Freetown Christiania: city-in-the-city
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
With over half a million visitors every year, Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen is the city’s third largest tourist attraction. A self-governed community of around 900 residents – the largest and oldest of its kind in Europe – Christiania was established in September 1971. Responding to an acute housing crisis in Denmark’s capital, local residents tore down the fences of a recently abandoned military barracks, squatted in its empty buildings and set up a playground for their children. In the weeks that followed, a call went out for more settlers and it was soon overrun with young people seeking an alternative and affordable way of living in the city. Declared a temporary social experiment by the Danish government in May 1972, the 85-acre lakeside site has been subject to numerous attempts by Copenhagen’s municipal authorities to reclaim it as a site for redevelopment, none of which have been successful, mostly on account of the large-scale protests that resulted. Even after a court ruling in 2011 upheld the right of the state to the land, Christiania continues to function as a self-governing city-in-a-city. Rather than taking back the site by force, the Danish government instead chose to ‘normalize’ it, allowing residents to collectively purchase the land and buildings, provided that any new development would conform with Danish law. In effect, Christiania has become a bona-fide municipal council, albeit one with very different values and vision than those of its official counterpart.
Map showing the boundaries (in blue) of Christiania
One of the pretexts for the proposed redevelopment in 2011 was the desire to knock-down 66 ‘irregular’ houses in Christiania – a wide range of self-built homes mostly constructed in the 1980s and 1990s by those who preferred not to live in the old barracks buildings, parts of which date back to the 1830s. These highly-individualised homes range broadly in both their forms and architectural sophistication. Some are merely repurposed caravans, shepherd’s huts and gypsy wagons. Others create a wild, adhoc vernacularism: one house is almost entirely made out of recycled windows held together within a wooden structural frame; another looks like a cross between a mountain chalet and an orthodox church; yet another is a ramshackle bricolage of timber, glass and scaffolding poles that floats on water.
Remarkably, both the primitive and refined houses are built mostly from salvaged materials – timber, corrugated metal, sheets of glass, breeze blocks – much of which would have been acquired from Christiania’s purpose-built hardware store. Although self-building in the free city has been outlawed for the past 15 years – a product of government-imposed conditions for the site’s continued existence – the many structures that remain are still testament to the fertile diversity of housing that might yet emerge in cities if building controls were placed in the hands of dwellers themselves. Even as the Danish authorities have prevented any new building, residents of Christiania are still allowed to renovate their homes as well as alter their roofs, resulting in a new kind of diversity emerging on the site. And, in defiance of this imposed authority, a few have even built illegal dwellings in the reed-beds at the northern edges of the site and in the water beyond – agglomerations of floating platforms and boats lashed together with rope to form micro-communities.
Whilst Christiania’s self-built homes have been celebrated as offering the hope of a much more varied and imaginative approach to urban housing, it is their place within the wider community that provides the most powerful example of the ways in which autonomous building might evolve in an anarchist society. With around 900 residents, Christiania is large by the current standards of alternative settlements – it’s longevity the result of a form of self-governance that continues to work for residents. Divided into 15 distinct geographical districts – ranging from 50 to 90 people per district – the governance of Christiania operates at two different scales: area meetings reach consensus on ‘local’ issues pertinent to each district; while common meetings do the same at the scale of the whole community. Even though meetings can be lengthy and acrimonious, the consensus model has been in place now for nearly half a century. Thus the widely varied models of housing within Christiania – from the individual self-builds to the collective apartments in the old barracks – are always set within a multi-scalar environment that is both highly localised and also connected to the whole, even at this relatively small urban scale.
Indeed, Christiania itself also relates in this way to the wider city of Copenhagen. Occupying a prime city-centre site, its geographical location at the urban core is critical in facilitating wider connections to be made between conventional urban development and radical alternatives, especially as it is visited by so many. Too often, these radical sites are far removed geographically from the urban, principally on account of the often inflated cost of land in city cores. But with the current legislation that prohibits any new building in Christiania, it remains to be seen whether the Freetown will continue to operate as a site of radical alternatives, or stagnate in its current role as a tourist site. To continue to develop, it must continue to resist attempts at ‘normalization’, even in the face of the threat of its extinction – and the illegal dwellings built on parts of the site confirm the willingness of some to fight back against any imposed authority. Holding out the hope that its connection to the wider city will continue to save it, as it has done in the past, Christiania’s motto remains a powerful mandate of shared vulnerability: ‘you cannot kill us – we are part of you’.