Grundtvigs church is generally classified as an example of Expressionist Architecture which itself is conceived as part of a trend within Modernist Art of the early 20th century. Think of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, the early buildings of Erich Mendelsohn, the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Here’s and interesting extract from Wikipedia. Theodor Adorno describes expressionism as concerned with the unconscious, and states that “the depiction of fear lies a the centre” of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating, so that the “harmonious affirmative element of art is banished.”
Seems like a telling analysis of the trap of modernism into which our art (and perhaps our whole society) has fallen. The impulse to shock, to rebel, to feed on outrage … sound familiar? I’m not at all sure that this has anything to do with the work and thought of the father & son team which built three churches in Copenhagen.
Denmark has a national Lutheran church which seems to remain remarkably vital, though I am far from an authority on this. My working hypothesis is that the ability of this national church to remain relevant to ordinary people is an important factor in the success of the brand of free-market social democracy that seems to have worked better in Denmark than in many other contexts around the world.
Klint the elder is an interesting character. Born Peder Vilhelm Jensen, he added “Klint” to his name at the age of 37. This translates to “Cliff” but I have never seen an explanation for the name change. He trained as a building engineer, whatever that means. Perhaps it was a kind of architecture course which emphasized practical knowledge over artistic expression, maybe what we would call an Architectural Technologist today. If so, it’s interesting that he veered off this course after graduation hoping to pursue a career as a painter, but earning a living by teaching Mathematics.
He was in his 40s when he started to design villas for friends and gradually became recognized as an architect. He also designed ceramics and furniture. Throughout he seems to have been determined to remain rooted in the vernacular traditions of Danish craftsman, but not afraid of expressing these in a “modern” way.
Was he deeply religious? I have no way of knowing, but the architectural output I can access is mostly church design, with some associated residential. Indeed the three churches I am studying here are profoundly interested by their residential context.
N.F.S. Grundtvig is an interesting character in his own right. Described as a pastor, poet, historian & politician, He died when Peder Klint was still a boy. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the “Folk High School” tradition in Scandinavia and German-speaking countries. The key idea seems to be to offer an education that is equal in status to the “academic stream” but which takes a more practical approach and values lifelong learning.
There are parallels here with the “Education With Production” experiment that I participated in during the first decade of independence in Zimbabwe. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the European version has been much more successful.
The three churches are recognizably part of the same series, but respond to their contexts in very different ways. Grundtvig's church is embedded in a substantial social housing scheme. It’s West Front is on axis to the main entry street into that development, and it sits in a large courtyard with a kind of village green on the northern side. My visit was plagued by dreary conditions: light but steady rain. My photos have rain spots and condensation on the lens. Indeed my shoes were thoroughly drenched and I spent a miserable time walking after messing up my bus connections.
All the same it was definitely worth the effort. There is no substitute for taking your own physical body to experience a building in its context. VR is fascinating and I’m sure the metaverse will have some kind of a positive side, but human thought is an embodied phenomenon. We learn by doing. We understand the world by acting things out.
Let’s close with a sneak peek. My next little exploration will venture into the world of small white churches, that lie dotted around Denmark. In part they are the inspiration behind Grundtvig’s architecture, and his extension of tradition into the world of twentieth century Copenhagen.
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