So Scandi: ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ – A celebration of Danish Architecture

If you have every visited or seen pictures of Copenhagen, your first thought if someone said “Danish architecture” would probably be of the quaint saffron, moss and rust coloured harbour buildings of NyhavnBut this would not be the whole story. Over the past decades the Danish capital has transformed itself from a serene fisherman’s town into a dynamic, modern city. A transformation that is reflected in the city’s architecture.

Danish architecture is firmly rooted within the broader Scandinavian tradition of no-fuss, functional design that combines natural materials with futuristic forms. In line with the country’s socialist values, Danish government money is invested in well-designed, (not to mention beautiful) public spaces, that draw citizens out of their homes to participate in the social and cultural life of the city.

In recent years, the Danish capital has become an architectural paragon around the world. Unsurprisingly, Copenhagen’s architectural paradigm manages to simultaneously point to the future, with its consideration of the environment, while still considering the needs of the present, with its focus on public welfare.

With this is mind, here’s the low down on some of Copenhagen’s architectural gems.

  1. Tietgenkollegiet Student Dorm


View from within: the transparent “Inner circle” of Tietgen. Photo: Own.

Designed by the architects Lundgaard & Tranberg, Tietgenkollegiet student dorm is a beautiful marriage of form and function’; the building simultaneously embodies and facilitates community. With its circular form and transparent architecture, the building creates a framework in which networks of care and friendship can emerge organically.

The dorm originates from an architectural competition with the brief of creating the dorm of the future. The result is a six-storey circular structure wrapped around a grove of white willows. The building has a particular atmosphere and its own rhythm. Not only do the trees keep the inhabitants in touch with the changing seasons, the building is largely constructed with natural materials that have aged beautifully. It is as if the building and the community that inhabits it have matured in tandem with one another. The cherry-coloured wood is turning to ashy grey and the originally golden metal is gradually turning a darker brown. As the leaf colour oscillates and cycles and the building ages, the building starts to seem like a living breathing entity of itself.

This effect is particularly evident at nightfall and, visible from all angles, the different kitchens flicker into life. Life unfolds before your eyes. In an interview, one resident describes the building’s shape as like a hug, the building saying, “come and join” , inviting residents to go and join other kitchens, whether it be for a party or for making pancakes.

  1. The Black Diamond Library

Designed by architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, the striking combination of the Royal Library’s black granite cladding and prismatic shape give the building its name: The Black Diamond. Not only is the building one of the most iconic sights of Copenhagen’s waterfront, its beautiful architecture (and great coffee) draws the city-dwellers in to experience and enjoy it’s cultural and literary offerings.


The building is in conversation with its surroundings. From the river, the building appears to float on the water. From the inside, its inner atrium brings the outside in, with its huge window and wave-like balconies. A seamless transition from water to diamond.

As well as a library, the building is a hub for art, literature and culture, making it one of the world’s most dynamic libraries. So much so, that there has even been a documentary made about it: A Word for Human was shown in last month’s CPH:DOX documentary festival in Copenhagen.

  1. BIG’s Islands Brygge Harbour Baths

As the evenings get longer and leaves appear on the trees, the city starts to hum with the sounds of summer. The sounds of children’s play, chatter, shouts and laughter coalesce, as the cities inhabitants come out to enjoy the sun and swim in the city’s harbours.

Originally a sea-faring nation, Danes love to be by the water. Following 10 years of clean-up efforts, in 2001 the city’s waters were declared clean enough to swim in and even drink! As a result, the industrial harbours of the city are gradually being transmuted into social and cultural hubs.

Embracing this, in 2002 the Islands Brygge harbour baths opened. Designed by the world-renowned architecture film, BIG (Bjark Ingels Group). The baths are inspired by the ships that surround them. Its grey wooden walkways are reminiscent of a ship’s deck and its whimsical red and white lifeguard towers resemble a ship’s funnel.

Now, summer (and winter!) harbour-swims have become a part of everyday life for Copenhageners. Whether this be a languid Sunday afternoon spent with your toes dipped in the water, swigging on a Carlsberg, or a spontaneous after-dinner swim in your undies.

A Nation of Architecture

As argued by Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness, we are deeply influenced by the buildings we are surrounded by and spend time in. An ill-designed environment has the power to choreograph our misery, while good architecture can construct our happiness.

The Danish government acknowledges that good architecture has the potential to add value to individuals and society. For example, in their report A Nation of Architecture they recognise that well-designed buildings and cities can encourage an enable citizen participation. This could be cultural engagement as is the case with the Black Diamond library, or social in the case of the Tietgenkollegiet and the Islands Brygge harbour baths.

Far from being frivolous, a concern for architecture is a concern for citizen well-being. Copenhagen’s architecture can be seen as a manifesto for good design for all. Beauty should not be luxury for the rich but to be enjoyed by all of society, whether this be in the form of a beautiful student dorm, library, or harbour bath. Denmark’s investment in public spaces can be seen as investment in the social and cultural well-being of society. As such, the city’s architects are not only constructing the architecture of the city but are also the architects of well-being.

– Rebecca Appleton

Feature Header images are her own. 

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