Life on the Wedge

In Copenhagen, Superkilen rolls out a half-mile mash-up of global culture.

By Jessica Bridger

Credit: Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Kristian Skeie.

On Monday, the Aga Khan Foundation announced its 2016 awards for architecture, honoring six projects from a short list of 19 named as semifinalists in May. The award honors architecture of the Islamic world every three years. Among the projects is the Superkilen (“Super Wedge”) park in Copenhagen, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, Topotek 1, and Superflex. In its award announcement, the jury (which included Suad Amiry,  Emre Arolat, Akeel Bilgrami, Luis Fernàndez-Galiano, Hameed Haroon, Lesley Lokko, Mohsen Mostafavi, Dominique Perrault, and Hossein Rezai), cited Superkilen’s ability to integrate disparate ethnicities, religions, and cultures in a vibrant public space. LAM featured the project on its cover in July 2013. Following is our story on the park.

A neighborhood at the margins of the mainstream and beset by the problems of poverty: Arriving at Nørrebro Station is a bit of a shock for anyone who’s been in central Copenhagen’s pristine fairy tale.

From Tivoli, the city’s famed historical amusement park, to the perfectly maintained metro stations that still look brand new years after construction, a perfect urbanism seems to be the project here. Yet Nørrebro Station is completely covered in graffiti. The layers of paint obscure the windows, something more out of New York City in the 1970s or present-day Detroit. The streetscape in Nørrebro is less shocking and perhaps looks more like central Copenhagen, just a little more down at the heel. After all, this Scandinavian country has a robust social support network and provides housing, health care, and basic subsistence to all its residents.

Yet graffiti in a train station is a maintenance issue, and, stewardship notwithstanding, efforts are made citywide to improve the city fabric, the quality of life in urban public space. That perhaps Nørrebro has more room for improvement is unsurprising, and in recognition of this the city has made efforts tailored to the area. Nørrebro is home to Superkilen, a new park in this area north of Copenhagen’s city center. Superkilen (“super wedge” in Danish) was designed by the landscape architects at Topotek 1, the architects at Bjarke Ingels Group, and the artists of Superflex. The park occupies a narrow stretch of land between 1980s housing projects and old neighborhood fabric. Nørrebro has a relatively high crime rate—high enough that the American embassy in Copenhagen warns travelers about the area, a surprise in peaceful Denmark—and its share of gang activity. The violent crime in the area is bad enough that, before Superkilen was built, the area the park occupies was known as the “shooting gallery” for the number of violent incidents, many presumably related to drug use, in what was essentially an extended abandoned lot and small derelict green space. As with most European public space projects, the designers were chosen through a competition. The competition brief asked entrants to address the immense challenges of the site. A park alone cannot solve complex social problems, but it can elevate an area, render visible things otherwise unseen, and bring simple pleasures to what was once a no-man’s-land.

Parks are not neutral. Parks reflect their context—their time, their place, their political and economic conditions. The best parks distinguish themselves as radical answers to their context—be it their immediate setting or the milieu that will become their birthplace in history. One need only look back to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, one of the first parks, created out of the sooty filthy desperation of the first industrial revolution. Laying open the establishing elements of the park and proffering even controversial topics, taking the visuality to a degree of relevance outside aesthetic fashions, a park might create within it a polemic, a position that public space communicates. This mode of design as argumentation is expressed at Superkilen with forms and elements that escape any single cultural norm and instead vividly present a radically multicultural pastiche. Here, landscape architecture—and ultimately urbanism—is about the recognition of difference. It celebrates the hypervisual and public participation for everyone.

Credit: Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Kristian Skeie.

The framework for the design is simple: Three narrow spaces form a half-mile-long linear site, each with a distinct character. A large open red square connects the park with the heart of the north-central Copenhagen neighborhood at Nørrebro Station. A black square figured in striped and torqued asphalt, dense with program, serves as the heart of the park, and a stretch of artificially rolling green invites “big” recreation with a basketball court/skatepark hybrid. All three sections endorse an open-ended program by including special objects and unique landscape elements, chosen by the public and curated by the designers. Although the wedge-shaped park is clearly defined in form, it can be seen as a smorgasbord of ideas.

Markers, reminders, and mementos. The stuff of our past, the stuff of our cultural background, has immense power. The designers of Superkilen strove to activate this force. As the site is located in one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods of Copenhagen, this ambition made the park design into a celebration of difference. The inclusion of the people who live nearby in choosing items and furniture created a direct reflection of their cultural backgrounds. The design team solicited the residents of Nørrebro to suggest site furniture that would represent their home countries, their ancestry. This selection includes more than 150 objects from more than 60 countries, all present and accounted for by metal plaques that identify their origins. The objects represent the pleasure of cultural memory, things once lost and now found.

Credit: Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Kristian Skeie.

These artifacts bring a visual or decorative reference into the park and also activate in public various unique kinds of recreation. This is “crowdsourcing” and participation beyond a mediocrity that often arises from group efforts. This park is not “groupthink.” It is group things. The designers acted as curators of these suggestions, adding items of their own to augment the selection. Most of the objects are copies of the originals, fabricated in Denmark—translations of sorts. One of the best-loved parts of the park was also a favorite of the design team: A large octopus, originally from Japan and cast in concrete, is a slide and a playhouse. Craftsmen from Japan came to Copenhagen to build the immigrant octopus—granted permanent residency by concrete of course. The park does not claim to be a space for the assimilation of objects or, more important, of people. It acknowledges their differences.

At Superkilen, the manifestation of culture is as diverse as the inhabitants of Nørrebro. There are neon signs from Russia, Turkey, and beyond that advertise dental care, nightclubs, or restaurants that don’t really exist at Superkilen. A towering sign for “Donuts” with a puffy, golden-brown wonder promises a delicious goodie that can’t be bought for love or money. There’s something a bit wistful in this advertised narration. This creates an atmosphere where culture becomes shared. People are drawn into the park to take a share of its novelty and participate in its oddity. Thai boxing, a sport seen and misunderstood by some as a vicious excuse for violence, comes into the open at Superkilen. The regulation Thai boxing ring is a favorite of many park visitors, of both the fighters who use it and the spectators who watch. Not least among them are kids passing by who are ready for a kiddie bout. A new Thai boxing course is offered in the adjacent recreation center, itself transformed from a once-derelict train depot, for those casual users who want to transform passion into competitive expertise.

Credit: Courtesy BIG and Topotek 1.

The freehearted clash of character and identity brings something wholly new to Nørrebro, and to the more general idea of cultural sharing in public space. The mishmash park is a polemic; it is in itself a conception of what a park is meant to do and what people are meant to do in a park. It can be seen as an exercise in pushing back against given assumptions, be they of trash cans that are the standard specification in one city or another, or whom a park is for by the signals it sends. A gigantic tower of speakers, originally from Jamaica, is meant to invite visitors to share their music with the park, bringing the noise out of headphones or car radios and into the public sphere. There is something hedonistic about Superkilen and its seemingly permissive environment—anything goes, as long as you can do it in public.

You find little precedent about what to do at Superkilen or how to behave. The spaces are open for interpretation, for the invention of new games, new ways of using each area and the objects within it. Yet Superkilen as a park in the canon of landscape architecture is not without historical precedent beyond its response to context. It is a spectacle, following in the tradition of the 19th century landscape gardens—where follies (as translated from China, Greece, or Italy) lent drama to a carefully choreographed version of nature—and in this sense, Superkilen brings drama to the city. Here, the appearance of the topographically morphing landscape itself also holds a certain fascination. Its twisted ground plane, with three parts in three dominant colors—red, black, green—is just as present and seductive as the skin of the latest architectural wonder, but it is fully haptic and inviting. The landscape, in all degrees from urban to rural, is both a reflection of and a backdrop for culture, and at Superkilen it is transformed into a literal profusion of signs and symbols remixed into a single—and singular—space.

Opened to the public in late 2012, Superkilen has quickly gained resonance beyond disciplinary boundaries. Inside the discipline it has excited, delighted, and irritated some; outside the discipline it has invited comment and interest in the concept. The lack of polite neutrality, appropriate to the site, is also a magnet for attention. One can do a bit of gawking at Superkilen, and not because it has an excessive price tag like some of the more notable landscape projects of recent memory. The budget for Superkilen was small, but the idea is big, and like any good 21st century capitalistic symptom it is scalable, global, and sexy. As well, it is emphatically urban and unmistakably landscape architecture.

We don’t often question the basic stuff of the place we’re in, especially in the landscape or a park—the average urban dweller in the United States or Europe is simply glad for the bench or the trees: We simply accept public spaces as given. Rarely are spaces so literal a translation of other places, and this also brings attention to Superkilen—far beyond the neighborhood of Nørrebro, beyond the city limits of Copenhagen or Denmark’s borders.

Credit: Courtesy BIG and Topotek 1.

It would be easy to sit in a living room in Detroit or Tehran or Seoul and project yourself into the park space of Superkilen, to become a user by fantasy, to participate by proxy through your projections. Imagine running up the striped hill, swinging on the swings, breezing down the red bike corridor with the colors of the park flying past. The park’s appeal lies in its coy ability to be of anywhere, yet to be possible only in its highly specific site context—thanks to its users’ active participation in its conception. Its genetic mix is global yet fully local.

Even the plant life at Superkilen has a multinational heritage. The discussion of native, invasive, and ornamental species with plants is usually presented as something that bears the weight of a moral or ethical dilemma. Topotek 1, however, prides itself on understanding vegetation as part of our ever-shifting biotopes and included it as one of the items up for community suggestion and designer specification. Plants immigrate nearly as freely as people: borne by winds or birds, adapted but not assimilated into their new contexts. Some, like the Araucaria from South America, are quite happy living in Copenhagen at Superkilen. As plants have the wonderful ability to reproduce, one wonders whether, slowly, parts of Superkilen will integrate into greater Copenhagen.

Credit: Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Kristian Skeie.

Much has now changed in the space that Superkilen has come to occupy, if not the more complex problems nearby. The life of the city passes through the park, as an important bike lane, part of the Copenhagen Green Cycle Route, runs the length of the site. On my numerous visits to the park in cold weather, it hummed with activity; a recreation center and café to one side of the red square provided extra activity spaces and a sense of a fixed public presence on site. On one particularly gray day, two boys in early adolescence progressed through the park, making up their own games: hopping from stone backgammon table to table, taking the time to teach each other the “right” way to approach benches originally from the Czech Republic, for example—evidently, leaping from the top was much preferable to leaping from the seat. The park can be taken quite like an amusement park, in fact—and the two boys were clearly amusing themselves in a circuit of fun.

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Credit: Courtesy BIG and Topotek 1.

Projects like Superkilen hint at a new way for designers to work with the public. By engaging the local population and acknowledging the true complexity of urban environments in design, we can get beyond aesthetic questions and beyond even questions of use and program. Design in the public realm must respond to broad cultural and social inputs, remixing our notions of global and local, client and stakeholder. In a project like Superkilen there is an inherent mediation set up by the designers between the user groups adjacent and the larger cultural context. Nørrebro’s complex situation—a demographic island of heterogeneous minorities in a homogeneous country—has forced new thinking for how a public space could be a participative element in urban culture. The park presents a strong position about who should feel welcome in a park, and how even mundane cultural objects can communicate a tendency toward assimilation in something seemingly neutral like a park if presented in homogeneous force. Getting beyond the received notions of who belongs in the city, and in turn whom it belongs to, can sometimes begin with questioning something as simple as a park bench.

Jessica Bridger is an urbanist, landscape architect, and journalist based in Berlin.

Project Credits
Client City of Copenhagen and the Realdania Foundation, Copenhagen. Landscape Architect Topotek 1, Berlin. Architect Bjarke Ingels Group, Copenhagen. Artist Superflex, Copenhagen. Site Construction Lemming & Eriksson, Køge, Denmark. General Contractor Aarsleff, Copenhagen. Asphalt Colas, Glostrup, Denmark.

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