Core Course Week: Aalborg and Copenhagen

This week has flown by. For the first part, I spent three days in Aalborg, a city in northern Denmark. I returned to Copenhagen late Wednesday where we then continued to explore urban themes in Copenhagen. Why, might you ask, am I not in class this week and am instead out and about in Denmark? Well, good friend, it is Core Course Week here at DIS. Core Course Week is an opportunity for the core courses to travel around Denmark and explore content related to their field, as well as get to know your peers in a context outside of the classroom.

Early Monday morning I made my way to Copenhagen central train station in the dark (remember, the sun doesn’t rise until 8:10am), letting my excitement override my exhaustion. This week my core course was heading north to Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city. Knowing that the New York Times had named it as one of the top 52 places to visit in 2019, I was looking forward to exploring the city and learning about why it made the list.

The four-hour train ride went by smoothly; I had fields of green, horses, and small villages to keep me entertained for the most part, plus a quick nap to compensate for the early wake-up call. After arriving in Aalborg around 12:15, we dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went on a walking tour of Aalborg’s Harbor-front.

Once an industrial port city, Aalborg is slowly changing its landscape from that of industry and function to a city of arts, culture, and modernism through a series of redevelopments and transformations. Thomas Birget Smidt, who is an architect, planner, and the project manager of this transformation since the early 2000s was our guide for the afternoon. Before we started moving, Thomas told us about the history of Aalborg, saying that in recent decades, planning has given the fjord back to the city through visual connections and increased accessibility.  

Our first spot on the tour was Nordkraft, which is a cultural center that used to be an old power plant. Nordkraft is home to a cinema, concert venues, theatre, art space, eateries, and sports health center, demonstrating that industrial spaces can be transformed into multi-purpose spaces of recreation.

Nordkraft was one of just many cultural spots in Aalborg. In fact, we visited a couple other spots that housed arts-related activities including Music House, the Aalborg University Design and Architecture building, and the Utzon Center. I think Thomas articulated the effect of these spots along the fjord in a good way: “a string of pearls of cultural institutions across the fjord”. While on their own these institutions are interesting and impactful, together they make up a centralized hub for culture and the arts. What’s interesting to note is that these institutions were mentioned by name in NYT’s article, which emphasizes how these sites have become points of interest.

(Some photos from the harbor tour)

The next day we visited Aalborg’s City Planning Department, which has been working on Stigsorg, a large-scale urban development project in an area on the other side of the fjord. In the past, this site was home to the chemical industry. This project is the last step in urbanizing Aalborg’s harbor-front, which has been deemed a desirable feature that should be open for public use. This project will create new housing, parks, schools, promenades, shops, and connections for the city. It was really cool to see the plans and progress of such an ambitious project since I had never seen anything on that scale before.

After walking around the project location, we took the bus to the brink of town and explored Lindholm Høje and Lindholm Høje Museum. Lindholm Høje was a Viking burial ground during the 5th and 11th century. For centuries people have formed communities and, in some regards, this was one of the first urban centers in Aalborg. After busing back to the city center, we took advantage of the nice weather and walked around in small groups.

Lindholm Høje

Wednesday was our last day in Aalborg and spent it museum hopping. The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art was home to a mix of contemporary and modern art – some that were very provocative and others that made me scratch my head in confusion. As someone who knows nothing about art, I play a fun little game where I make outrageous interpretations of abstract art and sculptures. For example, there was an exhibit with a series of giant mirrors, all of which were broken except one. I analyzed that this one mirror intact represented the eventual destruction of society. Anyway, it makes looking at art a bit more interactive. I wanted to play this game for the Nordic Noir exhibit featuring the artist Kurt Trampedach, but frankly, their art was wayyyyy too disturbing and the existentialism was obvious that no analysis was really needed.

After Kunsten, we made our way over to the Utzon Center, which is a building designed by and features the work of Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect known for designing the Sydney Opera House. This was by far my favorite museum because you got to see his whole entire process right in front of you. As someone who loves to see how a little idea can get transformed into a physical thing, I was blown away with the small sketches on a napkin, the scale models, and the illustrated renderings.

The Kunsten Museum and Utzon Center

Before I knew it, I was on a train back to Copenhagen. The next day our class met up at BLOX, which is home to the Danish Architecture Center. There, we saw two exhibits; one was about Jørn Utzon – the guy from the previous paragraph – and the architect/engineer Uve Arup. Both exhibits were really fun, as I got to build upon the previous days’ knowledge about Jørn as well as learn about the engineer that helped him build the Sydney Opera House. Beyond just learning about Arup, I got to familiarize myself with his firm’s work, as they are currently working on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. They are also pioneering technology to help create better spaces by analyzing sounds and movability.

Found a fun construction hat in the children’s build area

Next on the agenda was a harbor tour. Unable to brave the cold and the rain, we opted for the water bus rather than walk around by foot as originally planned. I enjoyed watching the prominent features of the harbor appear and disappear in front of me from the warmth of the boat. However, it was hard to see the promenades clearly as the rain obstructed visibility.

On Friday we met up in Norhavn (north harbor) and explored the redevelopment occurring there. There is a huge plan in place to transform what used to be an industrial harbor into a mini-city with housing, schools, shops, restaurants, and public transportation. To learn more about this plan, we met with Energy Lab and Urban Creators who told us how the plan it attempting to provide a livable city for human beings while promoting sustainability.

Only about 20% of the project has been developed, so there is still a lot more that needs to be done. What was developed, however, was really impressive because it contained innovative solutions and desirable urban amenities to attract life to a part of the city that was pretty lifeless before. Moreover, the plan involves very modern designs and structures – such as Konditaget Lüders – but also retains its historical roots as an industrial port. For example, in order to maintain the industrial identity of the area, urban development firms and architects have redeveloped old silos into modern housing and workspaces. I thought I had seen a large-scale plan on Tuesday, but this project was much bigger. Again, I found myself intrigued by the building and development process, amazed by the fact that in a few years this empty area will be totally transformed.

Nordhavn

While each city was interesting to learn about on its own, I really enjoyed being able to make comparisons, seeing what was different and similar about the cities in how they approached their harbor-fronts. I noticed that both cities seek to establish a strong cultural identity, repurpose industrial buildings into places of leisure, and enhance livability by creating strong connections to the water.

I had such an amazing time in exploring Aalborg, getting to see new parts of Copenhagen, and am grateful that I feel like I’ve made new friends in my class. Relationships are very important to me, so I appreciate when classes take the time to have students get to know each other since we will be working and learning together for the next few months. Before the week, I knew five other students’ names, was ignorant about Danish beer, and worried to spend so much time with people I didn’t really know. Five days have past and I now know everyone’s names, am starting to familiarize myself with local Danish beers thanks to our faculty guide Sylvia, and am excited to spend more time with my classmates who I now consider my friends.  

Until next time,

Anthea

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