Copy or Borrow. What Did Arne Jacobsen Do?

Best known for his furniture, the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen has the dubious honor of being the most copied designer ever. Ironically, at the height of his career he was accused of being too closely inspired by contemporary architects.

Copy or borrow? How far do you think Arne Jacobsen went? Continue reading and decide for yourself.

Too modern a mayor for Aarhus

A new city hall. It was 1937 in the second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus. They decided that they needed an innovative building to put the city on the map, as Bilbao did with the Guggenheim 60 years later.

The mayor wanted something new, modern and functional to make a statement over the rival city of Copenhagen, for which Martin Nyrop designed  a new historicist Town Hall some decades earlier: A sort of Siena Town Hall on steroids.

A9897b Kunstakademiets Bibliotek. Danmarks Kunstbibliotek. Kongens Nytorv 1, Postbox 1053. DK-1007 København K.
The Historicist fashion of town halls in Denmark at that time. From left to right: Sønderborg, Odense and Copenhagen City Hall.

The winning project by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller delivered what they were asking for. A solid, elegant piece of Nordic functionalism breaking with the historicist tradition.

Breaking the rules. The first project for Aarhus City Hall, 1937.

But the most conservative political parties and the local newspaper, the Aarhus Stiftstidende, were horrified, and they launched a massive campaign against the ‘cardboard box’.

The mayor and his party, the Danish Social Democrat Party, backed Jacobsen, Møller and the team, was sent back to the drawing board to meet the demands of the critics with a couple of modifications: clad the building with marble and design a tower to increase the monumental factor.

We need a tower

Møller and Jacobsen needed a tower. And if you want a good campanile, you have to look to  Italy to get inspiration. In the midst of the Fascism period, some of the masters at that time, known as the Architettura Razionale, were presenting daring projects that reinterpreted classic towers in a Modernist approach: Giuseppe Terragni projected a tower for the Casa del Fascio in Como that was never built, and Ignazio Gardella designed another similar tower that was never built at the Piazza del Duomo in Milan.


Not Aarhus, but Milan some years before. Ignazio Gardella’s project for Piazza del Duomo in Milan.

Møller and Jacobsen thought that these projects fit seamlessly into the rest of their project. In a few days, the duo had added an extremely similar tower to the original project to please the opposition.

The opposition in City Hall, however, could not pass up this new opportunity for publicity again. The daring tower gave even more ammunition to the critics, but the mayor and Social Democrats made an executive decision, and the work started and was inaugurated in 1941 with minimal modifications.

The new town hall with the tower after the inauguration in 1941.

Public opinion put critics to shame when this much-criticised tower became the most iconic landmark of the city, and City Hall became one of the most important buildings in Denmark in the 20th century. A mash-up between tradition and modernity, inside are faultless crafted details and from the outside, the design is simple and minimalistic.


City Jubilee poster.

I don’t think you will find anyone who would disagree that the Danish architects went a bit too close to the Italians for inspiration. Frankly, the resemblances are too big. The tower became Arne Jacobsen’s most famous project for some time, and the Italian architects were quickly forgotten after Mussolini’s fall.

Later in Jacobsen’s career, some commented that he was getting too much inspiration from the Lever House when he designed the famous SAS Hotel Royal.

Too similar for many: Lever House and SAS Royal Hotel by Arne Jacobsen.

Many people think that Arne Jacobsen’s gift was to raise each project to a high level of total design, beyond the simple copy. ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to,’ Jean-Luc Godard once said.

We assume that architects deliver originality, when in reality, something new rarely happens. And this applies for Jacobsen, who mastered the Bauhaus principles, where the architect is in control – orchestrating every single element, from walls to the furniture, including doorknobs and cutlery – regardless where the inspiration for the single elements come from.

Copy or borrow? It is up to you to decide.

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