Freetown Christiania: Denmark’s Controversial Commune

(Images by Symac, Quistnix and seier+seier; licensed under CC-SA-1.0, CC-1.0 and CC-2.0)

The Christiania area within Denmark’s capital is a place both reviled and celebrated.  It is a controversial community considered a successful social experiment by some, a lawless drug den by others.  Christiania’s shift from military base to hedonistic commune can be seen as the ultimate flower power siege, but four decades on it’s certainly not all peace, and its future hangs in the balance.

(Image via Chlor, public domain)

Fashioned from city ramparts built by King Christian IV in 1617, and the military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde, Christiania (also called Freetown Christiania) is an autonomous 850-strong community.  It began after the barracks were abandoned in 1971 and local residents broke-in to use the base as a playground for their children, complaining about the lack of affordable housing in Copenhagen.  (The shed above was used for executions, with 46 civilians sentenced to death for crimes committed in Denmark during World War Two.)

(Image by discosour; licensed under CC-SA-2.0)

On 26 September 1971, journalist Jacob Ludvigsen proclaimed Christiania “the land of the settlers”, adding: “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”

(Images by Ewan-M, Andreas Hj., Julianito and hern42; licensed under CC-SA-2.0)

And thus a community was born, the spirit of which has become synonymous with the hippie movement, collectivism and anarchy – in contrast to its disciplined military past.  The neighbourhood is governed by the Christiania Law of 1989, which transfers parts of its supervision from the municipality of Copenhagen to the state, which owns the former base.

(Image by Pozdroznikluka; licensed under CC-SA3.0)

Christiania’s relationship with the authorities is complicated and controversial.  Residents govern themselves by concensus, but pay taxes for water, electricity and waste disposal.  Acceptance of drug addicts and other social misfits has helped build Christiania’s identity, to the point where they are considered as important to the community as the “entrepreneurs” who run it.

(Images by hern42, Daniel Edwins, cphagainst and Bumi; licensed under CC-SA-2.0)

This openness has helped brand the area as a progressive and liberated beacon of the Danish lifestyle.  Tourists flock to Christiania, while students, musicians, artists and academics are regular visitors.  Companies take foreign investors, partners and clients there, proudly proclaiming this unique example of Danishness that cannot be found elsewhere.

(Images by seier+seier; licensed under CC-2.0)

Christiania rejects private ownership and market capitalization of private property, favouring collective rights.  Cars are prohibited, and residents with vehicles park on surrounding streets.  The community focuses on creative and recreation values, with green ramparts that are attractive to visitors.

(Image by by seier+seier; licensed under CC-2.0))

But most of all, drugs have always been a divisive issue.  While hard drugs were never sanctioned, hash and skunk were readily available from stalls on Pusher Street, the main drag, until a police crackdown in 2004.  Critics claimed the cannabis scene simply relocated outside the area, while criminal gangs moved in to take control of the open market.  Authorities have since allowed the return of organised sales to stymie this problem.

(Images by Daniel Edwins, stoneflower, Jose Perez and Nynke Fokma; licensed under CC-SA-2.0)

Meditation and yoga are popular passtimes, and for years Christiania was home to an internationally acclaimed theatre group called Solvognen.  But the community’s future is uncertain.  An agreement was reached in September 2007 to cede control to the city over a 10 year period, while the High Court reaffirmed the state’s legal rights over the former military base.  But in the meantime, Christiania will remain one of the most unique and controversial places in Denmark.

(Image by seier+seier; licensed under CC-2.0)

Despite a ban against the construction of new buildings in Christiania, a number of structures have been protected by the National Heritage Agency, mainly dating from the area’s previous life as a military barracks.  However, this glass house must be one of its most unique strutures, and one of many idiosyncratic constructions exemplifying modern “architecture without architects”.

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