Originally founded as a harbour settlement on the banks of the river Aarhus, the port town of Aarhus has evolved from being one of the rapidly developing trade hubs to the second-largest city in Denmark. Dating back to the early eighth century, from when the port city of Aarhus was christened Aros, which meant “the mouth of the river”, it has seen it all, from early Christian churches to the turbulent Viking era and steadily regenerating itself from the ravages of political and geographic forces. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet1
The magnificent city of Aarhus_© ©https://www.businessdestinations.com/featured/aarhus-finds-success-as-european-capital-of-culture/

While the 1600s were a difficult time for the people of Aarhus, who suffered at the hands of continuous wars and recurring plagues, trade took a back seat, and Copenhagen became the centre of power. However, the Industrial Revolution brought with it an opportunity for economic and cultural revival, which drove a rapid population growth, outpacing its regional rivals, and helped Aarhus rise from the status of being Copenhagen’s “poorer cousin.”

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet2
Aptly called the city of Smiles_© ©Anders Trærup_https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/aarhus-denmark-design-travel-guide

The Era of the Vikings

Being one of the oldest cities of Denmark, the age of Vikings in Aarhus dates back to the early eighth century, but very little remains of it today. The settlement revolved around the shore of a fjord at the outlet of the river Aarhus and consisted of wooden buildings called “Pit Houses” and “Longhouses.”

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet3
The reconstructed Stave Church at the Moesgård Museum_© © By Sten Porse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264489

The pristine old town was fortified by earthen ramparts and a moat to protect the town from frequent attacks and political unrest. The moat surrounds the present-day Aarhus Cathedral and Store Tory, with the fjord to the south and the coast to the east. With wood being the main building material during the Viking era, the remarkable structures like St. Nicholas Church, St. Olaf’s Church, and the wooden Christian cemetery and chapel, mapped the cultural footprint of the Viking city.

Aarhus and the Middle Ages

The growing influence of the Church in the Middle Ages transformed Aarhus, along with its bishopric, into a prosperous religious centre through the early and mid-12th century. A major part of the thirteenth century marks the age of reorganization for what was formerly called Aros, with the Church having the upper hand while laying out the structure of a new city. Most churches and public buildings built during this time were predominantly Romanesque in style.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet4
The Church of our lady in Aarhus_© © By RhinoMind – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63911553

The Church of Our Lady and the Aarhus Cathedral are a few of the most famous examples of Danish Romanesque architecture in the Medieval Ages with richly ornamental pedestals, motifs, and rounded arches. However, most Romanesque churches were later altered in the latter parts of the medieval era as per the Gothic style. The Aarhus cathedral, also called the St. Clements Cathedral was modified in the mid-1400s into a “hall church” style, with Rib vaults being added in the choir and nave. 

The Romanesque rounded arches were replaced with the Gothic pointed arches and the steeple roof was made Octagonal, which were all features of typical Danish Gothic buildings of the time.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet5
The Romanesque turned Gothic Aarhus cathedral>_<<© https://avial7.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/an-afternoon-in-aarhus-cathedral/
Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet6
Gothic arches, Baroque epitaphs, Renaissance Pulpit and old Frescoes_© © https://avial7.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/an-afternoon-in-aarhus-cathedral/

The commercial status of Aarhus was revived in the latter part of the 1400s and was a time when the geographic growth spurred and the moats and ramparts were repurposed and dismantled to accommodate the rise in population. The formative years from the early 1500s to mid-1800s were largely inspired by the raging Renaissance movement through Europe, with Aarhus being revamped as a “Market Town”. 

Merchants settled around the fjords at Immervald and the eastern section of Vestergaard, which led to a new wave of outer districts like Studsgade and Mejlgade and the main access points to the old market square. This also marked the era of nobility and wealth and led the shift from timber-framed construction to bricks, but being a mid-sized town until the 18th century, there were very few large-scale buildings in Aarhus.

A walk through the Møllestien

The picturesque cobbled street right in the middle of Aarhus with hollyhocks and rambling roses climbing against tiny old half-timbered houses exudes old-world charm and dates back to the early Middle Ages. The characteristic houses of the idyllic Møllestien, called “outhouses” or “booths” were built in the 1700s and are traditionally one-storeyed with an opening or a window, making them the perfect getaway to the old Danish bygone days.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet7
A stroll through the idyllic streets of Møllestien _© © https://www.visitaarhus.com/aarhus/plan-your-trip/charming-house-downtown-aarhus-gdk604058

The old town of Den Gamle By

The old town by the name of “Den Gamle By” in Aarhus is a national open-air “living” museum of the urban history and culture in Denmark through three centuries, from 1864 to 1974. The streets of Den Gamle By showcase the lifestyle of the Danish people through the ages, not just through their immaculately preserved buildings and ethos, but also with people’s attire and their vibe. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet8
Denmark through the ages at the old town of Den Gamle By _© © https://www.dengamleby.dk/en/den-gamle-by/practical/
Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet9
The Den Gamle By is a museum of urban and cultural history_© © https://www.dengamleby.dk/en/den-gamle-by/about/

Walking through the streets takes you back in time right from the pavement and cobbled roads to the interiors, people’s lives, and their true Danish spirit. The streets are dotted with old relocated houses, parlours and salons, shops and workshops, along with a school, post office, telephone exchange, and jazz bar in their true forms unperturbed by the radically modernist surroundings they are located in.

Rise of National Romanticism

The late 1800s and mid-1900s marked a period of Nationalism in Denmark which resulted in an elaborate expression of the Art Nouveau variant National Romanticism throughout Aarhus which was characterized by the use of domestic materials like brick, limestone, and granite. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet10
Toldboden, The Aarhus Customs House_© © via Wikimedia commons

The Aarhus Customs House, built in 1898, the former State Library 1902, and the Aarhus Theatre from 1900 are the centrepieces of National Romanticism in the architectural fabric of Aarhus. This was the era where many public schools were constructed throughout Aarhus. A prime example of National Romantic School Architecture was the “red building” of the Aarhus Cathedral School by Hack Kampmann. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet11
Aarhus cathedral School by Hack Kampmann_© © By Nico 12:32, 1 March 2008 (UTC) / Nils Jepsen – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3639241

This prominent style of design was often merged with other styles of the time to create an interesting and intriguing design vocabulary. The prime examples of this merger can be seen in the Aarhus Fire Station built in 1904, which merged National Romanticism with Renaissance Revival, and the Ole Rømer Observatory built in 1911, which incorporated the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Nordic Classicism and the era of Hack Kampmann

The wildly popular age of National Romanticism was followed by a period of Neoclassicism, as a reaction to the decorative and deeply ornamental styles that preceded it, and was rather characterized by clarity, logic, and artistic cohesion with the Danish architect Christian Frederik Hansen as its mascot. The new breed of architects that emerged was involved in socio-political issues and aimed to design neighbourhoods, institutions, and buildings in cheaper and more appealing alternatives. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet12
The Marseilisborg palace, the Danish Royal Family’s Summer Residence_© © By No machine-readable author provided. Pred assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1057791

The prolific Danish architect Hack Kampmann was one of the leading proponents of National Romanticism but made a shift to the Neoclassical style in the 1920s, becoming one of its key initiators. He arrived in Aarhus in 1892 and was behind the construction of an array of large monumental public buildings, including the Marselisborg palace built between 1899-1902, which is the Royal Family’s summer residence. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet13
The Aarhus Teater, an epitome of Nordic Classicism_© © By RhinoMind – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59293077

A few other notable projects by Kampmann in Aarhus include the Aarhus Theater, the Danish National Business Archives, among several others.

The new wave of Danish Functionalism

The Stockholm exhibition of 1930 made a massive impression on the architectural expression in Denmark, challenging the ideals of historicism and gave way for a new style of design called Functionalism. The use of decoration and ornamentation was reduced to a minimum and was replaced by focusing on materials to express modern lifestyle through form, function, and technique with the emerging concept of mass production in construction. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet14
Danish functionalism and the Aarhus University_© © Julian Weyer – University of Aarhus / C. F. Møller Architects_https://brickarchitecture.com/projects/university-of-aarhus-c-f-moller-architects

The Aarhus university, built in 1933 by C.F. Møller, Kay Fisker, and Povl Stegmann, is one of the prime examples of Danish Functionalism on the list of architectural landmarks in Aarhus and is a part of the Danish Culture Canon. 

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet15
The Aarhus City Hall, one of the most iconic landmarks of the city_© © flickr user Vallo_https://www.archdaily.com/540719/ad-classics-aarhus-city-hall-arne-jacobsen-and-erik-moller/53fac01ac07a80c38400086d-ad-classics-aarhus-city-hall-arne-jacobsen-and-erik-moller-photo?next_project=no

The Aarhus City Hall, built in 1941 by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller, is another iconic example of Functionalism. It is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks with its blue-green marble façade and characteristic clock tower.

Modern, Post Modern and Contemporary Architecture in Aarhus

Since the second world war, Nordic architecture has been guided by a dialogue between modernity and tradition, driven by a mutual respect for their local environment and social traditions. From the 1960s, Aarhus has been a playing field for emerging architects and designers who have left their imprints with strikingly varying styles of architecture inspired by the icons of modernism from around the world. 

Denmark has the headquarters of many global architectural giants like BIG, C.F. Møller Architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, etc. They have contributed significantly to the modernist and contemporary skyline of Aarhus. The Musikhuset Aarhus by Kjær & Richter and The Moesgård Museum in Aarhus, by Henning Larsen Architects are a few examples of the modernist age.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet15
The strikingly modernist Moesgård Museum in Aarhus _© © https://henninglarsen.com/en/projects/featured/0716-moesgaard-museum/

With the turn of the 21st century, contemporary architecture in Denmark focussed on prioritizing the optimal usage of natural light, sustainable energy systems, and designing a comfortable living environment, albeit using striking forms and geometries, making them popular throughout the world. 

The irregular Isbjerget (iceberg), a unique Architectonic gemstone in the heart of the city, and the new public library, Dokk1, are a few of the most striking examples of Contemporary architecture in Denmark with their futuristic and intriguing designs.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet17
The iconic Isbjerget at Aarhus_© © Mikkel Frost_https://www.archdaily.com/483415/the-iceberg-cebra-jds-search-louis-paillard-architects/5317fe57c07a802c270000c9-the-iceberg-cebra-jds-search-louis-paillard-architects-photo?next_project=no
Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet18
Bibliothek Aarhus Dokk1, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen_© © Adam Mørk_https://www.archdaily.com/644920/dokk1-schmidt-hammer-lassen-architects/5586f9abe58ece09c200020b-dokk1-schmidt-hammer-lassen-architects-photo?next_project=no

Another such example is the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, which is the city’s main attraction and one of the largest museums in Scandinavia. One of the main attractions here is the iconic glass ring on the roof by Olafur Eliasson, offering a colourful panorama of the city.

Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet19
ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen with the iconic Rainbow panorama_© © Anders Trærup_ https://theculturetrip.com/europe/denmark/articles/why-you-should-visit-aarhus-museums-rainbow-pavilion-in-denmark/
Architecture of Cities: Aarhus- City of Smiles - Sheet20
The glass ring sculpture on the roof of the ARoS Museum by Olafur Eliasson _© © Anders Trærup_ https://theculturetrip.com/europe/denmark/articles/why-you-should-visit-aarhus-museums-rainbow-pavilion-in-denmark/

The list for such note-worthy examples throughout Aarhus is limitless, making it stand true to its popular name, “the city of Smiles,” and an architectural jewel on the periphery of Continental Europe. Aarhus is one of the top destinations for the architectural connoisseurs of the world with a blend of its Nordic old-world charm and striking modernist brutality and offers a niche for everyone, be it history buffs or tech geeks.


Sukriti is an architect passionate about creating an impact on her surroundings, always looking for new adventures. When not busy working, you will find her strolling around the streets of Chandigarh, or scrolling through travel journals making her ultimate travel bucket list. She loves studying about global cultures and how they keep getting challenged by the evolving society.