In 1968, the student revolutionaries in Paris dreamed of “the beach below the paving stones.” Half a century later, you can find stretches of sun and sea worship next to the paving stones of many cities in Europe and, soon, I hope, the United States. The city that first brought the beach into the city was Copenhagen, which transformed its harbor in the 1980s and 1990s and paved the way for Bjarke Ingels and Julien de Smedt, and a handful of other local firms, to turn the waterfront into a place of recreation. A recent visit there gave me a chance to see how the city’s strip of hedonism has fared in the meantime.
Quite well, it seems. It helps that I was there on a sunny weekend in the middle of summer, a few weeks after the country had reopened from its COVID limbo. On both sides of what was once the city’s central harbor, Danes of all ages—some half- or even fully naked—were lying on those paving stones, jumping off the quay into the water, and using the outdoor gyms, cafés, and other amenities that have come to the water’s edge. I have been to the same area in the winter, when the loops and lighthouses assume the forlorn appearance of a beach resort in the off season, but on this visit it seemed as if the entire city was opening itself up to pure sensual enjoyment at the very heart of its urban scene.
All of this was made possible by a phenomenon that is common around the world: the moving of harbor activities out of urban centers. As ships have become ever larger and their contents containerized, harbors now require vast stretches of deep water, acres of flat fields where robots can help load and unload the cargo, and uninterrupted stretches of roads and railroads that feed these sites. As a result, cities have relocated their harbors onto new land reclaimed from the sea or have converted farmland into docks, leaving the historic inner locations empty. All that's required to make these former sites of logistics and industry available for consumption is cleaning the water and tearing down or renovating the harbor buildings.
Copenhagen accomplished most of this 30 or 40 years ago, and by the turn of the millennium had made the waterside fit for enjoyment. The first new recreational construction—part of a wave of transformation that also included MVRDV’s 2003 conversion of grain silos into apartments—was a beach designed by Ingels and de Smedt, whose joint firm was then called PLOT. The collection of pseudo-lighthouses, exaggerated bleachers, and other direct references to beach architecture looks slightly dated almost 20 years later, but it still works. PLOT figured out that going to the beach meant not just jumping in the water or sunbathing but, just as important, people-watching and showing off your body. This is even more true in an urban beach, where these spaces are an extension of public terrain activated by social mingling and matching as much as by what we think of as high-minded civic activity.
The original Copenhagen beach was located across the harbor from the downtown area, in what was the harbor proper. The newer additions are at the end of a street that leads down to the water from City Hall and that surround Copenhagen’s two most notable pieces of contemporary architecture: OMA’s BLOX, a multi-use stack of glass-clad cubes, and the black wedge of the new national library extension, the so-called Black Diamond, designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen. While the latter is a typical piece of plunk-itecture with no relation to its surroundings, OMA’s stack, though equally abstract, opens itself up the beach as well as the city. Partially this is because of its program, which includes Denmark’s national Design Museum as well as cafés and a gym.
On a sunny summer day, I didn’t see much activity in either building. The action was at and beyond the edge of the water, where Danes were using every change of level, every flat surface, and every curving promenade to jump, recline, watch, or be watched. A variety of local architects, including de Smedt, who more recently worked in collaboration with the firm KLAR, have extended the stone and concrete quay with boardwalks that don’t just amplify the available space but, picking up on PLOT’s experiments, provide spaces that afford all kinds of activities. Some, such as rudimentary pull-up bars and ropes, invite specific actions, while the other slopes, curves, rails, and semi-stages let people invent their own uses.
What Copenhagen’s beach misses is sand, which, from my perspective, is just as well. But for some die-hard liminal fans that means losing a big part of the experience. Cities such as Paris have fixed that problem by trucking the stuff in. What the Danes get instead is a truly urban beach, one that integrates itself into city life rather than offering a respite from its confusions and delights.
The United States is way behind Europe in this regard. Sun- and body-worshippers in New York and San Francisco have long found ways to enjoy the water’s edge, though in a somewhat rough and not always legal manner. Los Angeles and Chicago do have actual beaches within reach. Now, in other parts of the country, there are some moves to create the kind of urban beaches found in Europe. The “little island,” an over-designed and expensive park perched over the Hudson River in Manhattan, is an obvious example, though it isolates itself from the water. There is also a plan for a floating pool in the East River, a proposal that is struggling to find funding.
None of these projects have the same ease and informal qualities of the ones in Copenhagen. Americans do not yet seem to understand that the city itself can be a potential beach, and consequently miss out on the ability to undress and open up the structures of urbanity to communal enjoyment. Copenhagen has shown that we can release the city, if for a few days of favorable weather, to those who will enjoy its delights. You don’t have to do much of anything when you're there, nor does the city have to provide any programming to allow you to laze and dawdle. You just have to unearth the potential of the beach under and around the paving stones.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.