The reconstruction of the yellow brick arches in front of the Ambulatory on the main Aarhus University campus suddenly ground to a halt just before the Christmas holiday. Now the arches are being dismantled so that the reconstruction process can start over from scratch. Find out why here.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

A trenchant saying that has a special resonance in a university setting, where ideas and thoughts have a particularly high value.

And at Aarhus University, recent events have put a new twist on this old saying.

In any case, it’s not much of an exaggeration to claim that university historian Palle Lykke’s sharp pen has succeeded where even the the Royal Air Force failed:

Palle has toppled the yellow brick arches in front of the Ambulatory at Aarhus University’s Main Hall.

Did they hit the arches?

A short history lesson is in order: During WW II, the Gestapo established its local headquarters at the university residence halls, and on 31 October 1994, the RAF began a bombardment of the residence halls that reduced some of the yellow brick buildings to rubble.

The university’s principal architect C.F. Møller, who was present during the bombardment, was buried under the ruins and was only found and extricated after a long and dramatic search. Later, Møller stated that he had hoped that that the RAF had also levelled the arches; he was not entirely satisfied with the effect of their purely decorative forms against the backdrop of Bauhaus-inspired functionalism. In fact, rumour has it that they were primarily built to delay the construction process and make life more difficult for the German occupation.

Be that as is may, the arches were unharmed by the British bombardment. They were left standing, and have since become an iconic feature of the University Park campus, which was inducted into the Danish Culture Canon along with eleven other important architectural works.

Four bricks short

But almost seventy years after the bombardment, the arches were succumbing to a different enemy: time. The passing of time, in combination with the soft ground, had caused the arches to sink 21 cm, and so it was time to knock them down and rebuild the colonnade from the bottom up.

The reconstruction of the arches began last autumn, and was proceeding according to plan. But university historian Palle Lykke’s intuition warned him that something was wrong. And when he examined photographs of the original arches, he could see clearly that there just weren’t enough bricks in the new arches. There were only 41 to be precise, and there should be 45.

This particular brick is quite challenging to produce, and an error on the part of the brickworks meant that each brick was 0.50 cm too high. And as a consequence, the mason could only fit 41 of them into each arch.

An insignificant detail, many people might object. For most construction projects, the number of bricks isn’t an important parameter, as long as the dimensions of the building are correct and the construction is sound. But Aarhus University’s yellow brick campus is no ordinary construction project. The historical and architectural significance of these buildings means that the university has a special obligation to preserve and protect the details that constitute the whole.

The arches are reborn

And so Palle Lykke brought his discovery to the university’s attention. And construction came to a standstill that has lasted thorough the frosts of winter. As the principal consultant on the project, the architecture firm of C.F: Møller investigated the whole chain of events and has apologised for the mistakes that were made during different phases of the construction process. The firm has also guaranteed that additional costs will not be borne by the university.

After the Easter holiday, the defective arches will be removed, and new arches with the correct number of bricks will be constructed. And soon the space in front of the Ambulatory will resemble itself again, and a new chapter will be added to the history of Aarhus University’s iconic arches.

And for Aarhus University’s staff and students, the sight of the new arches will always remind them on the latest twist on the old saying: ‘The university historian is mightier than the RAF.’