In a city that by most measures of urban quality is one of the most successful in the world, how does Copenhagen explain Ørestad?




Ørestad is the urban finger that extends south of the city, five kilometres long, 500 metres wide, no older than 1993. Its spine is the M1 extension – a Metro light-rail line parallel to Ørestad Boulevard around which the project is organized.


Ørestad Syd luftfoto


It began with ambitious intentions:

“It is the intention to give full artistic freedom concerning architectural form, so that the new city quarter of Ørestad will boast state-of- the-art within architecture and art during the building years.” – Masterplan competition stipulations for Ørestad

That should have been a warning.  Like so many similar projects in Europe (or inspired by European masterplanning) – La Defense in Paris, Danube City in Vienna, Pudong in Shanghai – the results are dismally anti-urban.

Finger PlanØrestad was to be an addition to the 1947 ‘Finger Plan’ (right) – corridors of suburbanization, separated by green zones, connected to the city by rail, that allowed for controlled expansion of Copenhagen.  And though it resulted in a degrading of inner Copenhagen’s tax base, it also encouraged urban renewal along the harbour’s industrial zones – a process still continuing.  The hope was that the new urban quarter of Ørestad would usher Copenhagen out of financial crisis and create a testing ground to display the city’s new ideas in architecture and city planning.

The Danish Parliament passed the ‘Act of Ørestad’ in 1992 and funded a new metro line connecting to the airport and the tunnel/bridge to Malmö, Sweden, intended to make Copenhagen a focal point of Scandinavia and northern Europe.

Only this process would be different from the traditional state-led planning that characterized post-war development; the impact of globalization and market-oriented ideology led to a stronger role for private investors and an intent that infrastructure, particularly the Metro extension, be paid in part by the rise in land values and sale of adjacent sites.

Unfortunately, reality intervened.  From Failed Architecture:

… the Ørestad Development Corporation (owned by the Minsitry of Finance and the City of Copenhagen) was faced with substantial challenges, as the development of the metro didn’t go as planned. …  Massive cost overruns in the metro construction, disappointing ticket sales, larger debts than foreseen, a severe lack of interest in the building plots around the metro line – subsequently forced the Ørestad Corporation to serve according to harsh market terms opposite to the initial urban planning ideas …


In particular, it allowed the development of a huge inward-facing shopping mall:.



Ørestad was intended to have a vibrant public realm; this was the opposite.  “The large shopping mall was allowed to turn in an inward-facing direction, without the slightest attempt to create life in the surrounding streets”

The Ørestad project started with an overwhelming array of optimism and ambitions, glossy project folders and flashy websites presented an image of the development as becoming the opposite of a dull and monotonous place, full of vibrant urbanity. But if we look at the built environment of Ørestad today we see that large parts of the urban areas are disjointed with “architecturally indifferent and totally oblivious objects.”

There was worse to come.


  1. That should have been a warning. Like so many similar projects in Europe . . . the results are dismally anti-urban.

    Not just Europe! I have not visited Copenhagen, or indeed, many of the cities you cite Gord but La Defense is brutal.

    All I know of Copenhagen comes from watching Heidi Hollinger’sWaterfront Cities of the World” on Knowledge. Her characteristic agile shutter work describes a commonality to all contemporary development: ISOLATION!

    She waxes grand about this project or that yet all have one thing in common and she misses the point: individual architecture may look good on the screen but it spells chaos when we take it in at ground level.

    Contemporary development, acutely exposed in Hollinger’s Copenhagen and La Defense, is how the perpetrators of such monstrosities create and build in total isolation: anti urban anti City! No need to wander far from Vancouver for confirmation!

    In Vancouver Ray S recognized the dilemma with his early ’60’s CD zoning and it worked when the CD title was held by one entity. The trick was to coax out cooperative design across lot lines and that is another issue when the perpetrators are raging individualists!

    On another post you point out Copenhagen’s Potato Rows. With the party wall, absolutely Potato Rows were not solely a Danish design characteristic. English cities were replete in Potato Rows as a means to keep workers close to the job: close nit, it was not unusual to see a ship under construction or a gasometer looming at the end of the street.

    Courtesy Herman Goring many of the UK’s Victorian Potato Rows were thinned out. In the same vein the contemporary urban environment is systematically eroded by persons of all gender playing CAD on brightly shining screens!

  2. Dutch architectural theorist John Habraken said to me one time that the problem with new towns is that they are designed on the same sized sheet of paper that houses are designed on. “It takes a lot of effort to stop your pencil in less than a couple of centimeters” he said. “In that time the house designer has gone across the room but the planner has gone across the city!” His point, of course, was that it was hard for planners to think at human scale when they are thinking at city scale. Orestad is a compelling example for his argument, and it seems that much of the architecture that has followed from the plan has fallen victim to the same problem of “over-big, under-small.”

  3. Interesting to see that even Copenhagen is guilty of urbanism failures. And are those single family homes I see to the right of the development? Blasphemy! 😉

    1. Hi Bob,

      The houses are from the 1960s. Think of Orestad as the Jericho lands of Copenhagen – former military holdings that became redundant and given their inner-city location were prime for redevelopment.

      Gord I hope you got some good shots of the ground plane of the apartments and the scale of the parks. Terrible private/semi-public/public interface.

      The Danish architecture community is slavish to certain “functionalist” aesthetics, that aren’t functional at all. For example, there is never any weather protection, anywhere. Building meets ground. Period. No gardens, terraces, awnings, etc. BIG’s new tower here in Vancouver continues this trend in a way. Will it be a nice place to be, beside the Granville Bridge, with the wind and rain, and no awnings?

      That said Copenhagen is an amazing city and there is lots to recommend it.


  4. That’s where Bjarke Engels built his 8tallet. It’s in the foreground of the aerial snap.

    EUR outside of Rome is another.

    1. Actually at Jan Gehl’s lecture at a conference in Copenhagen a couple of summers ago, he was quite vocal about how poorly planned and designed the neighbourhood was. He was quite concerned that they forgot to basically design the streets for people. Interface between the buildings and the streets is poor. He encouraged the participants to go and see it for themselves first hand.

      1. It just goes to show that there’s nothing magical about the Danes or the Dutch. They’re just people who happened to make some decisions that caused some good things to happen.
        This means that we here, can do good things or awful things. The future is unwritten. It can be done well or be done sloppy.

  5. I’m glad you got to see this in Copenhagen. The day we got a tour, was a really windy and cold (summer) day. I was surprised to see how exposed people were to the conditions and how difficult it was to get up and close to the buildings along the street wall to get some protection.

    I can only imagine how it must feel in the cold cold Danish winter.

    Just a reminder that people keep on forgetting the lessons learned!

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