This one’s gonna raise your eyebrows, mum!
In the area of Christianshavn very near central Copenhagen, lies a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood called Christiania. The residents call it a micronation, the lawmakers call it a commune. The area itself was originally a military barracks from the early 1600s until it was abandoned in 1967. In 1971, part of the abandoned area was originally trespassed by the homeless, followed by families of neighbouring houses that wanted a play area for the children. Things started to get more political when a bunch of students occupied the area as a protest against affordable housing shortages.
Christiania became official at the declaration of a well-known Provo and journalist Jacob Ludvigsen, (possible translation inaccuracy here):
Christiania is the land of the settlers. It is the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch – while nevertheless still incorporating the remaining constructions. Own electricity plant, a bath-house, a giant athletics building, where all the seekers of peace could have their grand meditation – and yoga center. Halls where theater groups can feel at home. Buildings for the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race…Yes for those who feel the beating of the pioneer heart there can be no doubt as to the purpose of Christiania. It is the part of the city which has been kept secret to us – but no more.
Much of the ideals and political motives of Christiania have been completely blinded by a great deal of controversy over the ‘legalisation’ of marijuana within Christiania. Government spin seems partly responsible, as politicians have used ending Christiania as an election platform and have largely glossed over the freedom/rebuilding a more constructive society ideals by focussing on the drugs and controversy. However, the residents themselves aren’t innocent – much attention has been gathered by internal politics banning hard drugs and eradicating junkies (particularly after 10 people died of heroin overdoses in one year), conflict with gangs from wider Copenhagen that wanted in on the drug trade and violent outbursts as a result.
The infamous ‘Pusher St’ in Christiania is were all the drug selling very openly went down until large-scale police raids in 2004. Supposedly you can still find weed in Christiania relatively easily, but we weren’t looking on our visit. It certainly was easy to find people who stared at you suspiciously though!
Christiania is an incredibly popular tourist spot, and the thing I liked the most was all of the amazing artwork. While much media coverage about it focuses on the politics and drugs, it is also known as a haven for creatives of all disciplines – from graffiti artists to jazz musicians, some living in Christiania, others merely guests. Danish expat and entrepreneur Tonny Sorenson established the Creative Networking site Planet Illogica citing Christiania as his inspiration. His company owns the brands Von Dutch, Kustom Kulture and California Christiania Republic – a fashion label that capitalises on the Christiania logo and sells a ‘freedom’ image and brightly coloured onesies to hollywood celebrities including Rihanna, Katy Perry, James Blunt, Owen Wilson, Willow Smith and Perez Hilton.
As I meandered through the streets of Christiania I was amazed at all of the amazing works. There were sculptures hidden away behind bushes or and murals tucked around corners. Most of it was much more obvious, with large sculptures made of what some may deem ‘junk.’ There was an amazing and unique vibe throughout the place – with remnants of the old barracks mixed with psychedelic murals from the sixties and eclectic piles of ‘stuff’ everywhere. To your left you may find brilliant paintings on brick walls, to your right an incredibly cute organic vegetable stall surrounded by magical fairy lights. Round a corner and you will see a group of people sitting on a pile of rubble warming their hands in front of a fire in a metal bin. Further down the road you will see a makeshift bar with unmatching rustic chairs. A hipster’s home décor dream.
One of the big signs we saw at the entrance described the three rules of Christiania: “1. Have fun 2. No running – it scares people 3. No taking photo’s – drugs are still illegal.” With all of the amazing art and buildings I had serious issues with rule number three. It really killed me not to be able to take photos, as there were so many things I would have loved to have snapped.
We stopped in for a drink at one of the bars which had a definite Cuba St (in Wellington, NZ) feel. Reminiscent of Fidel’s, the bar was in one of the old military buildings and had patches of army netting on some of the walls. As we entered from the cold outside, we found ourselves in a large old hall filled with run down furniture and rowdy old men smoking and drinking. I felt like I was in communist era Soviet Union, but the jazz, eclectic art and friendly people made for a much warm, positive and energetic atmosphere. Initially I asked the bartender if they had cider and he replied with a very serious no, informing me they didn’t sell alcohol there. I must have been in a wary frame of mind with all of the rules and whatnot, because after I settled for a coffee I noticed bottles of Tuborg all around me and realised he was taking the piss. That damn Danish sense of humour.
The only real rebellion I engaged in whilst inside Christiania was to snap a photo of a sculpture. I didn’t know how seriously the no photo rule was taken, but I’ve seen enough Breaking Bad to know drug dealers can’t be expected to act predictably, so I quickly put my camera away and scurried off hoping no-one was about to come running at me after seeing the flash.
The place is alive with creativity and collaboration. In both wandering around Christiania and reading up about its history there is clear evidence of when that has worked well and when it has failed abysmally. Everything from building safety issues as a result of the modern yet logic defying ideas of ‘architecture without architects’ to the endless cycle of debate and disagreement over whether or not marijuana should remain legal – all rules in Christiania must be supported unanimously.
After visiting and reading up on Christiania and its history, it does leave me just a little confused as to what the real aim of the society is today, and begs the questions: Are the residents on the same page? Freedom might be their motto, but what exactly are they trying to be free from? The residents want to legally own the land they are ‘occupying’ which puts them on par with most other land owners in Denmark. Many of them aren’t supportive of legalising cannabis, Denmark has one of the best welfare systems in the world, so it is no longer necessary for housing the homeless or rehabilitating the junkies – hard drugs were banned long ago anyway. The art and culture were certainly the high point of the attraction for me, but it’s not like art is banned in the rest of Copenhagen. Even one of its staunch supporters is simply capitalising on the logo, selling weird jumpsuits to Hollywood Celebrities.
It seems to me that although they are shunning the enforced laws in Copenhagen/Denmark, they are steadily creating their ‘own’ laws that take them closer and closer to square one. Perhaps it just shows that it is a lot easy to collaboratively police a small neighbourhood than a whole country.
So, mother, you can breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not quitting Business School to join a hippy commune, the only rule breaking I did was taking a photo, and no angry drug dealers stabbed me for my lunch money.