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A Dialogue Between Social Life and the Built Environment

Michaela Mahon

Intern Spotlight: Michaela Mahon -- TGP summer intern shares her experience studying the dialogue between social life and the built environment in Copenhagen

As the summer comes to a close, it’s time to say goodbye to our summer interns.  Every year, we look forward to their return, with this year’s cohort a record number. Immersed in projects as contributing team members, we hope they have gained valuable real world experience. To the firm they bring new energy, new perspectives, and new skills. Our work is enriched by their fresh ideas.

They also provide us with a glimpse into our future. A not insignificant part of our current staff started with us as summer interns, so we know that, ephemeral as the summer presence seems, it figures large in the firm’s future. Every year, we are energized by its promise. All of which is clearly demonstrated by the following piece on Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, authored by Michaela Mahon, one of this year’s interns from the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.

In March of this past school year, I spent a week drawing, asking questions, and looking through the archives of an 84-acre commune in the center of Copenhagen, Denmark. Freetown Christiania was formed in 1971 when a group of artists, freethinkers, and anarchists took over a disused area of abandoned military barracks 1 km east of Copenhagen’s historic center. For the past 50 years, the 1000-person settlement has been allowed to operate outside the control of city or state governments - in the political, economic, and architectural realms.

Without enforcement of health and safety codes, the residents of Christiania have freely constructed buildings and urban spaces to align with the community’s wants and needs. In addition to adapting the existing military buildings from the turn of the 20th century, Christiania residents have constructed an estimated 150 new structures since its inception. The commune contains a diversity of spaces and densities; residents live in structures as large as five-story, 60-person masonry buildings, and as small as 400–square-foot wooden houses.

‍Christiania (outlined in red) is 1km east of Copenhagen’s historic center

After learning about this enclave about four years ago, I began considering that Christiania presents the unique opportunity to examine how social life shapes a built environment in nearly experimental settings. What so interested me about Christiania was its significantly higher capacity for fluidity between architectural change and social impact. The low level of bureaucracy allows the community to edit and change their built environment repeatedly based on how it is being used. There is a constant dialogue between people’s actions and architectural adaptation that is unseen anywhere else in Europe; a dialogue that has been unseen for hundreds of years. 

This dialogue has allowed the architecture and urban space of Christiania to be truly reflective of the people that live and work there. The architecture exists without the ego, pretention, or assumption that so frequently accompanies even the best modern, traditional, and new urbanist architecture and planning. 

While in Copenhagen I explored and sketched Christiania with their head archivist, Ole Lykke, researched historic documents in the Denmark National Archives, and learned more about the broader city of Copenhagen. I found the story of Christiania’s architecture to be defined not only by its creativity, but also its resourcefulness. Residents have limited means and they have relied on ingenuity to construct viable homes that are still reflective of their creative and rebellious spirits. Since the beginning, residents have primarily relied on discarded and used building materials; the first homes in the 1970s and 1980s were built around framed structures of horse-drawn wagons. Now, small wooden homes line the shores of the canal that defines Christiania’s more rural sector. Many of the homes are built partially into the hillside of the earthen ramparts that line the water’s edge – reducing the number of necessary walls and taking advantage of the thermal insulating properties of the ground. All are compact and centrally composed because most homes are heated with small, pot-belly style furnaces. Restricted by budget and the harsh Danish climate, these houses are inherently sustainable and affordable.

The built environment of Christiania is a type of vernacular architecture. It is necessarily respectful of environmental conditions, it has been largely built by non-professionals with simple materials, and it has developed over time through a pseudo-evolutionary process. Lykke described the collaborative construction process as such: a form of benevolent Darwinism exists in which the individual with the least leaky roof is the person to ask for advice on how to build a roof. Like other forms of vernacular architecture, Christianian homes are intrinsically tied to their physical and social environment. The unique socio-political situation in Christiania has encouraged a more whimsical and free-spirited vernacular than one typically sees in the US or Europe, but these eccentricities link the homes together as a unique style. 

I went to Christiania to examine the existing dialogue between social life and the built environment and found it to be alive but quickly fleeting. In 2011, the city of Copenhagen ruled that new construction in Christiania can occur but residents may only tear down existing homes and rebuild in place with the exact same square footage. This law discourages creativity in the name of efficiency.   Simple, practical boxes are replacing the curved walls and strange angles that are Christiania’s defining features. The buildings in Christiania represent something very unique: a vernacular style that emerged in the 20th century. My hope is that Christiania is soon recognized as a place that is architecturally significant and worthy of scholarship for its unique relationship between its people and its buildings.

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