Christianshavn – a Renaissance City


Photo: Martin Heiberg, Copenhagen Media Center

In Denmark, the Renaissance is closely linked to King Christian IV. He was responsible for the creation of some of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Denmark, including Rosenborg Palace and the old stock exchange Børsen, in Copenhagen. He also introduced the ideas of the Renaissance in Denmark’s urban planning.

Christian IV invited the Dutch architect and engineer Johan Semp to Denmark.

Semp was tasked with designing an entirely new city to be built on an artificial island in the harbor – Christianshavn. There was also a need to extend the city’s fortifications and establish a harbor for the navy’s ships.

Johan Semp’s first plan for Christianshavn had a square in the center with eight straight streets radiating out from it. However, this plan was never realized, and Semp had to make a new attempt. The final design proposal for Christianshavn was completed in 1617. This plan comprised a quadratic network of right-angled and straight streets. The network of streets was traversed by a canal leading in toward the district’s central square.

The structure of the network of streets meant that the area could technically be expanded indefinitely. It was just a matter of adding more streets to the network.

The geometric city with an emphasis on fortifications was typical of city planning and construction during the Renaissance.

Christianshavn City Plan

How can a city’s layout tell us about life 400 year ago?

In Italy, for example, the city was perceived as a symbol of an orderly society, both politically and socially. Christianshavn is also a fine historical example of the architectural ideals of the Renaissance. The plan is based on geometric shapes, perspective and symmetry.

At the center is a square from which it is easy to gain an overview of the rest of the city. Lines radiate at right angles from the square out to the city’s outer walls. The lines divide the city into rectangular blocks. This is called a radial city plan.

The invention of gun powder played a role in the design of renaissance cities. This can be seen in the star shape and the polygonal bastions, from which it is easier to defend the city.

Christianshavn was built to fortify Slotsholmen to the east. The urban district was also designed with a focus on the merchant navy and on foreign trade, which thrived in the 1600s. The canals enabled the merchant ships to sail in to the new urban district.

At the time, the island of Amager was all that lay east of Copenhagen, and the new fortress town was to be built by walling in the harbor and creating an artificial island.

Christianshavn’s original plan, inspired by Dutch canal cities like Harlem and Amsterdam, included privately owned buildings, streets and quay births, but no public institutions. For this reason, neither of Christianshavn’s two churches are situated on the square.

With its simple structure, the urban district is an example of successful urban planning – and not many changes have been made to its layout since it was planned 400 years ago.