Architecture: classicism, historicism and modernism


From antiquity to concrete

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Classicism’s influence on Danish architecture began one night in 1755. The event was the recruiting of Frenchman Nicolas-Henri Jardin to complete construction of Copenhagen’s Frederik’s Church, Jardin had studied antiquity in Rome and the impressions served as his inspiration for a classicist form of architecture: simple forms, regular facades and precisely formed festoons and other flourishes. Jardin was soon made a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts. Created in 1754, the Academy established a new, formalised framework for architecture.

Model buildings
Jardin didn’t stay on to see the completion of Frederik’s Church. Instead he became responsible for the construction of other buildings, including Bernstorff Castle in 1765. The castle, located outside Copenhagen, became the model for scores of manors across the country. Jardin had a number of pupils that carried on in the same classically inspired style. Among them was C.F. Harsdorff, who became the country’s leading architect at the end of the 18th century, and his notable works include the Chapel of Frederik V in Roskilde Cathedral (1778) and the colonnade of Copenhagen’s Amalienborg Palace (1794).
But, it was a more modest building that came to serve as Harsdorff’s most important contribution to Danish architecture. The private home, built in 1780 at Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen, incorporated multiple facade styles, including an classic temple gable, but he placed particular emphasis on a clean design and the accentuation of the building’s side walls. This style of facade came to serve as a model for town houses in Copenhagen built after the devastation of the fire of 1795.

New trends in Copenhagen
Starting around 1800, an architect by the name of C.F. Hansen began to make a name for himself. He came to serve as the lead architect for nearly all major public building projects in the capital in the early 19th century – the City Hall and Courthouse on Nytorv, the Copenhagen Cathedral and the new Christiansborg Palace. His version of classicism was influenced by Roman architecture – simple, Spartan, clear-cut and with an emphasis on large smooth facades with few decorations. Hansen remained influential until the late 19th century, but in the 1830s a new generation of architects had already begun to toy with ideas of their own.

New architectural freedom

The architects who favoured the late classicist style were more open to historical styles. It was permitted to be inspired by other than classicism and antiquity. As a response to the domination of plastered facades, architects began designing buildings with bare brick walls, including G.F. Hetsch’s St Ansgar’s Church in Copenhagen (1842). Radical architectural thoughts spring from M.G. Bindesbøll, who turned a streetcar roundhouse into a museum for sculptor Bertil Thorvaldsen in 1848. The plastered walls were given bright colours, and the entrance was dominated by monumental slanting portals. Just as non-traditional, but more resigned and matter-of-fact, is Bindesbøll’s Oringe Hospital (1857).

Two paths diverge

The new freedoms of late classicism were carried further by the historicist school of the late 19th century. At the same time as industrialism was making its breakthrough, the historicists were seeking a new, contemporary expression that reached back to historical styles. Meanwhile the period also saw the introduction of new materials such as wrought iron, cement and stucco. Before long, two clearly distinct architectural trends were emerging.
The first trend leaned toward the national, and placed an emphasis on quality craftsmanship, high quality materials and textures, which was emphasised by the use of brick and wood. The trend reached its peak with Johan Daniel Herholdt’s University Library (1861), the dominant materials of which were brick, glazed stone and wood, together with the day’s most fashionable building material, wrought iron, which was used to form the pillars in the reading room. This trend developed into a national romantic style that reached its high point with the construction of Martin Nyrop’s Copenhagen City Hall (1905).

The second historicist trend was more international and drew its inspiration from Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The materials of choice were plaster, stucco and painted zinc or lead accents. The movement’s lead figure was Ferdinand Meldahl, who in 1894 guided at long last construction of Frederik’s Church to completion after it had been a ruin for more than a century. Meldahl was also responsible for rebuilding Frederiksborg Castle in 1875 after it was destroyed by fire.

Tighter style
The early 20th century saw Danish architecture turn away from the often luxuriant decorative style of the historicists and towards a simpler, tighter style that emphasised symmetry, regularity and rhythmic repetition. Fåborg Museum (1913), designed by Carl Petersen, served as the gateway to this neo-classicism, and the style came to influence nearly all building types of the period, from the monumental to the humble. In Copenhagen, newly constructed blocks of flats were built according to a new standard: facades were tightly designed, nearly to the point of being ascetic, while inside, flats were simple, practically laid out. Kay Fisker’s Hornbæk House (1923) epitomises the trend, while Hack Kampmann’s Copenhagen Police Headquarters (1924) showed how the trend could take on a powerful expression: the tight design of its smooth, undecorated facades gives a feeling of inapproachability, while its colonnaded courtyard is monumental.

Reinforced concrete and style without style
Around 1930, new ideas from abroad began to influence architects: rational and matter-of-fact, also called “style-less”. Construction, form and function were all to be linked. Industrialised building was the ideal, even though it wasn’t to become a reality until after World War II. New materials such as reinforced concrete, steel and glass provided totally new opportunities for architectural expression. A sense of social activism among the functionalists led to the construction of quality housing for the masses.

Functionalism split into two trends of its own. The internationalists held on to cubic, undecorated buildings, often with flat roofs. Building with reinforced concrete allowed architects to incorporate large free-hanging structures, such as balconies. Some brick homes were designed as copies of internationalist buildings, such as Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista estate (1934).

Exclusive, single-family homes often resulted from internationalist designs, such as the Dansk Cement Central model home (1931) in Hellerup, designed by Frits Schlegel, a housing development designed by Mogens Lassen (1936) in Klampenborg. A number of public buildings in the 1930s were also designed according to the new ideals, including the Copenhagen headquarters of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and Copenhagen Airport, both created by Vilhelm Lauritzen, and the Public Trustee Building in Copenhagen, designed by Fritz Schlegel. The regionalists maintained their dedication to domestic materials such as brick and wood, and forms like the saddle roof. It was the regionalists, led by Kay Fisker and Povl Baumann, who were most active in putting functionalism’s social activism into practice by creating quality, practical blocks of flats.

Tobias Faber: Dansk Arkitektur, Arkitektens Forlag, Kbh. 1963.

Kay Fisker and Knud Millech, Danske arkitekturstrømninger 1850-1950, Østerstifternes Kreditforening, Kbh. 1951.