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16 January 2011

Cherubs in the Snow: Cold Classicism

Bracketing our autumn, we returned to the US via Copenhagen: a revelation. Often perceived as the little sister to Stockholm, it has nothing to envy in its Swedish sibling. Seeing a vital urban culture in a cold climate is itself valuable, since Midwesterners will often make excuses for a lack of urban culture by pointing to the weather (“we’re not Mediterranean”); central Copenhagen on a snowy Saturday evening was bustling with holiday shoppers, couples on dates, kids on sleds. While the urban life aspect warmed my heart, my eyes were treated to an elegant eighteenth century fabric, graceful yet restrained, classical without many of the trappings, and therefore eminently buildable today. And I would argue that it is precisely the beauty of this city that makes it a place people want to be on an otherwise inhospitable evening—the city is worth it, indeed it rewards you beyond the effort.

For all of that discretely elegant fabric, though, the spectacular site in Copenhagen is the Amalienborg palace(s), really a whole urban sequence beginning at the sea and extending to the so-called Marble Church, bisected by the axis connecting this district back to the historic center. There is, really, nothing as elegant as a coordinated classical eighteenth century ensemble, and this has to be one of the best ever realized (many remained on paper at the French Academy or the Accademia di San Luca). Amalienborg is, in fact, just like a Concorso Clementino project realized by an architect under the spell of Gabriel. Disposing four symmetrical palaces on the diagonal axes through the square generates a dynamic ensemble and allows the street network to pass through—albeit transformed by the experience. North-south is the sea/church axis, visually unimpeded; to the west the street entering from the old town passes through a colonnade, not matched to the east as the street leaves again for a contemporary eighteenth century neighborhood.