At last week’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sander’s attraction to the North Sea social democracies was met with a reprimand from his chief rival. Yes, some differences are obvious and some Sanders would like to make more obvious. The US population is 65 times larger, considerably more diversified than the rather homogenous Danes, and the US global reach, whether we like it or not, is far wider than that of the Denmark and its Nordic neighbors. Though interestingly, Denmark devotes more than its budget to foreign aid than does the United States. Yet Denmark provides a far tighter safety net for its citizens, much more generous family leave policies than does the United States, much less expensive educational opportunities for its students, and far better medical treatments for its ordinary citizens. The Danish social contract comes at the price of high taxes, which, apparently, most Danes are quite willing to pay. The democratic socialism that Sanders sees as a more desirable model than immoral “casino capitalism” is not inimical to ingenuity and productivity. The Danes are world leaders in the renewable energy industries and a recent Forbes magazine indicated that Denmark, with high levels of trust and transparency, is the best country in the world to do business. [See Paul Krugman’s New York Times column on October 19 on what American can learn from Denmark.]
Like Sanders, I am drawn to the Nordic countries that get high marks on the Human Development Index that takes into account infant mortality rates, environmental safety, literacy, and self-reported levels of satisfaction with life.
No country is perfect to be sure. Michael Booth’s An Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of Scandinavian Utopia is a work that humorously tries to find the serpents in the garden. Booth, an Englishman married to a Dutch woman, tells us about the nativists who attempt to foil the nations’ generous immigration policies and looks into past history to reveal the inter-nation tensions that bubble beneath the smiling surface. But even the demythologizing Booth has to admit that the Scandinavians are indeed fortunate.
My favorable impressions of that part of the world has received a boost by my screening of The Infinite Happiness, a documentary on 8House, a suburban Copenhagen mixed-use development. It’s a whimsical piece that tries to capture in 21 vignettes the month spent on location by documentarians Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine. Some of the vignettes – like a madcap Halloween party for the kindergarteners — are crucial while others — like a white tabby munching on dead bird – are less so.
This documentary, one of six in the Chicago International Film festival that focuses on architecture, is part of a larger concentration on architecture going on in Chicago this fall. The Chicago Cultural Center is the epicenter of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, but there are many other sites in Chicago where Biennial events can be found. Additionally, I saw the movie on the first day of Open House Chicago, and annual event that enables citizens to get inside more than 200 architecturally and historically significant buildings spread throughout the city and suburbs.
8 House is a 20 minute subway ride south from the center of Copenhagen, a line extension specifically built to move populations out of the crowded and expensive central city. It sits on a broad plain and is positioned between a waterway and a grassy commons on which sheep and cows, some tended by the buildings residents, graze freely. Though primarily residential — there are close to 500 units following three floor plans — the complex contains retail and office establishments as well as a variety of community rooms.
The building is unmistakenly modern – irregular in shape with a lot of glass and aluminum — but materials aside, it resembles nothing so much the hill towns that sit on the central plains of Spain or the rocky coast of northern Tuscany. Units are stacked upon one another in a building that in places is 10 stories high.
It’s the 8House because the basic configuration is in the shape of an irregularly-shaped 8. One resident, taking into account the downward sloping southern oval. compares the design to a headless, reclining woman with outstretched legs.
One of its most innovative features is continuous sidewalk that connects all floors and enables walkers and bicyclists to move to the different levels. Each unit has an entrance door on the sidewalk and a balcony on the opposite side of the unit, many of which provide views of the visually interesting interior courtyards or to the marshlands to the west. While negotiating the building requires some getting used to — even the mailman and the sandwich delivery kid get confused about the unit numbering system — the irregularity is part of the charm.
The designers believe that architecture can enhance community. The complex attracts a wide variety of owners: pensioners who form a handyman assistance program, 30 somethings who like to live in close proximity to their 8House offices, young families drawn to the vibrant pre-school and kindergarten, members of a multi-generational family inhabiting three of the complex’s units, elderly siblings who entertain one another with piano music, and a blind piano tuner whose shop is in the buildings cavernous basement. There’s not a lot of ethnic diversity, although one vignette shows the Zhu family doing tai chi on the broad lawn to the south of the development. One theme constantly sounded by the residents is their satisfaction with the social cohesion of 8House and their attribution of this phenomenon to the building’s design. These are indeed happy people who have found safety and contentment despite the rather hostile North Sea climate.
If there’s a down side, it’s that the novelty of the place has attracted tourists who arrive by the bus full. One bemused and slight angry resident, who owns one of the best units, has set up a motion monitor and a camera that captures the more than 1,000 outsiders who pass by his window in a month.
8House strikes me as more desirable than some similar Chicago-area mixed-use projects like The Glen Town Center in Glenview and the Burr Ridge Town Center. The residents of these faux-Main Streets skew older and the units are unaffordable for young families with children. A redesigned Randhurst in Arlington Heights was supposed to have a residential component, but those plans were scotched, perhaps a sign that places like The Glen are no longer attractive to investors.
There’s some talk that former mayor of San Antonio and current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro would make a fine VP running mate, especially for Hillary Clinton. If this scenario were to play out, I would hope that Castro would make a trip to Copenhagen to find out how the almost nearly perfect Danes approach housing. There’s more good things coming out of Denmark than smoked Gouda.