How Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist ‘utopia’

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How Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist 'utopia'
Copenhagen in the 1960s / © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While concrete was being poured across Europe’s cities, Denmark’s capital found itself at a crossroads: would it follow the car-centric vision of grand boulevards and streets in the sky – or keep its citizen-focused design?

“In the 60s and 70s, we thought that if you built huge blocks with apartments and efficient traffic systems, everyone would be happy … But quality of life is more than square metres, concrete, lifts, motorways and subways.”

From his house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, veteran planner Søren Elle is reliving his 42 years with the city’s transport department. “The question was, should we rebuild Copenhagen into a modern American city, or should we keep Copenhagen as Copenhagen and just make small adjustments in a pragmatic, Danish way?”

Elle’s words echo the dilemma that faced planners in so many European cities during the 1960s and 70s – a time when the modernist movement dominated visions of what the future city would look like. Traditional residential blocks and narrow streets were deemed unhealthy and suppressive, and the utopian vision was of streets in the sky and grand boulevards for the motorcar.

European engineers were sent in flocks to the US to learn from the environments in which these revolutionary ideas were playing out, returning with tabula rasa development plans to realise their own modernist dreams. Many cities still bear the battle scars of the planners’ ensuing “enlightened experiments”.

In Britain, vast swathes of the city of Birmingham were gutted to make way for an inner ring road, which placed cars on the surface and buried many footpaths and road crossings beneath the built-for-speed streets. In Stockholm, the Essingeleden motorway was opened in 1966 to traverse the city’s islands. It was soon repainted from six to eight lanes, but this failed to make a dent on congestion levels – it remains the busiest road in Sweden. […]