The symbols adorning the Elephant Gate in Copenhagen held no historical significance when they were being carved in the late 1800s.
Question: Where in the world do elephants–intended to bring good luck—stir up memories of World War II?
Answer: Carlsberg Byen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Through parts of three centuries, the Carlsberg Brewery was like a little city unto itself within Copenhagen. And to enter its gates meant to pass by a quartet of cheerful elephants wishing you well. But World War II changed how some visitors felt when they saw the pachyderms; that’s because the elephants were emblazoned with swastikas—hardly an inviting symbol by that point.
However, the decorated elephants predated not only World War II, but the Nazi party itself, and even World War I. The gate was built from 1882 to 1901 as part of the Carlsberg Brewhouse, a rival to an older brewery in the same family. The new company’s founder, Carl Jacobsen, chose elephants to mimic a famous statue on the Piazza della Minerva in Rome. He was so taken with his elephant theme that he sponsored live elephants at the zoo and even, for a time, housed a few at the brewery.
He chose the swastikas for their original meaning, which came from the Sanskrit word for “auspicious.” For centuries, swastikas had been symbols of positivity and good fortune in India, and Jacobsen deemed it a fitting way to greet visitors. Soon, the logo was on everything Carlsberg made. Understandably, in light of the tragedies of World War II, the brewery banned all uses of the swastika from 1940 on, but it was decided to not to erase them from the elephants which had been created with pure intent in a more hopeful time.
The brewery moved in 2008 and the original 75-acre complex was immediately re-purposed by Copenhagen as Carlsberg Byen (Carlsberg City). While the brewery has evolved in ways Jacobsen could never have pictured (see below), the elephants remain, bearing upon their backs the weight of not just a building, but of history.
10 Things to Know About Carlsberg City
- The plan to transform the brewery complex into an urban community won the 2009 World Architectural Festival prize.
- By expanding from current buildings upwards and better using open space, designers have created 6.4 million square feet of usable space for houses, shops, artist studios, schools, and cultural institutions.
- The brewery’s mineral water plant is now a contemporary dance hall.
- The malt building will re-open as a 30,000-square-foot spa.
- The bottling plant is now affordable studio space for contemporary artists.
- A green space founded by Jacobsen has been transformed into the Climbing Forest, a tree-level ropes course with routes for children and adults.
- The Denmark National Homeless Football Team (which competes in a worldwide league of homeless players) is housed in Carlsberg City.
- A warehouse that once housed cooling tanks is slated to become the first Luxury Hotel of the mini-city, which is fitting because the building is studded with gold leaf discs.
- The first new occupant of Carlsberg Byen was the 10,000-student University College of Copenhagen, whose facilities include a glass-walled rooftop basketball court.
- Among the few brewery features left untouched, the only one as memorable as the Elephant Gate is the Twisted Chimney, rising 150 feet, outlined in gargoyles, and topped with a lotus flower.
Discover the intersection of past and present in forward-thinking Copenhagen on our Grand Baltic Sea Voyage Small Ship Adventure.