Michaela Mahon Student Spotlight

The Freedom to Build Anything

My research focused on the urban development and building techniques of Freetown Christiania, a 50-year old communal settlement in the heart of downtown Copenhagen. Christiania was formed in 1971 when a group of artists, freethinkers, and anarchists took over a disused area of abandoned military barracks just about 1 km east of Copenhagen’s historic center. For the past 50 years, the settlement has been allowed to operate widely outside the control of city or state governments - in the political, economic, and architectural realms. Without enforcement of strict health and safety codes, the residents of Christiania have taken it upon themselves to construct buildings and urban spaces. I found this environment of unbridled architectural creativity utterly fascinating; I sought to discover how and what people will build with the freedom to build anything.

In addition to adapting the existing military buildings that are from the turn of the 20th century, Christiania residents have constructed an estimated 150 new structures since its inception. The resulting buildings are unique, whimsical, and numerous. I proposed to create a series of analytical drawings of various urban communal spaces to understand how they are or aren’t conducive to social interaction. In addition, I intended to catalog some of the building techniques and materials that were used to try to find commonalities between structures. Going into the research I hypothesized that, if New Urbanist ideals and modes of design are true in the sense that they are representative of an ideal human-centric form of living and design, then these principles should show up in Christiania.

Self-built houses in Christiania

A Community Neglected By Scholars

Scholars of social and political science have critically examined Christiania since the 1970s; the success of such a radical living style in the middle of a major city has always attracted attention. However, architectural and urban design scholars have not given Christiania the attention it deserves. This is largely because there is no one that “owns” the buildings in Christiania – many of them were cooperatively constructed and the lack of involvement of professional architects has removed legitimacy from the structures. Many architectural books on Copenhagen do not even mention Christiania, despite it being an aesthetically integral part of this city. I therefore felt it was necessary to explore the architectural value of the buildings and spaces.

Many architectural books on Copenhagen do not even mention Christiania, despite it being an aesthetically integral part of this city. I therefore felt it was necessary to explore the architectural value of the buildings and spaces.

I have developed an interest in the intersection of architecture, sociology, and psychology, and I’m looking to integrate social science research into my thesis next year. I wanted to study Christiania because I think it is a fascinating case study of people freely adapting their environment in a contemporary setting. A quote attributed to Winston Churchill is deployed often in New Urbanist arguments for designing people-centric places: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” The built environment has a profound effect on the way we live; a deeper understanding of this fact has led to improved walkability, increased greenspace, and higher wellbeing in cities. What so interested me about Christiania was that it has a much higher capacity for fluidity between architectural change and social impact. Given the low level of bureaucracy, the community can edit and change its built environment over and over again depending on how it is being used. There is a constant dialog between people’s actions and architectural adaptation that is unseen anywhere else in Europe.

Stilted self-built house with green roof

Learning from the Archive

This trip was my first experience utilizing archival materials and I anticipate that this knowledge will be useful to prepare for both my design thesis and my sustainability Capstone project next year. I met with the main archivist of Christiania, Ole Lykke, and looked through the rather large archives that they have. In the past 50 years, Christiania and the city of Copenhagen have gone back and forth with masterplan proposals for the area (none of which have been entirely enacted) and so I was able to document those. Speaking with Mr. Lykke was extremely enlightening as he described how the political changes that have taken place recently are affecting the architecture. In the past 10 year, the city of Copenhagen enacted a ruling that states that no real new construction in Christiania can occur – residents can only tear down their existing homes and build new structures in their place with the exact same square footage, but they can not expand. Lykke explained that this law has reduced creativity in the designs for the houses because residents want to maximize the usability of their square footage; curved walls and strange angles are being replaced with boring and practical boxes. This knowledge reinforced my belief that it was important to document the architecture of the area now, instead of waiting for it to be widely accepted as architecturally significant.

The value of this research experience was two-fold: first, I developed practical research methods and skills through working with archives, interviewing residents, and creating analytical drawings; second, I developed a deeper understanding of the relationship between communities and the spaces they inhabit.

While I was there, I came to realize that the story of Christiania’s architecture is one that is defined by its creativity but also its resourcefulness. The residents of the commune, for obvious reasons, do not have unlimited means or vast resources at their disposal; therefore, they developed clever ways of building inexpensively but uniquely. Lykke said that some of the first houses in the ‘70s and ‘80s were built around the skeleton of a wooden wagon; residents could buy a wagon for about $500 and it provided a stable framework to start a structure. Nearly all of the houses are wood-based, as it is cheap, forgiving for amateur builders, and capable of constructing interesting forms fairly easily. Many of them are built partially into the hillside of the earthen ramparts that line the water’s edge – reducing the number of necessary walls to build and taking advantage of the insulating properties of the ground. All of them are compact and centrally focused – Lykke explained that almost all houses are only heated with small pot-belly-style furnaces located in the houses. The urban social gathering spaces are filled with picnic tables, many of which are under wooden shed-like structures to combat the typically poor Danish weather. Every element of built structure showed a desire to make the place colorful, attractive, and fun while still being economically viable.

Community-made entrance gate into cafe seating area

I went to both the Christiania archives and the Royal Danish archives for information on the site and its development since the 1970s – both places left me slightly overwhelmed by the shear volume of documents on the area. I think it would be fascinating to go through all the proposals and counter-proposals that have been posed by Christiania and the City of Copenhagen, but to do so would probably take months of continuous work (and a working knowledge of Danish). I successfully made some sketches of the main urban areas that show how they are organized to facilitated social interaction. However, a full analysis of the disposition of and interactions between the urban spaces would require much longer study and more intense focus. I also think that creating a proper catalog of building materials and techniques of all the individual homes would be an extremely worthwhile endeavor that would benefit the residents themselves and document the unique nature of many of the buildings before things change drastically. Residents could use the catalog to understand how to better build or repair their house and the original DIY-style of Christiania would be preserved in writing and drawing, if not in real life.

Mahon's analytical drawings of Christiana
This trip was extremely refreshing for me as an architecture student. It was exciting to see and try to document the clever ways that non-architects dealt with structural and building issues while still creating an interesting and attractive place to live.

So often architects forget or intentionally exclude the more human and textural aspects of design in the design of a building – gardens, paintings, furniture. Christiania is an excellent example of how those elements are absolutely essential to the enjoyment of everyday life. Nearly every house has a garden adjacent to it and residents have transformed the old barrack buildings over time by adding wooden balconies, interesting windows, plantings, and colorful murals. This trip also introduced me to the work of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban planner, who pioneered the field of incorporating social science data into design and pushed for the focus of architecture to return to people. His ideas meshed very well with what I saw in Christiania and helped bring my interest in social behavior and architecture full circle. This research was made possible by the generosity and support of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity to study something I am so passionate about.

To apply for your own Nanovic Institute grant or fellowship, visit nanovic.nd.edu/grants.

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