Nyborg Castle before the restoration © Realdania

Nyborg Castle in Grave Danger

An intrusive new construction threatens to completely dominate the preserved wing of Nyborg Castle, home to the first Danish Parliament. Should we let architects loose on this precious medieval heritage, ask opponents?

When it comes to construction near protected buildings and ancient monuments, Denmark has a long tradition for holding back. Nevertheless, the preservation authorities have granted an exemption to this set of rules by furthering the project of “rebuilding” Nyborg Castle form the beginning of the 13th century. A particular grievance is that the authorities, which have granted the exemption, have themselves been active in developing and planning.

Recently, several Danish, as well as international organisations active in the field of building conservation, have vociferously protested. Now, it appears the project may also destroy the ambition of the city of Nyborg to launch the site as UNESCO World Heritage; a project, which has been underway since 2011.

Nyborg Castle

Plans for Nyborg Castle © Realdania
Plans for Nyborg Castle © Realdania

Nyborg Castle is – in a Danish context – a unique historical monument. Here, the first parliamentary meetings were housed between1250 and 1413, while several royal charters, akin to Magna Charta, were signed by a succession of Danish kings.

Established c. 1170, the first castle presented itself as a square edifice, moated and with a curtain wall. Built into the wall was a residential building or palatium from the mid 13th century while to the east, a strong defensive tower or keep was built. The castle was continuously reconstructed and embellished until the end of the 17th century when the city of Nyborg lost its status as the Nation’s capital, and the castle fell into disuse. Today, only the palatium stands, housing a museum now part of the regional museum, Østfyns Museum.

In 2011, the director of the museum together with an advisory board and the city’s council fostered the ambition to get the castle listed as world heritage. Or at least, to enter the tentative list, as some less ambitious voiced it. Plans were to make the castle and its moated courtyard into a prosperous venue for medieval reenactors and aficionados, bolstering tourism.

At some point, the project was hatched to “rebuild” the medieval castle. The inspiration came from the rebuilding of the Castle of Kolding. From the same period, this castle had been destroyed in a fire in 1808. While restoration was initiated in the 1890s, it was the architects, Inger and Johannes Exner, who created the exciting new venue, both internationally acclaimed and used for major exhibitions.

However, while the restoration of Kolding Castle received the Europa Nostra Prize in 1993, the present plans by CUBO Architects together with jajaArchitects, have met with severe criticism for its heavy-handed project. The plans consist of a new, modern communication wing, the construction of a high curtain wall as well as a considerable heightening of the existing watchtower. In the future – if the plans are carried out, the new cubistic wing will be all that meets the eye from the city centre. This building does not in any way intend to mimic the medieval palace-wing, but rather propose to act as a “modern” comment to the old piece of architecture. With its modern and heavy-handed aesthetics, its ambition is not to “caress” the old building.


Nyborg under reconstruction © Realdania
Nyborg under reconstruction © Realdania

While most of the funding comes from Realdania and the A.P. Møller Foundation, the parties behind the project are no longer just the Nyborg Municipality and Østfyns Museums, but also include the official Danish watchdog, The Agency for Culture and Palaces.

Usually, this institution polices our monuments carefully. In general, the Danish preservation authorities are known for their restrictive practice when it comes to building close to national heritage sites. Also, the Agency carefully monitors any earthworks that might affect ruins or essential archaeological sites. If you are a private developer, it is virtually impossible to get permission to build or dig near manor houses or other protected buildings such as Nyborg Castle.

To put it mildly, it is remarkable that the Agency this time over has completely changed its position towards a construction project such as the one proposed at Nyborg Castle, a monument which might be said to belong to the absolute “super league”. Even more peculiar is the double role of the Agency as both planner and authorizer of the necessary exemptions from the legal complex set up to project the National Heritage of Denmark. Politically, this has raised a storm. Also, major conservation agencies like Europa Nostra, The Association for the Preservation of Old Buildings, as well as the association, Culture & Heritage, have filed official complaints.


Future Nuborg Castle as seen from the inner courtyard © Realdania
Future Nuborg Castle as seen from the inner courtyard © Realdania

So far, some of this public criticism has succeeded in a moderation of the project. For instance, it is no longer the intention to make a direct connection between the castle wing and the new communication centre. The underlying problem, though, remains that the new construction will “wrap up” the 13th-century palatium in an unprecedented manner.

Besides, the projectors are allowed to build massively on top of the existing ruins, and the protected remains, as well as to break through and remove ruins on the site. The new wing will have to be constructed on pellets, which are drilled down through the archaeologically important area foreseeing the destruction of the ruins below the ground. And the existing watchtower will be increased by a nine-meter high new building in steel with brick walls.

Nevertheless, the local steering group behind the project has moved on, already tearing down some protected older buildings on the site to make room for the new project.

So-far the sharp criticism has resulted in a minor moderation of the building project. No longer, the intention is to build a direct connection between the castle wing and the new communication centre. Nevertheless, the basic problem remains that the old castle wing is “wrapped up” in new construction in an unprecedented way

Recently, though, The Danish Advisory Committee of ICOMOS, which advises UNESCO on the places suitable for being designated as World Heritage, has stated that the implementation of the project would make it extremely difficult to support the overall ambitions of the site.

The official recommendations of ICOMOS, as well as the rest of the opposition, is currently being scrutinised by the Agency before being submitted to a decision by the relevant board of complaints. Probably, a decision to further the project might end up before the courts.

Meanwhile, local authorities as well as the Museum and the steering board a mulling over the dilemma: furthering a high-profile modern revamp of the castle or abiding by the critique voiced by ICOMOS and go for the prestigious title of World Heritage?

Nikolai Bøgh


Skal Danmarks bedst bevarede middelalderborg bevares?
In: Pov. International


jaja architects ApS


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