A Danish city gears up for a year of artistic events
The rooftops turn purple then blue as I stroll through the air 50m above them. Below, Aarhus appears in all the colours of the spectrum — its medieval lanes in fading yellow, Victorian docks in deep sea green, university in riotous red. If you’ve never seen a city through a rainbow, then this is the place to come.
The skywalk on the roof of the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum is the city’s best-known landmark. It’s a corridor of glass high above the city, its walls splashed with vibrant hues through which you see the world in technicolor: brighter, moodier, bolder. That’s a perspective the city will be sharing with us all in 2017, when it is Europe’s Capital of Culture. I’ve come here to discover what’s on offer. “We have extraordinary things going on, over 250 projects through the year,” says Rebecca Matthews, British-born chief executive of the 2017 program, which launched in late January. “We’re bringing crime writers from across Europe to work on new Nordic noir, we have dance from New York and London, the world’s first festival of children’s literature, a Viking saga staged on the roof of the archaeology museum.
“But also we’re asking our artists for provocations and debates. The theme of Aarhus 2017 is ‘Rethink’. We want people to look at things differently, to talk about solutions to the big global challenges. What can we learn from each other?”
What we can learn also involves water — music around the industrial harbour, sculptures along the coast — and the Creativity World Forum, which will debate how culture can energise cities. “We’re talking about diversity, democracy and sustainability — values that matter everywhere, but are quintessentially Danish,” Matthews says. “We want a year that will be full of excitement and fun, but also full of contemplation.”
I meet her in Aarhus’s spectacular new Dokk1 library, an iceberg of concrete and glass by the harbour. Last year, it was awarded the world’s best public library by the International Federation of Library Associations. It’s the first time a library in Denmark has been accorded the honour and it’s a rethink for the digital age.
As well as old-fashioned book stacks, its vast halls are filled with red sofas where students are sharing homework, a film crew is viewing footage and children are playing chess. There’s a display of prototypes from the local design school and a gong is rung every time a baby is born in the hospital. Out of these elements — innovation, integration, community — this city is renewing itself.
You can see this at the old docks just outside, which are being rebuilt as an urban beach. Construction works fill the quays all the way to my hotel, Comwell, arguably the coolest place to stay here. It’s a glinting tower block, rising like a signpost to tomorrow, but inside is a shrine to mid-century modernism, with white rooms and geometric furniture from Danish design house HAY.
Yet the new wave in Aarhus has been led not by architects or artists, but by chefs. In the past 10 years the city has filled with great places to eat, and today it boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants. In 2017 Aarhus and its surrounding area form a European Region of Gastronomy.
“For a small city, we have a lot of good restaurants,” says chef Rene Mammen at Michelin-starred Substans, where I stop for lunch. It’s a calm spot, all scrubbed wood and white candles, serving astonishing Nordic cuisine such as scallops edged with sweet pears and salty samphire, mussels topped with smoky cheese, and thyme ice cream showered with rose petals.
Mammen has the blue eyes and ginger beard of a Viking plus and tattoos all over his arms. “I used to cook in Copenhagen,” he says, smiling, “but I moved back here because Aarhus just welcomes everybody. It’s laid back, down to earth. Our friends run the farms that supply us. I can drive out to pick berries in 10 minutes.”
Local sourcing goes further at Haervaerk, a Bib Gourmand restaurant in a street full of cyclists. “We have no menu,” says owner Michael Christensen. “We just use what we get locally each morning. So the dishes change from day to day and even table to table. You can taste that freedom in our food.” He illustrates the point with a series of surprising snacks, including woodland mushrooms creamed with sweet corn, herring roe in puffy profiteroles, and earthy beetroot sprinkled with pink flowers. It’s cutting edge but still comfort food.
ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, main; Aarhus canal, centre left; Dokk1 library, centre right; Moesgaard Museum