august '07: christiania, copenhagen's autonomous favela, has just been given a new lease of life by the Danish government. no buildings will be torn down in the next year while negotiations on future developments continue. the fine examples of a modern "architecture without architects" like this glass house are safe for now.
but christiania's troubles are many and cannot be reduced to the hostile attitude held by our right wing government. what was initially a squatters' community has become a permanent settlement. it has been called a flawed experiment but the truth of the matter is that the experiment is over and has been for many years.
the rich cultural life that sent out subversive theatre groups into the 'real' world is long gone. the brilliant santa army happening of 1974 when large numbers of fake santas doled out goods from the shelves to christmas shoppers in copenhagen department stores would make little sense today: christiania is every bit as comfortably materialistic as the rest of denmark...the inhabitants' parked cars line the borders of this self-proclamed pedestrian community and hypocracy is rife. any criticism today would need to be self-criticism, never a real strength of the activist left.
to many, the final straw has been the ruthless exploitation of christiania's naively liberal marijuana politics by drug dealers. threats and violence form the worst chapter in this, the decline and fall of copenhagen's hippies, and a poignant reminder as to why the rest of the world chooses the rule of law above utopian anarchy.
but if the loss of ideals is felt so keenly here, it is only because those ideals had promise and beauty in the first place. in the words of architectural sage steen eiler rasmussen, in his 1976 defense of christiania:
"understood correctly, christiania may become an important corrective to a consolidated consumer society run amok. if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it".
as a corrective, the place doesn't exist anymore and we may need to reinvent it.
till then, we have the houses.
le corbusier famously claimed that all architecture could communicate was ideas. and the original ideas of christiania are well put by the best buildings out there: an open community of equals; a deep distrust, no, dismissal of authorities - including architects; a deep trust in the creative potential of ordinary people when left to govern their own lives. modesty. individualism. sustainability.
today, there is a strong political will to tear the houses down. they are illegal, follow no building code, have no permits. the old copenhagen defense line on which they are situated must be cleared to protect the city's cultural heritage.
but these buildings are cultural heritage too. and while the 20th century has left us all with a distrust of utopian and idealist thinking, tearing them down will be acting in a dangerous denial of history.