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In plain sight - Copenhagen's not-so-hidden gems.

A modern city by historical standards, Copenhagen remains rich in history despite its lack of ancient legacy. "In Plain Sight" acquaints Copenhagen's international community with the fascinating tales of their adoptive home city.

Photographs: Nikolaj Kunsthal

Text: Jess Hearne

Just a few steps away from the vibrant areas of Strøget and Amagertorv is a peaceful square dominated by a magnificent building with a captivating history. Nestled in a quiet corner of the bustling capital, Nikolaj Kunsthal (Nickolaj Art Gallery) is a true blend of past and present.

A home for religion

Built in the 13th century, the church was close to Copenhagen's original harbour. Named for St Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, it later became the heart of the Danish Reformation. In 1530, Lutheran theologian Hans Tavsen preached the first Lutheran sermon in St Nicholas's church, cementing the building's status as Copenhagen's hub of religion. It quickly became the most fashionable parish for the wealthy upper classes of the city.

Today, the building's domineering tower and spire can be spotted across the city, but these didn't first appear until 1591. Inspired by the architecture of the Dutch Renaissance, the original spire was still only a young feature of Copenhagen's skyline when it was destroyed during the winter storm of 1628.

For almost three centuries, the church continued to function as a spiritual home to its parishioners. However, disaster was on the horizon. As a city with an unfortunate history of fires, many of Copenhagen's buildings have been destroyed more than once.

A pile of ashes

On the 5th of June 1795, a fire broke out in the naval base south of Kongens Nytorv. Due to the lack of manpower and fire hydrants, as well as the city's dry, arid weather in the weeks leading up to the disaster, the flames spread quickly, helped along by strong winds. The fire rapidly engulfed much of the city and, unfortunately, St Nicholas's church.

After the events of 1728, great precautions were taken to ensure the city's safety should disaster strike again. A 64.000-litre basin was connected to a pumping station, which could pump 160 litres of water through a 245-metre-long hose in only a minute. So, why, then, were the events of 1795 such a disaster for St Nicholas's church? Because the key to the pumping station had been lost.

A courageous group eventually managed to break down the door, but it was too late – the fire had taken hold, the streets were packed with terrified residents and, in just a few short hours, the once-breathtaking church had been reduced to a pile of ashes. Only the tower survived.

A home for the arts

The damage was so significant that funds couldn't bear the weight of restoration costs, leading to the congregation being officially dissolved in 1805. The building served a variety of functions throughout the 19th century, such as a fire outlook post and a trade centre, until reconstruction began in 1905 at the expense of Carl Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg. Hans Christen Amberg, the architect behind the reconstruction, designed a red brick building with a neo-Baroque twist, including a series of iconic stained-glass windows and a brand-new spire - a modern reconstruction of the original design. Reaching 35 metres into the skyline and adorned in iridescent green copper, the tower is the third highest in the city.

In modern times, the building has been transformed from a centre of religious worship to one that pays homage to the arts. Reconstruction was completed in 1917 and the church became a cultural space. It has since been home to the likes of the Veterinary Council, the public library and a naval museum, eventually transforming into an art gallery in 1981. Officially renamed Nikolaj Kunsthal in 2011, it is now a home for contemporary art embodying the diversity, vitality and voices of Denmark's capital. Ultimately, Nikolaj Kunsthal is a physical testament to how a historical landmark can adapt to the ever-changing needs of society.

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