Paradise Lost

I wrote this essay back in 2016 for the art magazine Elephant, after I’d done a few interviews for them. There was a change in Editor, and it never got published.

In the years surrounding my move to Denmark, I was quite taken with the purity and discipline of the infrastructural aesthetic. In other words, railway stations, airports and other public buildings (and some commercial brands) all appeared impeccable to the eye – designed, organized and maintained with a sort of rigorous discipline and sense of formal beauty.

On the rail network, there was a minimalism and uniformity to signage. The integrity of existing buildings was always honoured. This, together with some more contemporary elements of Nordic design, seemed to say something bigger about the aspiration of these nations, Denmark in particular. It had something to do with state ownership, the social democratic project and so on.

The essay wasn’t perfect; now, it even seems quite politically reactionary and small-minded. Maybe that’s why it never got published. Anyway, I’ve put that right and published it here.

Exterior of Skodsborg Station, on the coastal line north of Copenhagen (Andrew Mellor)

Until a few years ago, you could see two cash dispensers ranged on a brick wall towards the far northern corner of the main concourse at Copenhagen Central Station. To do so, was to behold a scene of concentrated, orderly beauty. Danske Bank’s ATMs had their own stern elegance: a glass panel ran along the top, from which the bank’s corporate imagery was picked out of the deep, glinting green-blue and aligned to the right. Below that was an imposing steel frame that contained and tamed the plastic slots, screens and buttons with a fierce, functional elegance.

Imagine, for a second, those two identical machines side-by-side, pinging out from the orange bricks, dignified by a handsome framing archway – a banality made beauteous by the chance meeting of colour, texture, light and geometry. From typeface to placement, it was a sight that spoke of Denmark’s aesthetic heritage as loudly as a Hammershøi painting or a Henningsen lampshade. But no longer. Recently the small section of wall and its twin cash machines were obliterated to make way for a convenience store. It was a little paradise, in a strange way. Now it is lost.

There are corners of railway stations and other civic structures across Scandinavia that induce similar feelings of deep satisfaction – and perhaps even something more. But nothing quite matched that spot in Copenhagen. Before I lived in the city, I would head back to the cashpoints whenever I visited. ‘Part of growing up and learning to travel well,’ writes Alain de Botton in The New Art of Travel, ‘means daring to take our own interests a little more seriously.’ We must accept, argues de Botton, that ideas of beauty aren’t always those canonized by guidebooks and galleries.

When we refer to a ‘beautiful country’, what do we really mean? We surely mean something broader and more complicated than the beauty of dramatic natural landscapes, evocatively decaying streets or spectacular architectural conceits. The beauty I sensed on my first visits to Scandinavia, while admittedly less poetic and intellectually valuable, was no less imposing, fortifying or relevant. Arguably, it was even more so: banal, to a point, but all encompassing and indiscriminate because of it. The beauty of public infrastructure – the gallery walls to the artistic endeavor that is life as a citizen – is arguably the most aspirational of all.

Outside the confines of a gallery or corporate headquarters (the two are often indistinguishable anyway), the two ATMs in Copenhagen suggested that beauty resonates at more levels than we care to admit; that beauty, as well as its natural home in exalted artistic endeavor, can be found in the soulless mechanisms of economics even if it exists there as little more than a sideshow. Somewhere in between the two falls the European social-democratic project, where the principle of public infrastructure as a point of national unity and civic aspiration has delivered a wealth of exquisite structures and institutional identities over the last century. They constitute an aesthetic treasure trove that, it could be claimed, deserves protection just as artworks do.

Is a ‘beautiful’ country simply one that has control of its own aesthetic? Every railway station in Denmark looks like the product of one eye: uniform furniture and signage in deep blue-grey (conceived as if to purposefully offset the yellow or red brick structures of the 19th-century buildings) deployed with a regard for the power of minimalism and sprinkled with a bespoke typeface that underscores its own bureaucratic clarity with a touch of flair.

Does that sound crushingly boring or proto-fascist? Both, you may think. But there comes a time when anyone involved in creative processes – from composers and painters to brand consultants – must admit that the product of one person’s eye or ear is generally far superior to that of many.

Just as Gustav Mahler or Eugene O’Neill exercise an almost physical effect on ideas of ‘living’ and ‘being alive’ as you sit and listen to their work in communion with others, so the careful deployment of furniture, colour, or even a beautifully conceived brand in a public space can have a similar effect. ‘In small things’, the poet Thomas A Clark wrote, ‘delight is intense’.

The cashpoints may be gone, but Copenhagen Central Station still impresses as much for its disciplined combination of that resilient deep grey (and its rigorous control of those typefaces) as for its more overtly ‘interesting’ wooden cantilevered roof. As De Botton reminds us, it’s okay to respect one as much as the other. Likewise, to be surrounded by the deep blue and recurring SAS typeface that saturates the principle landside space at Copenhagen Airport can be a galvanizing, thrilling and deeply satisfying experience. In my experience, the history and integrity of the corporation’s entire endeavor holds you aloft as you head for your temporary position above the clouds.

In certain parts of Europe, details like these are a twenty-first century surrogate to National Romanticism, the sort that gave birth to social welfare and state provision of funds for artistic endeavor in the first place. It might be dangerous to consider them a point of ‘civilization’, because that word enshrines the importance of discord and inconsistency as much as it does harmony and uniformity of ideas.

That doesn’t stop discipline in public design being, potentially, a source of intense pleasure. The look of urban life in Copenhagen, from signage and street furniture to less easily defined ideas of Nordic sunlight and human deportment, played a part in my decision to live in the city. There will be people reading this magazine who opened a particular bank account because of the look and colour of the debit card. You know who you are.

In that sense, capitalism maintains its curious relationship with the principle of design excellence for the greater good. Those cashpoints at Copenhagen Central Station were the product of private enterprise – before priorities moved on.

If you can find a Danske Bank cashpoint now, that deep blue glass panel which used to dignify the bank’s brand image with large amounts of space will probably be filled-out with additional white text imparting useless information (very few of the ‘pure’ machines remain). For a time, SAS’s self check-in machines metamorphosed from gorgeous, upstanding slabs of translucent deep blue with the letters SAS picked out of one corner in the airline’s iconic typeface – again, afforded the dignity and elegance of space – into gaudy turquoise blobs which appeared to blow and aesthetic raspberry at their handsome predecessors.

That’s business. The corporate merry-go-around waits for no man and the prioritizing of profit will mostly undermine long-term vision, aesthetic or otherwise. Anyone who has developed a bottom-up re-brand of an organization only to witness their carefully distilled imagery eroded and undermined over time will know about that. But shouldn’t the operations of the state be tied to more solid, long term objectives, visions and principles? The rise of neo-liberalism poses a direct threat to that idea, politically and creatively. On a more basic level, it suggests there will be no public infrastructure left to make beautiful in the first place.

There’s little chance the New York Subway or London Underground would have made such important contributions to the field of graphic design if they had been the children of private enterprise. Nor would the design traditions those institutions likely continue to survive protected if their entities were placed in private hands. Consistency of design would be replaced by a corporate free-for-all the likes of which has taken root on the UK’s privatized rail network, which now lacks any form of visual consistency and is in the process of selling every available inch of advertising space – including station destination signs – to the highest bidder. The UK rail network has lost its central aesthetic. The nation’s subsequent, panicked search for an identity surely isn’t unrelated.

Denmark, the rest of the Nordic region and whole swathes of Europe might not be far behind. It doesn’t take a diligent student of civic design to note that minimalism and neo-liberalism will never be entirely happy bedfellows. If space can be sold, it will be – eventually.

Capitalism may have produced its own strand of design-led beauty, as the Danske Bank cash machines proved. But that tale of two cashpoints reminds that when a design culture is established and nurtured by the state, it will shape the behavior of the private sector to some degree as well.

You may conclude that a neo-liberal meritocracy is perfectly capable of preserving and developing civic design traditions from Berlin to Brisbane – that it will, in fact, sharpen such traditions and invest them with even greater invention. Recent history suggests that the opposite is true: that when you let market forces off the leash in public spaces, an aesthetic horror show awaits. In the meantime I treasure the plain, restrained, bureaucratic beauty I see in Denmark and all over Scandinavia.