Central Bank of Denmark

Central Bank of Denmark (Nationalbanken) by Arne Jacobsen

The Central Bank of Denmark (in Danish ‘Nationalbanken’) takes up an entire street block in Copenhagen’s financial and political district.

The architect, Arne Jacobsen, is probably the single most celebrated Danish architect ever.

Internationally, he’s more famous for many chair and furniture designs, part of the mid-century ‘Danish Design’-wave. But locally, he’s recognised as a multi-talented and hugely productive and influential genius architect. First and foremost a building architect, but really, he covered the whole spectrum. From industrial design, through lighting, furniture and building design to urban design.

Throughout his career, he was a driving force in Danish architecture. Starting with a Bauhaus-inspired, white, Cubistic style in the late 1920s, and moving to an increasingly regional and personal style.

The Central Bank of Denmark (Nationalbanken) is one of his last projects but also most prestigious. Arne Jacobsen died in 1971 and the bank finished in three stages until 1978. It is, in my opinion, not among his best, though.

As an overall scheme, the building divides into two parts, a lower base taking up the whole street block, and to one side a taller block on top. The taller part picks up the scale and volume of the street block to the North.

This scheme leaves respectful distance and keeps view lines open to the Christiansborg and Børsen spires and to the neighbouring Holmen Church.

For an extended period, the bank will be under repair and the interior not accessible. But the exterior has some interesting features:

Is that the main entrance!?

The main entrance is the small door towards the canal. The building has no other entrance, and at first glance, it doesn’t look like a public entrance at all. Its size suggests a backdoor. And many visitors pass by, walking all around the building just to realise that this IS, in fact, the entrance.

It’s almost a joke. But Arne Jacobsen designed undersized entrances in other projects before this, to a similar effect. And in one way, it repeats the mantra of Danish architecture: size doesn’t matter – quality of materials and details do!

However, in this case, the entrance contradicts completely what you’d see inside. A foyer in full height of the building, that has the character of a cathedral. And as one might know from a famous book title: ‘complexity and contradiction in architecture’ are postmodernist qualities, not modernist.

Among many talented architects from his time, I think of Arne Jacobsen as the personification of modern, functionalist, Danish architecture. But the stark contradiction between this entrance and what’s inside, indicate a shift. A shift from a rational and functionalist focus that dominates most of Jacobsen’s work. And with this building, towards a postmodern play with drama and impression towards the end of his career.

So I think of the building as a step in yet another stylistic transformation that was abrupted by Jacobsen’s death.

Generally, the building is not exactly inviting. It has large glass facades towards the street and the Christiansborg palace on the opposite side. But besides the entrance, the building shows no sign of interest towards the canal or the waterfront whatsoever.

It seems strange today. But when the bank was conceptualised and built, it would take another two decades before today’s attractive waterfront replaced a busy, noisy, polluted – and unattractive! – industrial waterfront.

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