A Diamond in the Sun

A Diamond in the Sun

A Diamond in the Sun
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 19 2003 4:14 PM


Today's slide show: Images from Copenhagen. Today's  video: Jytte Hilden, the woman who christened the Black Diamond, explains its magic.

COPENHAGEN—Our second day of brilliant sunshine in Copenhagen. Where are the oyster-shell gray skies that are supposed to begloom the Northern European winter? In the bright light, the skin of the young Danes in the streets looks preternaturally creamy, their blond hair impossibly radiant. The jet-lagged visitor from America, by contrast, looks a thousand years old.

Ferries ply the inner harbor outside the Black Diamond
Ferries ply the inner harbor outside the Black Diamond

He does not feel that way, however. For he is on his—I mean, I am on my way to see the Black Diamond, the best big new building in Europe. The Black Diamond is a library, or rather an extension of one; namely, of the Royal Library of Denmark. I had heard a lot about it before coming here. National libraries are not easy to get right. The French recently built one that looked like a turkey at first and then turned out kind of all right. The British just as recently built one that looked like a turkey at first and still does. The Danes held an international competition back in the early 1990s to see who would add on to theirs. Of the hundreds of international entries, the winning design turned out to be the work of a Danish firm. No surprise there. But the firm consisted of three architects in their 30s that no one knew much about (their names are Schmidt, Hammer, and Lassen). The Ministry of Cultural Affairs, showing a soundness of aesthetic judgment that seems bred into the Danish bone, went ahead and paid for it anyway. When it was finished in 1999, the Danish minister of culture liked the way its massive angular form, clad in darkest of dark Zimbabwe-mined, Italian-polished granite, sat gleaming on the edge of the Copenhagen harbor. She dubbed it the Black Diamond, and the name stuck.

We met that (now former) minister of culture at the new Royal Library extension, and she told us about it in rhapsodic detail. Her name is Jytte Hilden, and—how typical of this feminist paradise that is Denmark—she turned out to be a chemical engineer by profession. "It is not just a place for culture and knowledge," she insisted, "but a place for life—for lovers to meet, for people to breathe, to quarrel." The library's atrium, which looks out on the water, is indeed one of those dramatic, soul-lifting public spaces—sort of like New York's Grand Central Station without the rush. It has wavy sandstone walls and a pair of escalators that lead up from the harbor level to the reading rooms. When you make the ascent, you look down on a light-filled, Piranesian space that is poetically evocative of … well, perhaps I shouldn't bore you with more verbal description. No damn good at it. Look at the pictures and video. Better yet, come to Copenhagen and see the Black Diamond yourself.


If you do, be sure to dine at the library's restaurant, which is named the Søren K—for Kierkegaard. Not even the Germans, not even the French, name restaurants for philosophers. (But didn't there used to be an Espinosa's in London?) The menus are bound so that they look like Kierkegaard volumes. Mine had a title in Danish that was translated for me as "The Soupless Kitchen." I did not recognize it from Kierkegaard's oeuvre. But when we tried to order the pumpkin soup on the menu, we were told that the kitchen was indeed out of it. Ah, Wonderful, mysterious Copenhagen.

Lunch filled my stomach but left my spirit still ravenous for aesthetic experience. Not really, but we went to see more art and architecture anyway—this time at an old-and-new structure that houses the art collection of Denmark's greatest 19th-century beer magnate. I'm referring to the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery, which makes what a big neon sign in the middle of the city declares is "Probably the Best Beer in Copenhagen." The beer magnate was a friend of Rodin's and a connoisseur of Greek and Roman antiquities and French salon paintings (he had a son who was keen on Manet and Gauguin, fortunately). He flirted with bankruptcy to collect the stuff, finally ran out of room at the house, and ended up building a great museum for it in central Copenhagen in 1897: the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

This original building was impressive enough, with its central winter garden full of soaring palm trees (a great spot to recover from museum fatigue). But it also has a new addition by Denmark's greatest living architect, Henning Larsen, which is as impressive, in its hushed and modest way, as the Black Diamond. Comparing it in my mind with recent additions to American museums (or French or English for that matter) made me weep with shame. But I soon forgot about that as we were conducted through the commodious galleries by a young member of the curatorial staff who was an expert on 16th-century Northern graphic art. She was also a Danish version of an angel.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica.

Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. A former visiting journalist at U.C. Berkeley and an American correspondent for BBC Wales, he now divides his time between New York and Paris.