I got off the train at Klampenborg once previously, for another purpose and not to swim. This was to go to the art museum Ordrupgaard with Pauline, and my niece Ella. On that day I saw the ocean a distance from the train station, blue grey, at the end of a road lined by white modernist apartments. Ordrupgaard is a story for another time, but without having gone to Ordrupgaard, I would not be coming to Klampenborg today. The link is Danish modernism, which I have spent decades admiring, and the designers Finn Juhl and Arne Jacobsen. I feel sure most people outside of Scandinavia would not know who he is, but he has almost certainly impacted their everyday world, that is unlkess unless they live in a part of the world where people do not use chairs. Chairs – modern, mid-century Danish – is what Finn Juhl designed, from the 1940s, one of the great pioneers of Danish Modern design. Ordrupgaard is a manor house turned art museum with one of the best collections of impressionist paintings outside of France. It has an environmentally sensitive extension designed by Zhara Hadid, a sculpture garden with works by many of the great contemporary artists. And at the bottom of the (big) garden is a little house, Finn Juhl’s house. Despite his huge success across Europe and the United States in getting people to buy and sit on his chairs, influencing generations of designers in his wake, Finn Juhl liked to live modestly, as most Danes do. His little house was designed by him, built for him, was furnished by him, and many of the art works were also made by him, aside from the ones given to him by his now famous artist friends. Entering Finn Juhl’s house was an instant revelation – domestic modernism in a nut shell, sea shell or conch. Modern didn’t have to be monumental, although it could be – I struggled with the scale of modernism when in New York or Chicago. The first time I went to Chicago, I felt oppressed by the bigness of downtown – it was all too big. Chairs, however, structure everyone’s lives, and a chair done well is a service to humanity. Domestic modernism took my mind to St Catherine’s College, Oxford (Catz), where I have dined and lunched and had meetings pretty well for two decades. Even one Vice-Chancellor’s Garden Party. Catz was designed by Arne Jacobsen, another more famous modernist, taking the structural idea of a traditional Oxford college and redesigning it for the present-day, being opened in 1962. Jacobsen was a renaissance man of an architect designer , designing most of the interiors, furniture and cutlery, as I was told every time I ate there. The knives and forks are indeed very distinctive. There is a room devoted to Jacobsen at the Design Museum in Copenhagen, and I first took note of his work, not because of the buildings he designed (the first modern skyscraper in Copenhagen among them), but seeing the very cutlery I have used to cut, push, prod and put in my mouth, in a glass case with an elegant descriptive label. Jacobsen also designed the waterfront and bathing area at Klampenborg – was he a swimmer? He can’t not have been.
Jacobsen had a complete vision for Klampenborg and its beach front, which is why I came here. In the 1930s, he won an architecture competition to improve the water front facilities at Klampenborg. He responded with enthusiasm and a new eye for reinvention. Belle Vue beach was the first to get the modernist turn treatment, with jetties, walkways, and bathing steps. Then he did here what he later did at Catz – the changing rooms were Jacobsen, the refreshment stands were Jacobsen, the life guard towers were Jacobsen. If ice cream needed a spoon to be eaten, it would have been Jacobsen too. Good job he did what he did and did it well. His water front was liked, and was popular – he was asked to design the White City, the modernist apartments that one goes past to get to Klampenborg water front, then the Bellevue Theatre and the Bellavista apartments. Klampenborg is like stepping into Finn Juhl’s house, but at a community scale. This isn’t Chicago in its grandness, but it is modest, domestic modernism, very Danish in its way of fitting the local environment. It feels like it has always been here, and like it should always be here. People like it, and I can see why – just being here, even on a blustery day like today, you get a sense of simple well-being. There are no cafes, no amusement arcades, just simple elegance.
Yes, I did swim. I changed on one of the Jacobsen benches on the Jacobsen jetty, and walked to the end of the jetty, to descend the Jacobsen steps next to the Jacopsen life guard tower, holding onto the Jacobsen rail, as the waves tried to tear me away from modernism. I was then into the muscular water, getting out, out quickly, to try and get beyond the waves. A sandbank nearby didn’t help me, grounding my body, with the associated waves pummelling my body. I didn’t have the mental space to be cold or even to think about being cold, I had to get past the waves, which of course I did. I swam along the coast about fifty meters out, far enough out to have some water deep enough to swim in, and to be able to admire the blue and white striped life guard towers like nothing else I have ever seen of its kind on a water front. As I returned, a man, perhaps in his forties greeted me as he removed his towel and negotiated his way into the rolling waters, naked. As I changed, another man, perhaps in his sixties came and did the same thing, with a certain elegance – he walked to the steps into the water, shed his towel, and naked, dropped into the water, but not for long. He walked past, “fresh today”, he said, a man of few words. Then Trine, having finished running, opened her backpack and pulled out a flask of tea and a towel – it was her turn. In Summer, I am told, it is a very popular beach. Today it is the singular souls of Klampenborg that show their particular way of performing swimming in the ocean. It occurs to me that Finn Juhl and Arne Jacobsen did much more than design things – they structured how people perform their everyday lives. Here at Klampenborg I felt less to be swimming than performing the activity of swimming, so wonderful was the stage set for it. Anne Katrine, an historian friend in Copenhagen, recently quoted Churchill, something she is not usually prone to do, but this was very Anne Katrine – “First we structure our buildings, and then they structure us”. In the present local context, first Klampenborg was structured by Jacobsen, and ever since, it has structured the people that come here – it truly invites you to come to the water and to stay here.