Vestamager: Nature blending seamlessly with urban life in the heart of Copenhagen
A surprisingly bucolic slice of Copenhagen awaits in West Amager in the shadow of the best 21st century architecture Denmark has to offer.
First time visitors coming to Denmark are certain to be impressed by the capital city Copenhagen upon their arrival. Indeed, most travelers embark on the journey to discover Denmark here, and rightly so — the Danish capital is a great primer on Denmark as a whole, its culture, ethos, and the general philosophy of life of the Danish people. Bicyclists dominate the city’s streets, and those who aren’t zipping around on two wheels are generally enjoying the comprehensive, clean and easy-to-use public transit lines. And with the shiny distractions of Copenhagen’s glittering skyline created by renowned Scandinavian architects and its legendary nightlife, first-time visitors could be forgiven if they think of Copenhagen as strictly a glass and concrete type of cosmopolitan city.
But there’s a whole lot of green incorporated into even oh-so modern Copenhagen. Visitors are often surprised by the copious and spacious parks and open spaces that dot the city. The seemingly casual way Copenhagen’s city planners and environmental engineers have managed to blend nature into the cityscape is the envy of metropolises around the world. And one of the best places to explore the greener, more pastoral side of Copenhagen—yet at the same time seeing some of the most innovative modern architecture Scandinavia has to offer—is in West Amager.
Vestamager or Amager Vest as it is spelled in Danish is one of the ten administrative districts of the city of Copenhagen. It’s perched on the western side of Amager Island along with the Ørestad neighborhood, and runs roughly along the Green or M1 line (aka the Vestamager metro line) on the west side of the island from the Islands Brygge Station to the Vestamager Station.
Amager Island is of course a huge island that is host to a great deal of the relatively newer parts of the city of Copenhagen, including Christianshavn and Freetown Christiania to the north, and Amager Strandpark to the east. And while West Amager and Ørestad may not have the cachet among tourists as those other parts of Amager, the area is nonetheless kind of a scrappy cousin to those more famed areas, and well worth a visit in its own right. Vestamager district includes not only Ørestad but also the Islands Brygge and Ebert’s Villaby, as well as an expansive, 3500-acre undeveloped meadow called Kalvebod Faelled or Kalvebod Common, home to a world-class, comprehensive nature center and home to a variety of wildlife and migratory waterfowl.
But even with such a grand wilderness area dominating the southern section of West Amager, the northern part is firmly incorporated into the urban reality of modern Copenhagen. The northern portion of the Vestamager district along with the Ørestad neighborhood are fully urbanized, and home to a number of impressive buildings including the DR Concert Hall, the Bella Sky conference center, Field’s shopping center and more.
Out of the swamp
But that wasn’t always the case. For centuries the spot where Vestamager is now was part of the sea, part of the shallow waterway stemming from the Øresund to the east and separating Amager from the rest of Copenhagen. The western part of Amager Island is largely man-made, having been reclaimed from the shallows of the surrounding sea and built up during the early and middle part of the 20th century. With the pre-war growth of Copenhagen, the area on the western side of the large island of Amager was seen as a logical place to begin expansion of the city’s land area so the burgeoning population had somewhere to live. A second goal was to provide better protection for Copenhagen’s harbor, which is just across the water from West Amager. The Øresund—the name for the straight between Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden as well as the larger sea surrounding Copenhagen to the north and east—was and is very shallow between the mainland of Copenhagen center and Amager Island. So the city fathers and engineers devised a plan by which they would fill in the shallowest parts of the sea on the southwestern side of the island, creating Vestamager.
This ambitious plan to expand West Amager commenced in 1930 and continued over the better part of the subsequent three decades, culminating in 1955. And while Copenhagen’s engineers and city planners were hardly the first to devise and execute such a plan to reclaim land from the sea during that era, the early enthusiasm for expanding the land area of the city led to some regretful decisions as to what exactly would be used as filler. Today the southern and western part of the island is difficult to develop due to the sub-strata being made up of not only sand and rocks dredged up from the Øresund, but also of random plaster, garbage, and a host of other, now-unknown material.
This hasty selection of materials for reclaiming the land—and in truth, they incorporated practices that were perfectly acceptable and not at all unusual according to the engineering standards of the time—has led to unforeseen consequences. Constructing new buildings in West Amager, especially in the southern part of the island is a difficult if not impossible challenge because of the instability and unknown quality of what lies beneath the ground. Aside from the convention, conference and exhibition hall known as the Bella Center, which was host for the COP15 world environmental and climate change summit of 2009, new construction of larger buildings in lower West Amager is mostly forbidden. The reclaimed land has made even farming largely impossible due to the poor soil quality.
However, as the eternal optimists the Danes are known to be, the national government and the city leaders of Copenhagen made lemonade out of the lemons they had inadvertently created with the poor choice of landfill that was used to make their new land. Today, a huge swath of the land to the south and west on Amager is devoted to a massive natural area called Kalveod Faelled, or the Kalvebod Common. This gorgeous, wide-open, mostly natural area is just 15 minutes from the heart of Copenhagen and plays host to scores of waterbirds, protected amphibians, deer, cattle and sheep. It also has miles of trails for two-legged creatures who are into biking and hiking and offers a welcome respite from the bustle of the city.
What’s doing in West Amager and Øresund
But don’t get the wrong idea — just because a great deal of the southern part of West Amager is consigned to the open skies of Kalvebod Common doesn’t mean the entire area is a cow pasture. Far from it. West Amager is known for some of the most cutting-edge, forward-thinking architecture in not only Denmark but all of Scandinavia. In fact there are plenty of human-oriented activities one can pursue in West Amager before you set foot in the green spaces of Kalvebod.
The Islands Brygge section of Vestamager is the oldest part of the district to have been reclaimed from the sea, a project that began as far back as the 1880s. Translated to English, Islands Brygge means “Iceland’s Quay,” which is helpful for English speakers who may spend undue time puzzling at the map of Copenhagen looking for islands in the area. It’s the harborfront area along the northwestern side of Vestamager that was originally reclaimed and developed for industrial and military use as well as some residential space as Copenhagen’s population grew in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
For decades Islands Brygge was a disreputable docklands type of area that was disregarded and considered an industrial wasteland. But since a revitalization program was implemented beginning in 2000, the area is now a popular waterfront area drawing visitors from not only the tourists who descend on Copenhagen every summer, but also city residents.
The developers of Islands Brygge have implemented all of the innovation and cleverness that Danish architects and city planners are known for, renovating broad swaths of early 20th-century residential blocks into modern condos and apartments overlooking the water, with shops lining the street level below. Another great residential innovation and surely one of the most eye-catching sights along Islands Brygge is the Gemini Residence, an apartment complex created by converting two disused grain silos.
Another big draw for the Islands Brygge neighborhood is the Havneparken, or Harbor Park. It’s perched on the water—naturally—and is one of the biggest draws for visitors. There you’ll find people strolling along the quayside as well as visiting the area’s numerous attractions like the Islands Brygge Cultural Center and the Harbor Bath, one of Copenhagen’s public swimming facility that can accommodate up to 600 people in five pools that have direct access to the pristine harbor.
DR Concert Hall
Moving south roughly along the line created by the M1 metro, the next major attraction for visitors coming to Vestamager and Ørestad is the DR Concert Hall, or Koncerthuset. The concert hall was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and in 2012 was named by prestigious classical music magazine Gramophone as one of the top ten greatest concert halls of the new millennium. Architect Nouvel was bold in designing the space, incorporating contrasts like simple matte-gray concrete walls and steel squares, as well as glass sections of roof open to a view of the sky. The complex actually houses four concert halls to which Nouvel has given corresponding color pallettes in order to emphasize the use of the space, with the larger hall seating 1800 in warm colors, a cooler one in black and white, and a small intimate hall in red.
The attention to detail didn’t stop with the building’s exterior design. Nouvel worked with Japanese acoustic specialist Yasuhisa Toyota to not only give the four halls tremendous sound quality, but also to make each room’s acoustics adjustable, depending on what kind of music is being performed there.
Bella Center and Bella Sky
Heading further south in West Amager, you’ll come across the Bella Center, the second-largest exhibition and conference center in Scandinavia. The Bella Center is a grand complex covering 1.3 million sq feet with a capacity to host up to 20,000 people at a time. It has played host to events ranging from the biannual Copenhagen Fashion Fair to the COP15 world environmental summit on climate change in 2009.
Another great architectural wonder to visit while you’re in the area is the adjacent Bella Sky hotel complex. This four-star hotel is the largest hotel in Scandinavia with over 800 rooms, and was designed by renowned Danish architecture giants 3XN Architects. The complex itself consists of two striking towers that are angled 15° in opposite directions and connected by a dubious-looking walkway at the top. The 23rd-floor bar offers stunning views of Copenhagen, and the complex hosts five restaurants, 30 meeting rooms, and even an entire floor designed to be used by women (although management emphasizes it is available to host men as well).
Fields Copenhagen, Royal Arena Copenhagen, and more
Further south you’ll encounter Fields Copenhagen, one of the largest indoor shopping malls in Scandinavia. It’s home to over 150 stores housed in a new and well-designed complex that makes shoppers never want to leave. Located right at the Øresund Metro station, the mall is a glittering structure that, in addition to offering tons of shopping, is home to a mini-golf course and a top-floor trampoline park complete with a parkour area to keep those restless kids occupied. For the adults who perhaps get tired feet faster than their springing offspring, there’s the Arne Jacobsen Lounge, outfitted with furniture created by the renowned Danish designer and offering one of the most elegant shopping mall relaxation areas in the world.
A short distance to the south of Fields Copenhagen is the Crown Plaza Copenhagen, a four-star hotel that’s a great place to stay and set up meetings for business travelers given its proximity to the airport, the mall, and the Øresund Metro, and putting you just 15 minutes outside of the Copenhagen city center.
Another big draw to this part of Vestamager is the Royal Arena, Copenhagen’s premier concert venue that seats up to 16,000 concert-goers. Visitors almost unanimously marvel at the arena’s cleanliness, facilities, and especially the acoustics, as well as the design of the building itself, which is another masterpiece created by Danish architecture giants 3XN Architects.
If innovative Danish architecture interests you and you get a chance while you’re visiting West Amager, take the time to check out 8TALLET. Also known as 8House, this groundbreaking architectural marvel is located near the final stop on the M1 line, the Vestamager station, and just a few blocks south of the Royal Arena. The residential complex was designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to resemble the number 8, but more importantly, it was designed with special attention paid to the humanity and the quality of life of the people residing there. The designs of the various 476 apartments, townhomes and penthouses offer incredible attention to the comfort and happiness of the residents, featuring tons of natural light, water features, children’s play areas and other open space, and much more. 8House won in the housing category at the 2011 World Architecture Festival.
Vestamager Nature Center
Finally, part of the draw 8House has for both visitors and residents is that it is located right next to Kalvebod Common, the great expanse of open land on the southern and western side of Vestamager. Just a five-minute walk from the Vestamager Metro lies the Vestamager Nature Center, the gateway to this vast natural area that provides a great jumping-off point to get yourself acclimated. What’s more, the Vestamager Nature Center also offers tons of hands-on experiences for kids and adults alike. You can learn how to light a fire, bake bread, and even make popcorn in the open. The Center also offers equipment for rent for a variety of activities, ranging from bird-watching to cycling to roller skating along the notoriously straight and flat roads that crisscross the area, dating back to its previous incarnation as a military training facility. But many residents and visitors alike delight in simply enjoying the quiet peacefulness of such an expansive piece of nature located essentially inside a major city.
Making your way to Vestamager and Øresund is as easy as boarding the Green M1 Metro from city center and taking it to whichever stop interests you, starting with Islands Brygge at the northern end of the district and ending at Vestamager in the south. If you’re driving from citycenter, you can take either H.C. Andersen Blvd., or the O2 for a 10-15 minute drive.
West Amager awaits!
With such an amazing variety of activities, not to mention such a wildly diverse range of landscapes, it’s little wonder that Vestamager, Copenhagen is such an up-and-coming piece of the wonderful puzzle that is Copenhagen. From the most innovative Danish design in architecture to world-class hotels and restaurants, to one of the largest expanses of open space in a modern major city, West Amager has something for everyone!
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