Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Danish notes #1: Spiral city

Church of Our Savior, Copenhagen

     "Leitmotif" originated as a German word, used by critics picking apart the works of Richard Wagner. A fitting term to start my reflection on Copenhagen, as Danish is a Germanic language. It means, roughly, a recurrent theme, and in the case of our recent visit to the capital of Denmark, the theme we kept returning to was, of all things, spirals.
Eliasson bridge
The overture began hours after we landed, with an enigmatic tower glimpsed from the canal tour my wife cannily put us on, in the sound theory that we'd been traveling all day and would need some low energy activity to introduce us to the city. It worked. We saw all sorts of wonderful sights — a bridge designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson that looks like a sailing ship and collapses in on itself to let boats pass. The Rem Koolhaas-designed Danish Architecture Center, which I immediately tweeted at Lee Bey ("EAT YOUR HEART OUT!" I wrote, having decided years ago it is hysterical to taunt Lee, our architecture critic, when I see noteworthy architecture abroad. I can't hope he finds it as funny as I do; but he hasn't asked me to stop, which I take as license to continue). We even locked eyes on the backside of the Little Mermaid statue, sparing us the need to carve out time and face the throng for the obligatory visit.
     Above all, the Church of Our Savior, whose spiral steeple is unlike anything I've ever seen atop a building. Gold and black, we could see tiny figures working their way up the staircase. I wanted to be one of them.
Dragon Spire
     Moments later, we cruised past a second spiral steeple, the Dragon Spire atop the Old Stock Exchange, hove into view, evoking my favorite German saying, 
Einmal ist keinmal und zweimal ist immer, or "Once is never but twice is always."
     I noticed a trend, but did not expect a third spiral. The next day, however, we were wandering away from the Rosenborg Castle — delightfully downmarket, compared to palaces in Paris and Madrid — and happened upon the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower. We were looking for a particular marketplace, to lunch on their brand of open-faced sandwiches, and I figured atop the tower would be a good vantage point to eyeball it. 
     Don't let the bust of Tycho Brahe outside the tower fool you — the Danish astronomer died in 1601, in exile in Prague, while the Round Tower wasn't completed until 1642.
     The tower has no stairs, but a spiral path  winding seven and a half times around the building, the way the tower of Babylon is depicted. We paid our eight Euros and marched gamely upward. 
     "What's with Copenhagen and spirals?" I typed into Google, expecting all sorts of sites rhapsodizing bout Spiral City. Nothing. A lot about Church of Our Savior.  And that's about it. Nobody seemed to have made the connection before. 
Path up the Round Tower
     So the field is open to me. Readers might remember how in 2015 I used four shapes as a lens to view Chicago — the parabola, the circle, the square, the triangle. A spiral is the perfect representation a city, which also unwinds out from a central point over time — in "The Wizard of Oz," remember, Dorothy starts skipping along a spiraling Yellow Brick Road that leads her to the Emerald City. 
     The Round Tower went up in 1642. The Church of Our Savior spire was added in 1759. So I assumed the former inspired the latter. Not so. The Church of Our Savior website says it is based on the Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, and I have no reason to doubt them.
     Those are the only two spiral church towers in the world I could find, which is odd, because spirals are an omnipresent natural design form, from starfish to galaxies. They've been used in architecture since Greek times — the capital of an Ionic column has a pair of spirals. Trajan's Column in Rome, built over 2,000 years ago, still has its spiral staircase inside. Modern buildings use them — Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim comes to mind (though honestly, as a museum warrior, I'm no fan of that ramp). 
    I started to see them elsewhere in Copenhagen, pausing in the middle of the street to snap this spiraling brick chimney, the likes of which I've never seen before.
The Treetop Experience
    The Danes are still twirling. In 2019, a 148-foot-tall spiral ramp the Treetop Experience opened in 
Gisselfeld Klosters Skove,, a forest an hour south of Copenhagen. The structure is 12 loops around a hyperboloid, for you geometry geeks (an hourglass shape for everybody else) offering visitors a treetop view of the surrounding area. I didn't visit; next time (kidding; there never is a next time).
     My wife wanted to go to Christiana, the hippie commune turned tourist attraction, and I cut short her consultation with bus schedules by suggesting we bike there. 
    On the way, we saw the Church of Our Savior, first in the distance, then looming before us. Turns out, the church is a block from an entrance to Christiana. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. We parked our bikes at the church, and after wandering about Christiana, enjoying an ice coffee, we went up the spire, which, rather than opening out on an observation deck, basically got narrower and narrower until you were jammed into an endpoint below the giant golden ball. It was not something pleasurable to do, but definitely something worth having done.

Fence around the Church of Our Savior.


  1. Makes me want to visit Copenhagen.
    And as for St. Ivo: here's a picture of the interior, also very worth the visit.

  2. Always a good sign when your column leads me to 20 minutes of googling images of museums and moving bridges.

  3. Why do I feel dizzy now?

  4. Thanks for writing this travel piece on Copenhagen. I did my dissertation on a Danish linguist. When I was young, I assumed I'd visit Copenhagen one day, but I was wrong. Your article gave me a nice "taste of Denmark."

  5. My sister and her husband accompanied their daughter to Copenhagen a few years back, so they could be there when my niece, an environmental biologist, gave a presentation--she read from a paper she wrote about tracking Covid via...well...um...let's call it sewage output, for that is what it is.

    Sis also sent me images of all the parked bicycles, and remarked that none of them seemed to be locked up. Imagine how visiting Danes must feel in America, the land of the free and the home of the bicycle thief. No, wait...that was Italy.

    Later on, Sis and Da Niece took a boat-train and a long underwater tunnel ride to Norway, where they switched to another train and continued on to Oslo and Bergen. I've always wanted to go to Scandinavia. My first wife was of Norwegian descent. Thanks to her, I learned a lot about that wonderful country.

    Going up the spire, which basically got narrower and narrower until you were jammed into an endpoint below the giant golden ball, sounds very much like a metaphor for life. Especially after yesterday's comments. Life narrows as one ages...and finally you see that giant golden ball...or whatever else one envisions the afterlife to be.

    Me? I don't believe in any Golden Ball, or any Great Beyond. You're just a light bulb. The light within goes out for good. The dead bulb has to be disposed of. Same for our animal companions. End of story.

  6. I too really enjoy your travel pieces. You travel like I used to, leaving no stone unturned and eating well. At 83 with minor mobility issues, I have had to make some adjustments to how and where I go so I advise you to go bye bye as often as you can. When the day comes when I will have to hang up my back pack I look forward to living vicariously thru your travels.

  7. Read this first thing this morning; great way to start a new day.


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