Banksy as long ago as 2003. The well-established Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, which moved here in 2007, represents contemporary artists such as Georg Baselitz, Per Kirkeby, Tal R and Darren Almond. 

Kødbyen was built in the 1930s – one of the few examples of the international style of modernism in Denmark. By contrast, New Harbour, Nyhavn, consists of beautiful old buildings in bright colours; it has a west-facing quay, where you can dangle your legs over the edge and drink a beer. It has suffered from being a tourist attraction (Hans Christian Andersen lived here), but now it is starting to reauthenticate.

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If you tire of picture-book Copenhagen, you can come to multicultural Nørrebro. There are great shops here like the Danish branch of Acne, which is more like an art installation than a clothing store, with its deep-crimson walls, ginger-red terrazzo fittings and velvet carpets in rich burgundy. We have worked in Nørrebro with the arts collective Superflex and architectural firm Topotek on a series of public spaces, called the Red Square, the Black Market and the Green Park, populated with items chosen by immigrant populations – a neon sign from India, a fountain from Morocco – to reflect the diversity of the community.

Finally, I would be remiss not to recommend Llama, a restaurant serving a Scandinavian interpretation of Latin American cuisine in a converted basement, which some friends and I designed downtown. We went absolutely berserk with the handmade Mexican tiles! Try the crispy pigs’ ears, or octopus with squid chips.

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