Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Mushroom - Arne Jacobsen's Modernist Petrol Station

I went to Copenhagen to look for a mushroom, but not of the edible variety. The paddehatten (Danish for mushroom) is a petrol station, built in 1937 and designed by Arne Jacobsen, arguably Denmark's most influential architect and designer. It stands close to the harbour in Skovshoved, a small fishing settlement, a short train ride from the centre of the city.

It took about thirty minutes to walk from there from the station along a footpath parallel to the sea. The walk took me past the Bellavista Housing Estate (built in 1934) and the Bellevue Theatre (1936), both designed by Jacobsen. The estate is designed so that each apartment has a small balcony and an unimpeded view of the sea. The block's exterior is painted white, making it extremely photogenic in the summer when it contrasts with the clear blue sky. Unfortunately, I was there on a grey December day when the sky was full of clouds and a bitterly cold wind blew in from the sea, cutting though my coat, scarf and hat. I hate the cold but Skovshoved's residents are made of stern stuff. Despite the sub-zero temperature dozens of people were taking a dip in the sea. A well-wrapped up woman walking her long-haired dachsund stopped to talk and said, "the swimmers are here every day regardless of the weather," before admitting, "I swim too, but only in the summer."

Skovshoved Petrol Station
Bellavista Estate

The petrol station was originally intended as a prototype for a series of Texaco filling stations, but the other branches were never built. It was constructed to a simple, functional design using reinforced concrete and features a flat roof. At first glance, the canopy appears to be the only design flourish, but the white Meissner ceramic tiles on the exterior and the red clock show attention to detail. The clock is not an original feature and occupies space that was initially allocated to the Texaco logo. The canopy is illuminated at night, making motorists and passers-by aware of its presence. The light reflects on the underside, acting as a huge lamp. There is a small cafe inside the petrol station and although I was tempted by the ice-cream, I decided that hot chocolate was a more sensible option for early December. A small selection of snacks were available and I had a very acceptable cheese pastry. The building is protected with a Class A listing, and was extensively restored in 2022.

Jacobsen originally wanted to become a painter but his mother persuaded him to opt for architecture, believing it to be a more secure profession. While still a student, he attended the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne in Paris, where he won a silver medal for a chair design. It was at the Exposition that he first encountered the work of Le Corbusier, and from where he went on to meet Mies van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius, all of whom influenced his later work. He was responsible for the design of several public buildings in Denmark, including city and town halls, educational facilities and the National Bank of Denmark in Copenhagen which was completed shortly before his death in 1971. Perhaps his best known work was for the still extant SAS Royal (now Radisson) Hotel in Copenhagen, built in 1960. Not only did he design the building, but also the furniture, fittings, items for sale in the souvenir shop and even the buses that ferried guests to and from the airport.

I reluctantly left the warmth of the cafe and walked away from the coast road, to Skovshoved, a former fishing village established in the thirteenth century. Whole families were employed in fishing - the men going to sea for the catch and the women walking eleven kilometres to Copenhagen's markets, carrying the fish on their backs. The lady with the dachshund said that there are few fishermen living here now, but on Strandvejen, one of the main thoroughfares, several of their thatched roof houses have survived. On the same street, the Skovshoved Hotel stands on the site of an earlier inn, destroyed by fire in 1765 but rebuilt the following year. At different times, it has housed a cinema and a post office, but today is a popular seaside hotel. It also has a cosy restaurant, where I was enticed in for a hot drink and stayed for lunch - mushrooms on toast. 

Former fisherman's cottage, Skovshoved

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