Metro København foto Bent Larsen

Standing out in urban noise

Loud or simple in urban design — The Copenhagen Metro

Cityscapes are noisy. They are grey and black. Red and yellow. Green and blue. Full of people, signs and symbols, glass, bricks, tarmac — and of movement.

It’s a difficult environment to stand out in. How do you do it? Most compete for attention by going big or bright, but most often the answer is really quite simple: You stay, well, simple. In chaos, simplicity stands out.

Copenhagen Metro totem

The metro stand, or ‘Totem’ as it was christened by its creators, put up in a presentation friendly environment.

When the Copenhagen Metro first opened, I remember seeing design sketches of the stands chosen to mark the stations above ground. A bit of a postmodern statement, they were a sort of fusion between grey oil barrels from a wharf in the German Democratic Republic and a disco ball. As 3D renderings on a white background they seemed, at first glance, a bit loud and bulky. But how would they work when the background was no longer just white?

The Copenhagen Metro 'Totem' at night

The Metro ‘Totem’ at night

When I saw them actually put up, they were as feared: The grey cylindrical shape blended in with the many other grey cylindrical shapes in an urban landscape, and at night the lights and colours on them were in perfect sync with the amorphous impression of light you get if you squint your eyes in any urban setting. They disappeared. The stands weren’t simple enough to stand out. Nor loud enough. They were just in between, perfectly camouflaged to blend into the city. An amorphous object in the middle of everything else. And they were too short.

A clearly defined shape
I’ve been living abroad for more than two years and recently returned to Copenhagen. It’s a fascinating experience being away for a prolonged period and then returning to your base. Most things haven’t changed at all, but some have. And they stand out.

While passing a metro station, 12 years after the first metro train started rolling, I had the pleasure of, for the first time, noticing a station without actively looking for it. Because in front of me, a dark red ‘M’ on a rectangle stood clearly defined against the blue sky behind it. Nothing else. A simple shape on a stand (see image at top of page).

This ‘M’ has presence. Simple enough to stand out in the chaos. Put up high enough to be a little removed from it. Not on a cylinder but cut out as a clearly defined shape. Copenhagen’s Metro stations had become visible while I had been away. At least some of them — the new signs are still just being tested on a handful of stations.

The ‘M’ itself was designed by Copenhagen agency Per Mollerup/Designlab before the original opening of the metro. It doesn’t quite possess the qualities needed to become an icon like the London Underground’s red circle and blue bar. The Danish ‘M’ is a little more corporate, a little more Scandinavian, but it tells the right story and serves its purpose very well — especially now it’s hovering alone in the sky and is not just one part of a grey cylinder cloaked in urban anonymity.

Spot the metro signage. Urban chaos in practise.

Spot the metro signage. Urban chaos in practise.

Copenhagen metro logo

The Copenhagen Metro logo tells the story of a “tube” running under something else. It works much better when simply left on its own.

Londond underground sign

A red circle calling “here I am”. London’s “tube” is always visble.