Big village, small city: The 2017 European Capital of Culture has great architecture, museums and lots of friendly, smiling people
Dong! Spherical and deep, the Gong reverberates through the new city library. Speaking from a dais, city architect Stephen Willacy interrupts his eulogy to the new Aarhus in mid-sentence: “I smile every time I hear that.” He cocks his head and listens.
It sounds about 12 times a day – every time a child is born in Aarhus. The tubular gong, a 7.5-meter, three-ton bronze giant, which was cast in Austria, is set off a couple of kilometers away at the city’s university clinic. Right after a birth, the midwife hands the parents a tablet computer and asks them to swipe the screen: Dong – the birth becomes an acoustic experience for the entire city. The very idea tells you a lot about the Aarhus soul.
The youngest citizen of the world has picked a good place to be born. Aarhus is Denmark’s new hip city, the second-largest in the country with a population of 260 000 and the most important in Jutland, the big peninsula in the west. Aarhus used to stand in Copenhagen’s shadow, but some believe it will soon outstrip the Danish capital.
In recent years, hefty investments have been made in architecture and culture. The Aarhusians like to call their hometown the “largest village and smallest metropolis in the world” – a claim now finally substantiated in the former docklands where the Isbjerget (The Iceberg), a complex of 200 apartments, has gone up on the waterfront.
The buildings jut into the sky, arranged to give almost every apartment a view of the water. In a suburb south of the city, the new Moesgaard Museum resembles a huge wedge flung into the landscape.
Full of information about the early history of Denmark, it features swords and battle-axes pulled from nearby marshes and prehistoric barrows, as well as an astonishing number of combs, indicating that the Vikings had a bit of a vain streak. Another jewel is Dokk1, the new city library, where Willacy has just finished his speech.
Addressing a small group, Willacy talks about how Aarhus’s selection as 2017 European Capital of Culture marks a highlight in the city’s incredible evolution, and explains how he was involved in it, agonized over it and helped to shape it.
As a young man, Willacy fell in love with a Danish medical student and left his native England for Aarhus, where he spent months knocking on doors in search of a job – without success. Back then, Aarhus was an unattractive seaport.
Finally, Willacy found an opening and worked his way up to become a partner with a respected firm of architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen. He is now the city’s architectural advisor, and his job is to guarantee the quality of its urban development.
“When I arrived in Aarhus, the city had no clear identity. You drove along the coast and had no sense of the sea,” says Willacy, 58, a doer with a full, pepper-and-salt beard. Warehouses and industrial buildings blocked the view of Aarhus Bay.
“But in the early 90s, the idea arose of finally reuniting the city with the water.” The Aarhus Å, the river that flows from the city center into the bay and the waters of the Kattegat, had been diverted through underground pipelines in the car-worshipping 1930s.
Huge efforts have been made to correct that mistake and return the river to the surface. Now, the last stretch flows freely into the sea and its banks have become a popular promenade between the city and the waves. Finally, Aarhus is playing its trump card: the city’s unique waterfront location.
As industry dried up in the docklands and Denmark’s largest container port relocated, space was freed up for new buildings, such as Dokk1, the biggest public library in Scandinavia.
In summer 2016, just one year after opening, the International Federation of Library Associations, IFLA, named it the “world’s best library.” But don’t go thinking this building is devoted only to books. Dokk1 is more, much more than that.
Aarhus had no clear identity: You had no sense of the sea
Some 4000 visitors come here every day, the fewest for a book. A dream of modernist architecture, the building is designed along the lines of an ancient Italian piazza; it is a public space, a place for everyone, inclusion expressed in architecture.
Step inside and you will see groups of mothers and fathers chatting in the toddlers’ play areas. In the lobby, two elderly gentlemen are playing giant chess, while students with laptops sit in conference rooms discussing their next group presentation. For less bookish teenagers, there are sofas and PlayStations for a quick game of virtual soccer.
“It’s not for us to decide which media are worthwhile,” a librarian explains, “the important thing is to be open to people from all walks of life. We aim to be a democratic, urban space.” Most of the people here are simply strolling through the building, their faces open and friendly as they eagerly take in their surroundings.
Outside, ships glide slowly past the gigantic glass facade and cranes swoop across the panorama. On the bottom floor, there’s the secret highlight: Europe’s first fully automatic parking garage. Here, you drive your car into a box, tap a touchscreen and watch it sink below ground. At Dokk1, it’s easy to picture the future – because it’s already arrived.
What is Aarhus’ secret? How has it achieved what many cities only dream of? One of many answers, and possibly the best, has to do with the people who live here. Aarhus is a young city, and every year it grows by 4000 inhabitants, most of whom come as students.
Some 56 000 people – that’s nearly a quarter of the population – either teaches or studies at the university. “All these young people give the city its special drive,” says Willacy. Many graduates stay on after uni and some have even become members of the city parliament. Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard, a social democrat, took office at just 35.
The Internet generation co-governs Aarhus, creating a climate of openness and innovative dynamism, a spirit of ambition, of new and even alternative culture that’s unusual for a small place like Aarhus. Young people breathe life into the city with their start-ups.
A container village now occupies the site of the former Godsbanen freight depot, a hub for over 60 designers, filmmakers and creative minds. Ride a bike through Latinerkvarteret, the Latin quarter with its lively cafés, restaurants and bars, and you encounter youth, beauty and friendliness everywhere.
“City of Smiles” is another apt Aarhus slogan. Visitors from dour Copenhagen are constantly surprised by how friendly people are here. For instance, as I was studying the menu outside a restaurant, a woman came over and with a smile said: “Go on, everything tastes great there.”
This joie de vivre and easygoing attitude inspired Ólafur Elíasson to create an installation on the roof of the ARoS, one of the largest art museums in northern Europe. Your Rainbow Panorama, a circular walkway 150 meters long with glass walls shimmering every color of the spectrum, has been in place since 2011. It’s like looking at the city through different sunglasses.
Marianne Grymer Bargeman, 42, Director of Learning and Interpretation at ARoS, is responsible for keeping visitors coming back. “We don’t want one-night stands,” she says with a grin, “lasting relationships are far better.” Some 30 000 visitors hold a season ticket for the museum; about 5500 of them are under 30.
Such numbers that are the envy of other cultural institutions. This fall, Bargemann opened a new ARoS multimedia center where visitors can use eyetracking to see how others perceive an artwork, where they look first, where not at all,
where their gaze lingers. You can project your own reflection onto works, discuss them, and send videos via social media.
“We want art to get people thinking and talking,” says Bargeman, “Museums are good if they’re not temples, but mind gyms.”
Bargeman is the prototype of the new Aarhus citizen: culturally creative, intellectual, bold, with a sense of humor and inspired by the desire for change – and a mother of two, as well. She sent her two sons (11 and 14) off to the open-air museum Den Gamle By for the summer vacation. That’s one place you have to see, she commands. All right then.
It’s like a journey back in time to 19th century Denmark. Gamle By is a town within the city, 80 old buildings that have been taken down in different places around the country and re-erected here to recreate the past. Children watch the blacksmith at work, their parents pick medicinal herbs in the apothecary’s garden, and on one narrow street, a family steps over a pile of droppings left behind the horse-drawn carts rumbling over the cobbles. The contrast between here and the new Aarhus with its cool new architecture could hardly be greater.
Rasmus Christiansen works at the historical fairground. His eyes twinkle behind his wire glasses, and when he raises his felt hat from a thatch of blond hair in greeting, the teenagers thus addressed climb giggling into a brightly painted swingboat. Christiansen is studying cultural science at Aarhus University and this is just a sideline he evidently enjoys.
“After graduating, some of my classmates went to Copenhagen and Berlin, but I don’t like big cities; you miss out on a lot.” In Aarhus, everything is within cycling distance: the campus of Denmark’s top university, the pristine beach and Den Permanente, the timber beach bath, where the lifeguards remind bathers to use sunscreen, and the Riis Skov city forest which smells of wild garlic in the spring. “And there’s always a party with familiar faces somewhere,” adds Christiansen.
He’s spending his semester break in the city. During the day he works at the museum, in the evenings he plays in the Latinerkvarteret with his bossa nova band. Rasmus has just turned 23. “A great age,” he says. “You’ve discovered who you are and where you want to go. The future lies ahead and you can shape it!” It seems like Rasmus Christiansen isn’t just describing his own attitude to life, but that of the whole city.
Futuristic Aarhus: a tour
1 Library Dokk1
2 Residental Project Isbjerget
3 Museum Aros
5 Culture Center Godsbanen
6 Open-Air Museum Den Gamle By
7 Beach Baths den Permanente