Cultural Analysis of Århus Stadium anno 1920


In the summer 2003, I participated in the 43rd youth session of the International Olympic Academy. Here I came to know about Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s philosophy of life: Olympism. During the stay there, we visited the ancient Olympic stadium in Olympia. This was where I became interested in the parallels between Coubertin’s ideals for modern Olympia and the praxis of today. After a field-trip to Atletion in connection with the subject “Cultural Analysis”, where Niels Kayser Nielsen, senior lecturer at Aarhus University, Department of History, told about the creation of Aarhus Sports Centre, I had the idea for this thesis. Now I had the opportunity to draw parallels between Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s ideal guidelines for the modern Olympia and the praxis of Aarhus Sports Centre.

Presenting the problem

How does the praxis of Aarhus Sports Centre correspond to the ideal guidelines presented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin for modern Olympia within the dichotomies: ideal/praxis, aesthetics/function and nature/culture?


When I started out on this thesis, I thoroughly considered whether my sources about and by Pierre de Coubertin were primary or secondary. Hence in October 2003, I chose to go to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, at which the belonging library contains all the released works by Coubertin. After having been through their stock, I found out that the book I had borrowed in Denmark was the best material in English to be found. His original manuscripts are in French. The most important texts are translated to English in the book “Olympism – selected writings”.

To find primary sources about the preparations and the building of Aarhus Sports Centre, I went to the Business Archive in Aarhus. Here I read notes by the city council from 1916-1918, I read Aarhus Stiftstidende (the local newspaper) from 1918, and looked in the archive of the city head gardener and architects’ descriptions of Aarhus Sports Centre in their periodical “Arkitekten”.

I have chosen Aarhus Sports Centre as my case since Aarhus Sports Centre was constructed as a modern stadium in 1918-1920. Aarhus Sports Centre was never used for the Olympics. Neither were the buildings built in order to have the Olympics in Aarhus or Denmark.
Still I have chosen Aarhus Sports Centre, since the architect Axel Høgh-Hansen have clearly been influenced by the Olympic guidelines concerning at the same time the aesthetics and functionality of a stadium.

Before the actual analysis, I will give short presentations of the ideal “Olympia” and praxis at “Aarhus Sports Centre”. I have chosen this in order to give the reader an opportunity to follow the following analysis. In order to clarify my analysis, I have chosen to divide it between the following dichotomies: ideal/praxis, aesthetics/function and nature/culture. In the aesthetics/function dichotomy, I have written a paragraph about territories and division of spaces in a modern stadium. This is inspired by John Bale’s article about the spatially divided modern stadium. Furthermore, I have chosen to use Michel Foucault’s works about the generalized prison as well as his works concerning discipline and regulation.

Guidelines for “a modern Olympia”

In 1909, Baron Pierre de Coubertin described the guidelines for future constructions of Olympia. This included everything from selection of a host city to how the arenas should be positioned in relation to each other and to the rest of the Olympic city. Furthermore, Coubertin did much to describe how the architecture of the buildings should correspond to the beauty/aesthetics of the surrounding nature at the same time as Olympia being multifunctional, both sportswise and recreationally. Olympia should have a “religious atmosphere” to give the individual an opportunity to make a pilgrimage. The wish of Coubertin was for Olympism to be close to a religion.

“We have used the term “religious” in another way. Olympia did not deserve that adjective solely because it had temples, altars, and priests. The city drew its holiness from the feeling of patriotic piety that imbued the place, that saturated its atmosphere and enveloped its monuments. Any Olympia worthy of the name and of its goals must give the same impression. A sort of seriousness, not necessarily austere, but one that allows for joy, must surround it so that, in the silence between competitions, it draws visitors as a place of pilgrimage…” [Coubertin, 1996, written in October 1909]

By using sculptures, paintings and other decorating arts, the architects should create these opportunities. In his descriptions, Coubertin made it very clear that any landscape will inspire to different architectural plans. This he saw as very positive since it took part in creating an interaction between nature and man, which he found essential. The general principles regardless of where Olympia should be built were:

  1. Olympia should be a melting-pot of beauty and many possible applications. Coubertin had the idea from ancient Egypt and India
  2. “Great space” Modern Olympia could not suffer from lack of space, which was the case with the ancient classical Olympic stadium. On the other hand, it could not be the opposite either, giving room to too many people. It had to keep its dense atmosphere
  3. It could not be situated next to a casino or the like
  4. The organizers should be careful with using gardening arts. It should be in between “the English Garden” and “the French Renaissance Garden” There could not be too many straight walks, which reminded Coubertin of a churchyard or a hospital. He added that this could probably not be avoided completely, since
  5. Olympia should be easily accessible
  6. Looking at Olympia should mark the double nature-athletic and artisan
  7. The organization of the city should attempt at a clear fitting in with the surrounding landscape and use this
  8. The sports ground and “Court of Honour” should be situated in the middle of the city, while hotels and restaurants should be on the edge
  9. The area should also include space for horse racing, cycling and rowing.

Aarhus Sports Centre – The creation

To build Aarhus Sports Centre was decided at a city council meeting 28 February 1916. At this meeting the city council consented that the “Executive committee for Aarhus Sports Centre and Stadium” represented by the Director of Aarhus United and Chairman of AGF, Frederik Lausen, could use the areas of Aarhus Municipality at “Friheden” for building a modern stadium. The discussions along the way concerning previous council meetings about the establishment of a modern stadium were

  • whether it was financially responsible for the city
  • whether it would influence nature too much, if SIKA was given the 30 ha by “Friheden” that they applied for
  • and whether all sports clubs were united in this project in order to avoid a later demand for another stadium.

The solution was that the city gave the included sports clubs and clubs of the executive committee the right of use for Aarhus Sports Centre for 60 years. The municipality still owned the land and should only after 5 years be in charge of the operation and associated costs.
Before the project was accepted, Frederik Lausen had arranged a study trip for those of the city council which he thought were enthusiastic about the case. They went to the modern stadiums in Stockholm, Malmö and Copenhagen. After the study trip, Frederik Lausen achieved the support and goodwill from the city council that he wished for. The city council wanted to point out a place which gave the opportunity to do all kinds of sports. Hence in the long run, the city council could include other spaces in the city, which were laid out as practicing areas, for housing. The city was in constant growth and the lack of housing in the city increased. Consequently it was suitable if the sports could use a space outside the city. Preferably near the boundary to Viby. But the architect of the stadium did not agree with this:

“The best suited space for the stadium was immediately given as south of the city. Therefore I suggested, after dealing with Director Lausen, a space on the fringe of Marselisborg Forest with Observatoriemarken as a background. I do believe that anyone seeing the stadium will admit that it is even very beautifully situated, and maybe there is not even a stadium more beautifully situated than Aarhus Stadium surrounded by forest and hills.” [A. Høgh-Hansen, 1920, p.141]

It was not only of aesthetical reasons that Høgh-Hansen pointed out “Friheden”, as that part of Marselisborg Forest was called, to be the perfect spot. It was also due to “the space not being suitable for housing” [Coubertin, 1996 p.145]. That the ground could not be used for housing, to Høgh-Hansen meant that the area would not in the near future be taken away from the sports people. Furthermore, there was adequate space for exercising fields, display fields, cycling ring and racing track.

Plan of the stadium buildings, Aarhus Sports Centre 1920

The horizontal plan was issued in Høgh-Hansen’s article in “Architekten” (The architect), 1920

Analysis – Ideal/praxis

The positioning of Aarhus Sports Centre on the outskirts of Aarhus in Marselisborg Forest as well as the fact that Høgh-Hansen took into consideration the surrounding nature, is fully in correspondance with the guidelines of Coubertin. Høgh-Hansen aimed at making the stadium building in harmony with the forest. Therefore he also planned the course of Stadion Allé (Stadium Avenue), which is a straight line from the bell-tower of St. Lukas Church representing the city and all the way to Aarhus Sports Centre, which is at the end of the avenue, to express recreation and the opportunity for peace and quiet [Høgh-Hansen, 1920]. Høgh-Hansen had tried to create some optimum frameworks for sports that were thought of as being multi-functional, although one of the covered courts was reserved for tennis. In the intermediate building were found common-rooms, fencing hall, royal hall etc. This meant that there could be several sports activities at the same time. The centre of Høgh-Hansen’s project was the courtyard . “The big white pillars and the small water basin have given an atmosphere of sublime peace, which is ideally expected from a front yard of the “holy temple” of sports.” [Jette Vagtholm, 1980]. One of the subjects that were very important to Coubertin was that the stadium area should enhance the opportunity for memorizing and creating new hope for the future. In front of the façade, Høgh-Hansen placed some statues. He hoped that it would become an open-air museum to honour the sports personalities and ideals of previous times. Some of the statues were Danish sports personalities of previous times, while others showed the ideal Greek sports-people of ancient Greece. All together, the outer frames of the Sports Centre fit into Coubertin’s guidelines.

Analysis – Aesthetics/function

The arrangement of the Stadium on the other hand, was a compromise between aesthetics and function. Høgh-Hansen had made sure that the light in the covered courts would not disturb the activities. The lights were placed at the sides of the ceiling, and some of the roof was transparent to give light from above. The main entrance was the previously mentioned peristyle between two courts.

Even though the floor of the court on the right-hand side of the peristyle had some hidden bushings for a boxing ring, the courts were not multi-functional. The court to the left of the peristyle was mainly reserved for tennis. At special occasions it was used for gymnastic displays. Both courts had stands along the sides, and under these were the changing rooms with showers and toilets for the different clubs. The peristyle gave access to both courts as well as the intermediate building, which contained fencing hall and another common-room.

The outside areas were more multi-functional, they could hold several activities. The best example is that underneath the display field was a drain, which was open during the summer and closed during the winter. This meant that it was possible to play football and handball on the field during the summer, and the athletes could train on the running tracks around the display field. During the winter the drains were closed, and therefore the area was covered in water. The water froze and hence served as a skating rink during the wintertime. This was an approximation to the Olympic guidelines since the forces of the surroundings were utilized.


When looking at the horizontal plan of the Sports Centre area, it is definitely correct to talk about a division into territories. This division takes place at several levels.
First and foremost, the Sports Centre was a “sports territory”. The area was and is limited by roads and forestation. Here you were allowed to do sports – to be recreational. [Bale, 1993] This territory was a parallel to the daily lives of the citizens of Aarhus, of which many worked in “limited spaces” [Bale, 1993].
The dividing framework between audience and athlete, or put more neutral, the division that characterised the modern stadium was very clear in Aarhus Sports Centre. In both covered courts as well as at the display field there was not only a line to separate the athletes from the audience. With his arrangement of the stands, which had their own entrance from the peristyle, Høgh-Hansen had made yet another partition. By the display field, Høgh-Hansen had chosen to build covered stands at the finishing line, which were facing north and hence towards the southerly side of the stadium building. The parts of the stands, which were not parallel with the finishing line, were not covered. These explicit divisions could be seen as sort of a social control, which could, according to Foucault, participate in giving discipline. The divisions helped to control the users.
By dividing into sports territories as well as audience/athlete territories, the area was controlled through a kind of power. A manifestation of power (bio-power) which could be divided in two:

  1. Physical disciplining of the athletes
  2. Surveillance to regulate the people

This bio-power is amongst Foucault’s power analysis, which he uses for identifying power rituals as well as the position of this power within the social sphere [Andersen and Kaspersen, 2001].
One of the other levels of the division was that the different clubs had their own changing rooms. In this way, the individual club had a territory in the common sports surroundings. These territories also ruled in the covered courts, since these could only be used for specific sports. Only tennis could be played on the tennis court. The tennis court was a part of the demarcation of another social boundary, since it was only the bourgeoisie and nobility who played tennis at that time.

The peristyle functioned as a common gathering place for the audience to go into different courts. This was due to the peristyle being the only place with access to all courts via four large staircases, which led to the stand “booths”. I call them “booths” because the stands were divided into sections and had seat numbers. Only in very few places, did the audience have direct access to the court from the “booths”. According to Bale, this social geography was part of mirroring the social divisions of the city. The division or isolation, as Bale called it, he saw as being against the conduct of man.


Nevertheless, Aarhus Sports Centre was thought of as a cultural space for the citizens, regardless of rank. It was thought of as a place where the young men of the city could do something reasonable in their spare-time. The recreational sports area took part in bridging the Marselisborg Forest and the citizens of Aarhus. Since from the stands by the display field, it was possible to enjoy both the Marselisborg Forest and experience different sports at the same time, Aarhus Sports Centre made up the framework of a meeting between culture and nature.

In England, the industrial development and the entry of capitalism meant that sports in general were referred to specific spaces, normally outside the city.
The positioning of a sports centre and stadium for sports displays on the outskirts of Aarhus, was a Danish example of this development (pictures on p.6).
The big culture/nature clash created by the modern stadium was that the audience and the athletes were divided. The audiences’ opportunities to make a difference were limited because they had been powerfully divided from what was taking place. [Bale, 1993]

If the ideas of Coubertin are compared to the dichotomy culture/nature it will be clear that Coubertin very much tries to connect these two by taking both views of his guidelines into consideration. By creating an Olympia, which uses the beauty of the surrounding nature as a point of departure, he did not let the architect create freely a cultural forum where man’s utmost natural and aesthetic bodies could unfold at the expense of the beauty of the surrounding nature. A clear dividing line between nature and culture became clear in his indication of the division of the social life (restaurants, casinos, hotels etc.) and the “Court of Honour”.

To a very large extent, Aarhus Sports Centre fitted the description of Olympia made by Coubertin. Aarhus Sports Centre was situated in a forest with no other buildings near by. Høgh-Hansen’s design of the stadium buildings and the square in front is between the styles of the French Renaissance Garden and the English Garden, just as Coubertin prescribed it. The French Renaissance Garden is expressed by the course of Stadion Allé as well as by Høgh-Hansen’s beginning of an open-air museum. In the plans of the course of Stadion Allé, a roundabout with an obelisk has been sketched to function as a point de vue. This was not realized though. [Spure Nielsen, 2003]

In perspective

In continuation of this thesis, it could be interesting to study how the rebuilding and extension of Aarhus Sports Centre are in harmony with the guidelines of Coubertin, and in connection with this to study the relevancy of Coubertin’s guidelines and ideas almost a hundred years after they were written. Are they of importance and consequence for the athletes and audiences in 2005?

Aarhus, 13 May 2005

Marianne Stolberg Mølgaard


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