Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen

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I worry about public space that is captured in images that are “too good to be true.”  Such is the case with Superkilen, an urban linear park in Copenhagen.  And like the old adage, the on-the-ground experience is not as good as the photos.   When I saw it this past summer, I came away thinking that Superkilen is a wonderfully photogenic one-kilometer long stretch, one that sadly does not live up to its promise. It’s a pity the results are not more positive because millions of people are already familiar with it (they might not know its name) thanks to an iPhone ad that placed it on magazine covers and billboards this past spring. Readers might remember the dramatic images of white squiggly lines on an undulating black surface.  The cost of Superkilen- over $8 million-compounds my feeling of unease.

The results are all the more dispiriting because heartfelt intentions underlay the Superkilen concept.  It represents a potent belief that design can ameliorate social shortcomings and foster community.   Creating Superkilen was an attempt to improve the everyday life of newcomers who have arrived in Copenhagen over the past decade.  Many are poor and live jammed together in the roughest area of the city, Nørrebro  (although to American eyes this neighborhood appears much more benign than inner cities in the USA and there is at least one street, previously notorious for killings and crime, which now hosts upscale restaurants). Superkilen was introduced as a respite space, a series of outdoor hubs where local residents could gather.

The city and a non-profit corporation, Realdania (based on a mortgage credit association), sponsored a competition for this site in 2007.  The program called for solutions that emphasize the diversity of the neighborhood, reputed to house over 50 nationalities.  The goal was to make immigrants feel more at home by evoking their memories of where they had grown up.  The winning team is extremely talented and distinguished: architects BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group); the landscape architecture firm Topotek1; the participatory artists of Superflex.   Their solution was to have three “zones” that melded into each other horizontally: a Red Square; a Black Market; and a Green Park.  The most touted intervention was the importation or replication of objects that the local residents suggested to reflect their earlier lives. Eighty-two objects are meant to convince the recently arrived neighbors that Copenhagen could be “home.”

I found the Red Square and the Black Market to be deeply disturbing solutions.  The Red Square is a flat expanse of asphalt with a polyurethane coating. Several shades of red do not relieve the unrelenting openness of this area, which is possibly slippery when wet.  It is difficult to maintain this surface which already appears faded, dirty and uninviting.  The Black Market is not quite as disappointing because the asphalt has an aggregate of black stone and its stripes of white road paint are more durable.  Even though there are changes of elevation and some hills, these do not temper the unyielding flatness of this empty urban space.  The irony is the bike path, which traverses Superkilen, originates in a leafy, well-shaded adjacent linear park.  The old bike path has twists and turns; the surrounding park contains lots of flat grass on which people can gather.  I understand that the designers of Superkilen wanted to escape this old model yet their new creation lacks the equivalent of the intimate and welcoming areas of the adjacent predecessor.

The Danes have a specific cultural value, hygge.  Englishman Michael Booth, in an interesting book on Scandinavia, devotes a whole (largely negative) chapter to it.  Hygge does not have an exact English translation.  It appears to mean “cozy’ with an implication that denotes intimate, simple, unfussy, authentic. (the Yiddish word haimische – or “homelike”- might be similar).  Booth argues that what may appear as positive attributes can be seen often as exclusive and exclusionary. The problem is the designers have not replaced hygge with something more vital that engages the local community and allows them to feel at ease in public.

The curated objects of Superkilen are what really infuriated me.  The exception is the Octopus play structure that I like very much.  It recreates a beloved object from a Tokyo suburb.  I applaud its Darth Vader type gloominess that rises up from the surfacing; at the same time it affords many opportunities for exploring its deep crevices and spooky interior.  Its curvilinear openings and semi-concealed slides recall the robust abstract sculptures that Egon Møller-Nielsen created in Sweden after World War II.

The rest of the objects- things like a Moroccan tile fountain or Iranian circular swings- are isolated relics.   Brett Bloom, an artist and vocal critic of Superkilen, notes that these objects are displayed like “museum” gems without a context.  He further states that daily removal of graffiti adds to the sterile affect.  I agree.  While the red surfacing looks unappealing aesthetically because it is now bland, the presence of graffiti might reveal layers of activity and an interaction between users and their environment.

I would suggest, too, that the objects might reflect a superficial way to engage potential users.  The designers spent time asking residents what they wanted to have that recalled their homelands.  I wonder if the designers asked additional, probing questions, such as what experiences did these people have and what did they like best about their old hometowns. I wonder if the design team ever asked themselves, why did the Moroccan residents want a polygonal tiled fountain? Did they want to recall a soothing place to gather?  Did they like shapes that encourage interaction among those sitting there?  Did they like shiny surfaces that enhance the sense of calm and beauty and reflect their sunny landscape?  Plopping down a foreign object is a trite gesture; really talking to people about what they miss and crave might have led the designers to more profound and more exciting solutions.

There is clearly an analogy with what we ask children about what they want in their playground.  Do they want a swing because that is what they have seen or do they want something that will enable them to go fast and high? Do they want a slide because they know they exist in other playgrounds or do they really want a vehicle for moving quickly form high to low and perhaps defying gravity by climbing up instead of sliding down?  We, as advocates for play and for public spaces for all, have to demand a similar type of investigating in order to have the most effective results.

Superkilen offers lessons to us but they are frequently not the ones we need in order to achieve centers of community. I regret that it sets a wrong path on how to improve public recreation venues.

This post originally appeared on Play-Scapes.

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