Superkilen and Public Art

Clint and I spent a few days in Copenhagen at the end of March. It was my first time there (his second), so I did a good amount of research on the city. When we travel to a new place, I research the characteristics of its neighborhoods or districts to identify where we will get the most satisfaction during our stay.

This time we stayed in Nørrebro, Denmark’s most multicultural urban area. Nørrebro is distinct from its surroundings. Where central Copenhagen is a bastion of Baroque, Rococo, and Classicist architecture, Nørrebro commands your attention with its graffiti and unsanctioned street art. It’s undeniably hipster and is home to what may be the city’s last working-class neighborhood. The district’s arterial road, Nørrebrogade, is locally known as “little Arabia.” We loved it.

israel
If I was hard-pressed to sum up Nørrebro in one image, this one would be in the running.

Nørrebro has a less-than-peaceful reputation. Its modern history is peppered with confrontations between militant squatters and other anarchical groups, some of which have led to full-scale riots on the Nørrebrogade—including the largest riot in Danish history in 2007. Almost 10 years on, no scars are visible, at least not to this untrained eye.

It’s in this context that Superkilen was proposed. Superkilen is a cultural smörgåsbord of a park, a microcosm of local diversity. As a strategy to promote social integration and shed the neighborhood’s reputation of riotous violence, the City of Copenhagen proposed the creation of a large public space that represents the more than 60 nationalities of Nørrebro’s residents: a “wedge” (kilen in Danish) in a neglected part of the city that, instead of further cleaving the community apart, becomes a place to be together.

Superkilen’s creation story is what New Urbanist dreams are made of. From conception to construction, the endeavor has been an intersection of architecture, landscape architecture, and art, represented respectively by the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group, the German Topotek 1, and Nørrebro natives SUPERFLEX.

With the Municipality of Copenhagen and RealDania, the groups approached Nørrebro residents to incorporate cultural narratives and associated items from all of the nationalities represented in Nørrebro: a whopping 60 countries are each represented by something in the park.

These items range from the utilitarian…

bike pump
A combination bike rack and pump from Sandefjord, Norway. 

 

to the leisurely…

swing
A bench swing from a park in Baghdad’s Qahira neighborhood. Photo credit: Torbin Eskerod.

 

… to the whimsical and nostalgic.

donuts
A neon sign from the DeAngelis Donuts shop in Rochester, Pennsylvania.

Starchitect Bjarke Ingels explained the selection process to Architonic in 2013:

“Of all the items that were suggested […] it’s the best ones that survive, that continue to hold the stage at Superkilen. The success of the final selection is also due to the sheer number and variety of ideas
 we were able to chose from in the beginning … It’d be ridiculous to think that the Danes invented the best bike racks and benches, the prettiest fountains or the brightest street lights … It’s much more logical to think that by casting your net on a planetary scale, sifting all the world’s customs and specialisations, you’ll get the best items, the ones that are fittest for purpose.”

The park is, per Ingels, an exercise in architectural and planning Darwinism.

Superkilen has three distinct areas: the Red Square, painted in various shades of red and unironically adorned with imported Russian signage; the Black Market, a paved section with funky painted curvilinear lines and recreational facilities (BBQ grills, playground equipment, etc.); and the Green Park, which is the most traditional of the three with its grassy hills and dog walking trails.

Over time Superkilen’s hyper-planned, hodge-podge aesthetic has succumbed to the elements. The vibrant patchwork of the Red Square is faded and sullied, and some of the items have been vandalized.

The vandalization poses its own unique dilemma: If an item is chosen as an important and representative artifact of a faraway place, is imported for use in an unregulated public space, and then gets vandalized, what happens?

An example is this beautiful fountain from Morocco, seen here in a photo three months after Superkilen opened in 2012.

fountain
Source, licensed under CC 2.0

I didn’t think to take a photo of this same fountain during our visit, partly because of the condition it’s in. I saw that a few of its tiles had been smashed or removed. The water feature was turned off, and that could be because it’s broken, because the weather was too cold, or as a conservation measure.

So what does park management do with this (not too) wounded fountain? There are a couple options I can think of:

1) Leave it be. The City may choose to concern itself only with basic maintenance at Superkilen, such as mowing grass and repairing broken or expired light fixtures. Safety is always important in public areas and should never be ignored, but aesthetics are a different story. If part of the reason Superkilen was created is to reflect the multiculturalism of its neighborhood, perhaps the City can trust its citizens to protect the space: a swing from hyper-planning to laissez faire.

2) Dedicate part of the park’s or department’s budget for importing replacement goods. I spent a few afternoons in grad school thumbing through the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places program files. The file for each public artwork includes maintenance information; if I recall correctly, the artists provide this information and the city retains it. Some files were as simple as including recipes for paint and patina colors, while other works require more detailed instructions.

Copenhagen has no shortage of public art. I’m not privy to any maintenance files, so I can’t report on what information was gathered on the imported works. I do have questions, though: Was the fountain imported as a whole, or was it shipped piecemeal and installed in situ? Were the tiles painted and glazed in Morocco from a specific artisan, or can they be purchased at a Moroccan big-box home improvement store? When the City was gathering community input on works to be included at Superkilen, did it ask the representative resident how an imported piece should be repaired or replaced? Did the City ask donors in Morocco for any of this information?

Consider the optics at play: We at the Municipality and Architecture Firm value your input and your heritage, but only at the opening of the park and not at any point after. If the Municipality (or other responsible entity) is willing to bring over culturally important pieces, to what ends should it go to be true to their continued existence? Fortunately, most imported pieces in the park are durable and low-maintenance. This fountain and a tiled bench from Portugal have both been preyed on by hands that damaged their beauty, and taggers and graffiti artists have laid their claims on some of the larger pieces. But apart from normal wear and tear, the other goods at Superkilen are in (at least) decent shape.

The park has enjoyed a global reputation since its inception. Whether because of its international nature or the big-time architect names associated with the project (or both), Superkilen attracted interest from some far-flung places. My favorite import is not anything brought from the U.S., but this octopus-shaped piece of playground equipment from Japan. A nursery school in Tokyo learned about Superkilen and talked with their students about how their country will be represented in this unique park. What followed is a sweetly organic example of the role internationalization plays in community education.

letter

octopus
An octopus-esque piece of playground equipment imported from Tokyo’s Adachi Ward

 

The childrens’ illustrations mentioned in the letter can be found online on the Superflex website.

As European countries grapple with the influx of refugees and migrants, their governments could look at Nørrebro for creative ways to integrate people from diverse backgrounds. Superkilen is far from a perfect park, and a public park alone will not solve a community’s internal strife. Rather, public parks and public artworks are long-term commitments a city makes to its residents. Regardless of what the state of Superkilen becomes over time, it will remain a place that brought disparate and marginalized parts of a community together to make something that has never been made before, and there is great value in that.

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