On a wind-swept day in May 2015 a man, with a light swaying way of walking and an incipient trucker moustache, handed in his ticket to the Round Tower and headed toward the viewing platform. He then forced his way through the security fence, which has supplemented Caspar Fincke’s old wrought iron grille since 1890, took a sip of a canned beer that he had brought along, opened his fly – and urinated out over Copenhagen through the grille’s symmetrical embellishments.
The performance artist Uwe Max Jensen (for it was him) was not just ordinarily in need of peeing, but as stated in an explanatory interview, he wanted to use the Round Tower as a “socle for water art”. In this he also made it clear that the urination was a happening. “It is not my intention to piss on anybody”, he said.
In fact, the majority of the artist’s drops landed on the paving of the street Landemærket below. And even though the innocent passers-by had been in some danger, at least the spiral ramp did not sustain any damage this time. It has otherwise been subject to a bit of everything in terms of urination.
Uncleanliness in the Spiral Ramp
At first one might not think that it has been a big problem. There is an old joke about how the inhabitants of Aarhus always live in round houses because then the dogs can’t pee in the corners, and a spiral ramp inherently has no corners. However, there are several niches and apparently they have been used to such a degree that the Round Tower in 1800 was called “The oddest water house throughout Copenhagen“.
It was termed like this in the new weekly magazine The Police Friend (Politivennen), which, in an indignant tone, called attention to all sorts of violations of public order. For example, it was possible to read a “Prayer to a Certain Dog’s Owner in Store Kannikestræde”, “About the Dangers of Flowerpots in Windows” and “Even More about Holes in the Streets”. It sounds like pure pettiness, but in the age of absolute monarchy and censorship, it was actually quite groundbreaking also to lead a public debate about the more principled issues.
The series of contributions about the uncleanliness in the spiral ramp, which are published around the year 1800, are not just a result of a delicate nose. People are ashamed that visitors from home and abroad have to experience one of Copenhagen’s leading attractions in that condition. And they fear that the round water tower will bring disgrace to the city. As it says in The Police Friend in 1799: “Travellers and people from out of town, who gladly go up there because of the open view of the city, must undoubtedly get the most unprepossessing thoughts about Copenhageners’ cleanliness at the sight of suchlike filthiness.” Or in 1805: “Strangers have the greatest reason to believe that they are not entering the Danish Observatory, but instead Copenhagen’s public toilet.”
Where People Gather
Apparently, the big problem was that people simply could not keep from passing water. “One of the inconveniences a big city brings is that people, especially those whose business dealings continually requires them to move from one part of the city to another, are overwhelmed by the urge to empty their natural water depots”, it said in The Police Friend in 1798. And in 1807 the discomfort is further specified in doctor Henrich Callisen’s two volume medical topography of Copenhagen called Physisk Medizinske Betragtninger over Kiøbenhavn, which is written as an attempt to improve the city’s general state of health:
“In Copenhagen it is common that pedestrians, especially the male-gendered, pass water in the streets close by houses, walls and gates. Where many people are often gathered, as in the Royal Playhouse, the passer-by will even from afar meet the fleeting emanations of the urine, which is left on this and places alike.”
A Restored Toilet
If one had the patience to go a little further to the top of the spiral ramp, there were actually proper toilet facilities to be found in the Round Tower. Just outside the Library Hall and by the astronomers’ study on top, there were privies right from the tower’s inauguration. Privies “from where faeces fall down through a cavity in the tower and into a cesspit at the bottom of the tower”, as it was stated in a report from 1865.
The report also mentions rather incredulously that the privy had “Reportedly” not been cleaned for the past 50-60 years, probably meaning that the cesspit had not been emptied. When it happened again in 1921, nine loads of decomposed dung were removed. The year after, the first water closets were installed in the Round Tower.
In 2006 the privy by the Library Hall, which had been used for storage for years, was restored and opened to the public. However, only for viewing. If one needs to pass water, we recommend using one of the Round Tower’s excellent toilets. Besides, it is also much easier than trying to mimic Uwe Max Jensen.