This fall, I was able to check several places off my architecture bucket list on a trip to Scandinavia with my family. My hope was to draw inspiration and learn from these iconic projects and architects while sharing this experience with my wife and seven-year-old son. While enjoying the beautiful surroundings and friendly people, I went to see buildings such as the National Gallery of Denmark, CopenHill, Oslo Opera House, The Royal Danish Playhouse, The Astrup Fearnley Museet and the Sørenga Neighborhood. I’ve traveled and lived all over the world, taking in the local architecture and observing how it shapes community life and culture. Of all the places I have seen, I am most impressed with how Scandinavia approaches public space and would love to bring some of their influence back home to Denver.
Free?! Can this be right?
One of the things that stood out to me the most about the public spaces in Scandinavia, particularly Oslo, Norway and Copenhagen, Denmark, is how they challenge our ideas as Americans (at least mine) of what public space is and can be. Here in the States, we often think of public space as parks, or perhaps the plaza of a government building. But in these cities, they are plazas, swimming areas, palace entries, boardwalks, open museums and opera houses, river walks, playgrounds and more. They are used in a variety of ways but also function as bridges, connecting different parts of a city as well as people themselves. The public spaces in Scandinavia truly felt like they were designed for the public –focused on people and used by people. Public and private buildings were often elevated with spacious walking and biking paths interlaced underneath, allowing people to navigate an entire city without a car.
You can walk through museum lobbies on your path through the city, pass teenagers hanging out in courtyards, see kids playing with an interactive art display and friends enjoying a cup of coffee on a bench. The frequency and diversity of people using these spaces amazed me. I saw an elderly woman taking a morning swim through a canal that went right between two museums, people in wheelchairs overlooking Oslo from the public access rooftop of the opera house and families spending time at the year-round public pool right next to the lake. While walking through a theater lobby with my family, I instinctively kept looking around for someone to stop me, expecting to be questioned by security. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there because I hadn’t purchased a ticket, passed through a secured entrance or stopped by a reception desk, which I assumed must be required for such an amazing place. I was almost confused as to why it was so accessible! After getting over my initial perplexity, I started to appreciate the sense of freedom I felt – like I was trusted and welcome to explore and wander. These spaces truly felt like they belonged to everyone, so no one needed permission to be there.
How Scandinavian Public Spaces Are Used
More than just open spaces or a means to get from point A to point B, the public spaces in Scandinavia are gathering areas. One of their most frequent uses is for open air dining all hours of the day and even when it’s cold outside. These public spaces become like the cities’ living rooms; Almost at any time, you can find people on plaza benches or with their feet hanging over a canal, enjoying something to eat or drink al fresco. In general, Scandinavia tends to be quite expensive. Dining at restaurants can get pricey and people often live in rather small homes or apartments, which can get a little crowded when entertaining. So, it’s not uncommon for people to bring meals from home, stop and pick up beers at a local store, or buy something at a food truck and meet in the public spaces to socialize.
With the sheer amount of public spaces and how exceptionally they are connected, we were able to walk for miles and miles experiencing new things as we went. To do this with a seven-year-old who never complained because there was so much to see and do, I consider a real feat! My son’s favorite public space was definitely a trampoline we stumbled upon while walking along the edge of a river in Copenhagen.
Bringing Scandinavia Home
After visiting Scandinavia, I wanted to bring my observations home. I love the City of Denver and there are a few elements of Scandinavian design that I would love to see applied here. I would love to see more variety of types of public spaces so people can use them in different ways year-round. Climate doesn’t have to limit the use of public spaces – it’s far colder in Norway than Colorado and that doesn’t stop people from getting outside—and public spaces don’t have to just be outdoors. We do have a few really great public spaces, like Union Station, but I’d love to see more – more elevated structures to make walking more accessible and reduce traffic, more safe bike paths to decrease our carbon footprint, and more people gathering to enjoy their city together.
On our trip, not only was I seeing all these amazing places, but I was experiencing them through my son’s eyes as well. Watching him interact with these spaces and observe the people in them got me thinking about how the world will be different for him when he’s an adult, and I would like it to be different. Obviously, there are many different directions you can take that question but in terms of this subject, I would love for him to grow up with a sense of freedom and ownership being synonymous with public spaces like he experienced in Scandinavia.
In my travels as well as at home, I’m also looking for design inspiration. What public architecture have you experienced that I should go see on my next vacation?
Ben Niamthet, Associate AIA