The circular gardens that turn landscaping into avant-garde art

In the mid-20th century, near Copenhagen, architect Carl Theodor Sørensen devised a community with plots without right angles. Today it’s a tourist phenomenon and on Instagram.

They call them circular gardens, but they are actually community gardens with a characteristic oval shape. Seen from the air, they look like a strange collection of beaded necklaces scattered on a green mat. They are in Naerum, on the northern outskirts of Copenhagen, and Instagram is helping to make them one of Denmark’s most popular attractions once again.

Their mastermind was Danish architect Carl Theodor Marius Sørensen, who died in 1979. This indefatigable promoter of modernist aesthetics in contemporary landscaping launched the project in 1948, when Naerum was little more than a rural hamlet in the municipality of Rudersdal in which there was an orphanage and a couple of scattered farms surrounded by woods and wasteland. The celebrated landscape architect planted the seed of a pocket-sized rural utopia there. A garden city consisting of 40 oval plots of 25 × 15 meters, according to the Renaissance golden ratio.

The original project consisted of arranging the plots according to a strict geometric pattern, but Sørensen ended up opting to adapt to the slope of the land, thus creating a much more fluid and dynamic ensemble. Andrea, a 26-year-old architecture graduate from Barcelona who lived in Copenhagen for several months, came to Naerum Gardens in spring 2019 following the recommendations of one of her teachers: “At ground level you have the feeling of being in an English garden with neat hedges, colorful and flowery, and a labyrinthine structure”. Soon after, he became interested in the proliferation of photos of the place that were appearing on the Internet.

Another who has helped make Naerum’s oval orchards fashionable is writer and architect John Hill, author in 2017 of 100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs, a landmark work in his field. Hill included Sørensen’s project in his selection of great landscape landmarks of the last century because he finds it “a brilliant idea, executed to perfection.” Hill is thrilled that Sørensen simply designed a small number of pilot plots, delineated and ploughed the others, and then left the finishing to the individual owners, “to whom he offered only a very simple and optional set of guidelines, such as using native shrubs like hornbeam and hawthorn in the hedges and decorating them with roses. He also insisted that the location on the plots of sheds or dwellings be adapted to both the slope of the land and the solar orientation.

Hill stresses “that the Danes can boast a long tradition of community gardens dating back to the 17th century, when tiny gardens were given to landless peasants around the fortress of Fredericia in Jutland.” However, as much as they dialogue with that local tradition, “these gardens, by concept and ambition, are something else: avant-garde landscaping elevated to the category of art.”

This corner of the dormitory town of Rudersdal can be reached in just half an hour from the center of Copenhagen, either by bus or train. Also by bicycle. Those who come by car will be surprised by the lack of roads or passable tracks to access the individual plots. For Annie Thornton, a journalist who has devoted several articles to spreading the word about the excellence of the Naerum gardens, “this was always Sørensen’s original idea, which was to have as little impact as possible on the landscape and to promote a healthy lifestyle in contact with nature among the members of the community”. Andrea, an architect committed to an ideal of sustainability that is deeply rooted in Danish society, concludes with a reflection inspired by Sørensen’s project and its surprising relevance: “Others build 100-story hotels on artificial archipelagos in front of luxury marinas, but I prefer societies that choose to preserve their gardens and community orchards, because they consider them a real luxury and a treasure.

Written by: mgrarqui