A late-summer evening in Copenhagen. Copenhagenize Design Company arranged for The Bicycle Chef - Cykelkokken to serve up a delicious snack for our guests from the City of Bordeaux, including Mayors from surrounding municipalities, who were visiting our city to learn about bicycle urbanism and public space.
Ole Kassow from Cycling Without Age was invited to spread his good word about his amazing project. Being urban designers, we thought it highly appropriate to exploit the potential of Copenhagen's newest public space - Kvæsthusmolen - a redevelopment of a quay in the heart of the Danish capital.
Summer is lingering this year, but the space was rather empty at 18:30, with only a few people enjoying the evening. We arranged for the Bicycle Chef to meet us at the "Kissing Steps" and set up for serving our guests from his converted Bullitt cargo bike.
It was going to be a classic Copenhagen arrangement. Or so we thought.
In all the material about the new, public urban space, grand descriptions are employed. "A space for cosy and quiet moments", they tell us. "A good urban space also invites people to linger". Indeed. The spot we chose - the Kissing Steps - is "a perfect place to share a moment in the sun." Not a dry eye in the house.
There is nothing in those descriptions to indicate that using the space would result in an angry employee from the Scandic Front hotel nearby storming out to us in the middle of the urban space and informing us in no uncertain terms - read: rude - that we had to move. That the space upon which we stood was private property and that we had to leave it immediately.
When we questioned this bizarre statement with comments about public space, we were informed by this man that it WASN'T public space - it was owned by The Royal Danish Theatre - also located nearby - and that the Scandic Front hotel pays "a lot of money" to rent it. Therefore we, as Copenhageners with international guests, were not allowed to have a private picnic.
Damn. There we were. Ready to experience a place for everything, a place for excitement and a place for US.
We were ready for a vibrant urban space and nine steps for kissing! As RealDania, the philanthropic fund who financed it says on the project website, the goal with the space was:
• creating an urban space which communicates the transition between Frederiksstaden and Holmen through a wide architectural “embrace” that extends the classical understanding of space in Frederiksstaden, staged through a sensual mixture of materials and a “fairy-tale” composition of lighting, which in itself makes the square enticing; both day and night
• to soften the transition between land and sea, e.g. with a stairway, and to enable a broad spectrum of recreational activities on and by the water
RealDania's declared mission is "To improve quality of life for the common good through the built environment".
What an amazing array of glossy, marketing texts about this new destination.
We were the only people in the space at that moment. The outdoor seating for the hotel was packed up for the evening - and probably the rest of the year. While Angry Hotel Man didn't seem very certain about his claims, we had distinguished guests arriving so we chose to avoid educating him in public space and, instead, roll over to the other area on Kvæsthusmolen, along the harbour, to begin our evening.
The World's Youngest Urbanist, The Lulu, helped Morten out preparing for our guests. Ole Kassow did his magic and all went well.
Kvæsthusmolen was designed by Danish architects Lundberg & Tranberg.
The question remains. Can you boldy proclaim "public space" and then try to kick people off of it? And in a city that prides itself on public space like few others? The lines between private and public are blurred here on Kvæsthusmolen. The Royal Danish Theatre even tries to brand the space as Ofelia Plads / Ofelia Square, complete with a website. Even though the official name is Kvæsthusmolen.
Screengrab from The Royal Danish Theatre's website. Just because it's weird.
As Mayor Morten Kabell has said, "There is nothing called Ofelia Plads - except in the imagination of The Royal Theatre".
Mayor Morten Kabell, on Facebook, has looked into this. He writes:
The stairs and Kvæsthusmolen is owned by the Ministry of Culture and administered by ofeliaplads.dk. They have leased a part of the place to Scandic Hotel for restaurant purposes, but far from it all. On the hotel's area you cannot make a private event or picnic.
But at the rest of Kvæsthusmolen, you can sit and enjoy yourselves, have a picnic and so on. When it amounts to a bigger event, you have to apply for permission from ofeliaplads.dk just like you'd have to if the area was owned by the city.
We weren't in the (closed) cafe space near the hotel. We were in the middle of the area. It would be interesting to see a plan showing the exact lease area. The whole area was deserted. You would think that creating some life in the space would be regarded as beneficial to everyone, including the businesses.
But hey. So maybe it's a free-for-all in this new urban space. Organisations can make up names for it. Hotels can kick you out of it - and, what's worse, hotels that only have a dismal 3.5 rating on Trip Advisor.
This may be routine in other cities in the world. This is not, however, fitting in the Copenhagen in which I choose to live and work.