Drain-spotting: for manhole cover junkies who like their art underfoot

Why settle for talked-about craftsmanship when it can be walked above? From ‘Elephant’ to ‘Five Birds’, we’ve got you covered!

A manhole cover featuring a leafy tree and five birds is a regular on the pavements and streets of Copenhagen. It was created by designer Anne Mette Dixen for the HOFOR utility company in 2013. Few people know that for Dixen, the cover has a special meaning, as the bird standing on the bottom edge of the cover is a representation of herself. Just above her fly three other birds: her son and two daughters. And way up in the tree is a little bird – a baby she lost years ago.

Withstanding our weight
Her company Dixen Design has created many prize-winning logos and designs for businesses and cities. Her ‘Five Birds’ cover comes in two styles. On many of the covers, the tree and the birds create the raised surface. But that style proved a little rough for bicycles to cross, so a negative copy was made with the birds and tree depressed into the surface. These are installed on bike paths and elsewhere. It’s just one more way Copenhagen promotes cycling.

The cast-iron manhole covers, mostly circular, protect water, electrical and sewer lines while allowing access for workers from HOFOR. Most of the covers show geometric designs. In the street one might see a ‘40’ in the centre of some covers. These are super-strong covers built to withstand the weight of a 40-tonne truck. The covers on the train platform at Nørreport have a much lower rating. They only have to carry the weight of some hefty travellers.

Never forgotten art
Near Hans Christian Andersen’s statue beside City Hall, two covers illustrate his story of ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’. They show Andersen in his top hat, the tin soldier, a twirling ballerina, a rat, and the fish that swallowed him. On some copies the one-legged tin soldier is missing – prised off by selfish souvenir hunters. A ‘Tin Soldier’ cover on Strøget, not far from City Hall, is encircled by an iron ring featuring eight mermaids. Andersen’s tale of the ‘Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep’ graces 14 little drain covers at the bottom of the downspouts along the street-side wall of Rosenborg Castle. And favourite Andersen hangout Tivoli, which inspired him to write ‘The Nightingale’ after he attended its 1843 grand opening, has two charming covers of its own.

Line drawings of 20 elephants march around on another set of manhole covers. They’re not out by the Carlsberg brewery where one might expect them, but in front of Hotel d’Angleterre on Kongens Nytorv and beside Holmens Kirke, near the canal where the tour boats pass. Both the Tin Soldier cover and the elephant cover were created by Peter Hentze (1943-2017), an accomplished Danish sculptor, painter and graphic artist. When Hentze died last year, his funeral was conducted in the chapel of the Holmens church graveyard. It is fitting that a copy of his elephant cover rests beside that church.

Base motifs
Fear not as Hentze has some worthy successors. In 2007 Copenhagen’s sewer system was celebrating 150 years of making the city’s water cleaner and cleaner to the extent the harbour is so clean people can swim in it. A contest was announced challenging children to design a manhole cover.

The winning 11-year old schoolgirl, Fiona, drew a simple version of the three towers from the city’s coat-of-arms and sketched some waves below, adding flowers, fish and raindrops. Fiona is a university student now, and one can still see her manhole covers near the Round Tower and in front of the Design Museum.

A coat of arms is also the inspiration for a splendid cover near the zoo. The three depicted hawks come from the coat of arms of the city’s Frederiksberg section.

Cover versions
Copenhagen’s Metro system put a big ‘M’ in the middle of their iron covers, but they fastened photographic prints of other manhole covers on the floors of some stations. The one on the platform at the Kongens Nytorv station is a picture of Anne’s ‘Five Birds’ cover. Most travellers will never notice that the cover is fake. Looking closely, one can see the cracks between the paving stones running right through the cover.

All over the world people are creating artistic manhole covers and creating art from the covers. Sometimes they are inked then used to block-print t-shirts or tote bags. Sometimes rubbings are made of them. Any number of YouTube videos respond to a search for ‘manhole cover art’.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jason Lempieri, who studied art in Copenhagen and elsewhere, uses his RethinkTank website to sell an array of cork coasters with images of covers from all over the world. His Copenhagen set of four features the Tivoli, Elephant, Metro and Five Birds covers.

Many of the covers around Copenhagen are made by iron foundries in Norway – either Furnes or Ulefos. Others come from Germany or China.

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