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Understanding the Character of Copenhagen (and Barcelona!) through Design

by Tommy Clark Monday, February 26, 2018

As I deplaned from a weekend trip in Barcelona and reentered Copenhagen Kastrup Airport, my head was filled with the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudí, the late Catalonian visionary. Inspired by nature, Gaudí’s work is abstract. Lines are not straight; earthy tones mix with colorful recycled tiles. His most famed work is La Sagrada Familia, a minor basilica as of 2010. The pillars are meant to be like trees and ceiling meant to be like a forest canopy. Light fills the space filtered by thousands of stained glass windows. Though designed at the end of the 19th century, Gaudí’s structures evoke a feeling of modernity. Perhaps this is because modern architects are still interpreting Gaudí’s designs in order to complete the project which started in 1882 and is set to finish in 2026. Though, I believe Gaudí's work is just that awe-inspiring and ahead of its time.

The Sagrada Familia, large pillars
Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudí

A colorful tile bench in Parc Guell overlooking the city of Barcelona
Park Güell, designed by Antoni Gaudí

Gaudí reminded me that design represents culture and society. His work certainly mirrors my impression of Barcelona’s culture. It is flamboyant, bombastic, natural, seemingly inefficient and chaotically beautiful. Catalonia is place on the edge of succession with its leader in exile. The buses zig zag through town, though find a way to go a few minutes faster than the underground metro and slightly slower than walking to your destination. This apparent disorder is true with the cultural traditions as well. Dinner starts between 8 and 11 p.m. and businesses close for siesta to favor relaxation over consumer utility.

A map of the Barcelona metro system
Barcelona's metro system: chaotic, but colorful

Copenhagen architecture and design tells a similar story about culture and society. From the airport to the metro station to the business school to the market, Danish design is noticeable. It is sleek, futuristic without being outlandish, and cool. The Metro stations are designed with grey and silver paneling, digital signs that give an accurate estimated time of arrival for the next driver-less train, and efficiently placed throughout the city. I have learned to appreciate the ease of transporting through this city; nothing seems more than a half an hour away. The stations and trains feel clean and safe. During the day, trains run every 2 ½ minutes, as two lines through my station. The infrastructure is simple, yet luxurious. Every citizen checks in and out with their Reisekort card. No one cheats the system, because if they do it is likely they would receive a hefty fine worth about a month of travel (375 DKK). Being checked by the Metro staff is common and accepted. Danes follow the rules anyway though, which is noticeable when a crowd of people remain waiting at an intersection until the walk light turns green even when there is not a car or bike in sight. As I arrived in Terminal 2 of Kastrup airport, I was reminded that design is one of the best ways to interpret a culture. My final words on Copenhagen design and therefore its society: efficiently simple, modern and well-managed.

The entrance to the Copenhagen metro
Kongens Nytorv, a Copenhagen Metro stop

A sleek silver metro train
Metro train

An escalator
Nørreport Station, a Copenhagen Metro stop


Metro map courtesy of: