Sunday, September 28, 2008

Copenhagen. Christiania

Christiania is a thermometer for the rest of society. It tries things out, tests them and reveals what is good and useful and what is misguided and does not work. Why not leave it alone to get on with the work, man?"
-Ole Kristenson

”This is a themepark, but you have to figure out your own theme.”
-Emmerik Warburg

I went to Copenhagen to explore Christiana, a unique spot of resistance in the middle of the city that has continued to thrive as a ‘social experiment’ for thirty years. For more background info, see here.

My first arrival into Christiana was that of a different place. As soon as cross the threshold of the formed by the old army barracks building on Prissengrade Street, and enter under the sign that says,”Welcome to Christiana,” (on the other it says, “You are now entering the EU”), something shifts. The sounds are different, the sights are different, everything is just a little different. Visually it is a little more chaotic, not too much though. The beautiful rigidity of the old historic tight urban fabric shifts to a more open space and flowing space, with boundary edges littered with graffiti, unkempt green growth and truly diverse mix of people. And that is one of the most interesting things about this place. Everyone is here. It was in my guidebook, I have seen it in tourist maps, etc. For a place that began as an alternative, drug using, hippie, revolt community, it is pretty well integrated to an extent. In most other places, outsiders would be afraid to even set foot in place like this, but not in Christiana. Its survival depends on the openness and integration of everyone except, mainly the police. But, its openness does not just hinge on survival, is very much at the heart of this once described ‘social experiment.’ Anyone is free to wander around the entire area. Having been spared the traditional development of most of the rest of the city, you find yourself in a weird mix of rundown historic army buildings and the, before you know it, you feel like you are in a rural area, with funky quirky self built houses, dotting the mote that originally fortified Copenhagen. The greenness, the lushness, the wildness of some of the houses, all give physical form to a different reality.

That reality is a community that basically governing itself since 1971, when a number of people stormed the barracks and began occupying the area, in response to the challenge of finding decent communities of affordable housing in Copehagen. The 85 acre establishment stipifies that the land and structures are owned communally.

Each day, I have ventured further and further into Christiana. I have been timid, because it is so different. Yet, I get a little more comfortable and more and more layers begin to reveal themselves and get me even more fascinated and intrigued with the whole thing. It is huge, it is crazy, it is so unique. It is what you would expect and so much more and so not what you would expect. The built environment and form is striking. There is a reason the form (or lack of) should be valued. It cannot be built or established anywhere else like this. Maybe a rural place like western North Carolina.

Rural gives you many possibilities with living your life freer, not being bound by so many rules, etc. You can build how you want (to a certain extent), what you want, but what happens when you live in an urban environment—how do you express that? Of course, it is not necessarily an expression, but a means of living. Do each one of the houses in Christiania represent a collective freedom that each one of us yearns for in the urban environment? Maybe—it is so different from the traditional housing options, where the consumer product serves as a means of expression. And could it have something to do with the fact that 3 out of 4 residents of Copenhagen want to see Christiania preserved….

I was lucky to meet some very interesting people in the area. One was a really cool artist, and lived in a crazy space dome that she had built with other artists near Christiania. The other one had spent time at Christiania doing research on private property and individualization. His basic theory was that the market does not allow for proper expression, creativity and ownership of the home. It becomes just a product, a commodity, an asset that is purchased for the pure intention of building assets and then selling and moving on. Generally speaking of course. The interesting thing is that Christiania offers a counterpoint to this notion. People have invested and taken complete ownership over things that they have no ownership of and no potential for financial gain. Yet, it is theirs, it is something they have done on their own right and have allowed it to grow along the way.

The architecture of Christiania is very much a result of the process of never being finished. The houses are constantly being transformed, little by little. In fact, many of the original houses were site trailers, but on the land, ready to be moved at moment's notice if the threat of eviction came. Over time, as Christiania's tenure has become a little more secure, these temporary homes have evolved into permanent ones. The trailers are now often buried in the maze of additions of many of the houses.

Christiania offers this crazy world of contrasts along the way. People have settled into their individual expressions and enclaves. It is a closed community, even though it is open for the world to see. The social boundaries are strong. My friend was talking about the aesthetic issues of Christiania (which has come directly from the vernacular of the vacation house, etc.). It has a look. And her floating house wouldn’t really fit into that aesthetic, Christiania told her. There is a world that they are hoping to maintain and hold. It is stagnate, partly because of outside pressures, and then partly because of their own doing. The drugs hold the power. The market economy is alive and well, although the whole notion of no private ownership is central to the whole community and what the government wants to normalize. Yet, this public right is so strong, yet the individualization of the spaces is almost just as strong. You can build your own house, live your own world, and do almost on your own.

The residents of Christiania hold what is dear to them, they know they have some special and specific, and want to keep it that way. Their lifestyle is very insular, their spaces are not. They are a microcosm of society, probably with two big differences. They don’t believe in private ownership and believe in the free use of soft drugs. There is the surface and what is hidden underneath. They don’t want cars in their community so they pile them up on the road outside the area. They believe in consensus and equality but most of the power is concentrated in four men who dominate the drug trade. They don’t believe in private property, but the houses are as individually expressive as any that I’ve seen. Some are statements of expression, some are expressions of power and wealth, some of craft, some of freedom, of not wanting to make an expression, a form or dwelling truly based on an evolution and what seemed right at the time.

So, if you live outside the rules, are you illegal? Should you be punished? In a more established democratic society, the rules are different. Do they have a right to and live above the law? If someone gets arrested for smoking or selling weed in central Copenhagen, how is it fair to not have that happen in Christiania? You can live there for free, don’t do any work, opt out of the social contract of citizen and then find a way to exist in beautiful, valuable property along the way. There are people who have worked very hard, but are nowhere near able to afford or access such a quality of life.

I guess the beautiful thing about Christiania with all of its problems is that it is an opening in which we are allowed to view new and different that help us rethink and continually revalue what a free and democratic society means and represents. As with the privatization and neoliberalization of so much world, it is happening everywhere, this is especially critical. But, it is probably more critical to have these nodes and methods of resistance in the developed world, where the product of lifestyle and dwelling have become so tied with consumption, lifestyle, and the so called ability to be free and choose. The middle and upper class (middle and high) continue to weild the power, or so called more access, but as usual, the low continue to mull about without any real access to change. The new European world of travel, high style, clothing, fashion, products, education, café living, etc. How much does all this influence and create a more active exchange of views and ultimately quality of life? What exactly is quality of life?

Finally, one big difference of Christiania is that of choice. Most of the people around the world in places like Kibera, Huruma, Karail, Dharavi, and Boulak, make a decision to live where they do based on a choice of necessity versus a choice of an alternative lifestyle, or experimentation. In fact, what has given Christiania its validity is that it was labeled as a social experiment. In much of the rest of the world, the necessity of informality and legality is blurring the notion of what is policy and in fact driving so much new policy, but in a defacto manner. When it is an absolute necessity and nothing else exists, this is a legitimate right. But, is it ever this clear and who decides this?

A few other links:

a striking house and discussion


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