the front of the school to Prinsessegade - the yellow box-girder structure is courts for sports over the main entrance and the glass roof structure is a greenhouse over the restaurant
the Town Hall of Kids' City from the far side of the canal
The first stages of Kids’ City - buildings along Princessegade in Christianshavn in Copenhagen - have opened although there is still construction work on part of the site and work on hard landscaping and planting is ongoing but already it is clear that the design of this new school will be innovative and inspiring.
When finished there will be up to 750 children here, ranging in age from babies in the pre-school area through to young adults of 17 or 18 in their last years of schooling so Kids’ City will be the largest ‘pre school and youth club’ in Denmark.
That presented COBE, the architects, with distinct challenges. On a relatively tight plot of around 11,000 square metres, the buildings have to be extensive but have to allow for as much space as possible outside for sport and play and other activities. As a single, unified block it could have been over bearing and daunting for small children but this school also has to provide an appropriate setting and the right facilities for such a broad range of age groups that it could never be a place where a one-class-room-fits-all approach was possible.
The solution has been to link together a number of simple blocks - most of two stories and some with gabled roofs and some set at angles - to create groups and small courtyards and to treat the site as a small city with different neighbourhoods and public spaces. The separate parts are even described as if they are the distinct and recognisable elements of a diverse but well-established community so rather than an assembly hall or school hall there is a Town Hall; rather than a dining hall or canteen there is a restaurant, and there will be a stadium and a library and a museum and even a fire station and a factory.
Play and fun are an incredibly important part of the whole scheme so there will be a beach along a canal where there will be canoes and places to have a bonfire "to roast marsh-mallows."
Conservatives will harrumph that this is liberalism gone berserk - school desks in rows and every class room the same never did them any harm - but surely rigid uniformity in the unrealistic and almost surreal form of standard and old-fashioned class rooms infantilises children. That sounds like tautology but actually formal classrooms separate out and segregate children from the realities of the world just outside the school fence and there is harm to be done by compartmentalising education so it is seen as an isolated stage and one that is somehow separate and very different to future life as an adult.
Kid's City has been designed to reflect the social and architectural diversity of the larger city around the school.
In a safe and sensible way it will introduce children to how the community around them actually works - or perhaps doesn't work - and it introduces children to good architecture by helping them to understand its importance in their wider urban environment, outside the school gate. Cities are made up of separate buildings that have their own functions and traditions and identity and buildings in the wider built environment have a vocabulary and a grammar so it helps if people know how to read and understand buildings and the settlements in which they exist.
As with other schools and the public libraries that I have seen in the city, there is here a consistent use of thought-through design with good furniture and fittings and good, carefully-considered, architecture that helps kids appreciate good design. That is appreciate in both senses … to understand and to like. They become architecturally literate, almost by osmosis, because good design is all around them, and they see it realistically - not as precious or special but just part of their everyday life - so the good and, I suppose, the bad thing is that they can but they should take good design for granted.
I have told this story on this site before but it is worth repeating here. A year or so ago I was talking to someone from Paustian design store and he confessed that when he first left Munkegårds School in Copenhagen and met people from other places, who had gone to other schools, he was taken aback - even slightly shocked - as he had always just assumed that everybody went to a school with furniture designed by Arne Jacobsen.
Munkegårds and Kids' City could hardly be more different in plan - after all they are separated by 60 years - but, in both schools, new buildings were commissioned that are the best designs available and see that as one part but an essential part of the education that is being provided.
The location of Kids' City is crucial to the character and form of the final scheme. Across the front of the plot is a relatively busy road - Prinsessegade - with large older apartment buildings opposite. These are typical of working-class housing in the city and are an important part of the history of Christanshavn - an area on the other side of the harbour to the historic and posh core of the city - the city of merchants and royalty and politicians - and the school is close to the historic buildings of the former docks and naval shipyards. Until the late 20th century the naval yards and docks were the main place for employment for the people who lived in this district.
Along the side of the school is Refshalevej - a quieter street that runs down away from Princessegade and then turns north as a lane along the old outer defences of the city where there is a series of bastions and redoubts built in the 17th century that originally looked across water towards what was then the distinct flat farmland and grassland for grazing on the island of Amager.
On the opposite side of the street from Kids' City is the north part of the world-famous free community of Christiania and again the new school reflects that because, presumably, some of the children inthe school will be drawn from there and they will have a strong sense of identity and, I guess, less empathy for unnecessary formality or restrictions.
There are brilliant features of the scheme that can only have been achieved through a close co-ordination between the architects and the educational team for the school so, for instance, the 'restaurant' takes the form of a large conservatory or green house and that is because that is exactly what it is. The children will grow food in a glass house immediately above the restaurant so they have a direct and hands-on understanding of where their food comes from. There will be a wall outside where kids can write the names of their first 'loves' although I had to smile because even the Danes end up by using sexist stereotypes … as it has been described as a wall where girls can write up the names of their first boyfriends. Don’t boys write up names?
Our Urban Living Room - the catalogue of the exhibition of the work of COBE that is on now at the Danish Architecture Centre - explains that the layout of the school site is, in part, inspired by the Tivoli Gardens because that is "a place where all kids want to go." But actually that source of inspiration could not be more appropriate … however much those conservatives might harrumph again.
Education succeeds when it engages and intrigues and inspires but then that is exactly what Tivoli was always meant to do. Since the middle of the 19th century, it has been a place where the citizens of Copenhagen have gone to relax and be entertained but it also has a world-class concert hall - I have been to the fairground to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play there - and the first building of the Danish Design Museum was on the corner of the Tivoli Garden - so ordinary people then could see art and design from Japan, recently added to the collection, or admire the craftsmanship of the best Danish furniture - and the trade hall - where the latest tractors or engines produced in Denmark could be admired by anyone or everyone - was across the north side of Tivoli and that is still the site of DI - the association of Danish industry. Absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of fun and awe and learning going hand in hand.
The plot for Kid's City is not square but a large triangle as the back boundary is formed by a canal cutting across. On the other side of that canal is an important open area of ground used for sports and a recently-completed sports hall - Hal C designed by Christensen & Co.
The canal is an important feature of this area for two rather different reasons. First, it is evidence for the topographical development of this part of the city over four centuries. A large area of open sea - between the old city and the island of Amager - was enclosed by the construction of the outer defences that provided sheltered and defended moorings for the fleet but then slowly the inner area, the water inside the defences, was back filled to provide new ground for more and more naval buildings and for housing and so on although large areas of moorings were left open and lengths of canal, like the section here, were left to be used for moving around goods and presumably the canals also formed good and secure barriers between different areas on separate islands. Surely it is important for kids to understand this as part of their local heritage.
Also interesting, but in terms of modern life in the city, is that, just as with good design, children in Copenhagen take for granted the water and swimming and being on the water in boats or canoes so schools do have a role to encourage this but do it safely. That's not by fencing off water or putting up warning signs but by making sure kids are confident and happy around and on the water.
The triangular area is divided into three parts where buildings and spaces vary in scale and are arranged in different ways that are appropriate for each of the main groups of kids in that wide range of ages taught here. Babies and younger children through to six-years old are in the group of buildings at the angle of the roads with a separate area of the school for children from 7 to 13 at the south-east or back angle of the site and an area for older kids from 14 to 18 to the left of the main gate with access to separate bike sheds, as they are more likely to come to school independently. This part of the school is next to the steps up to a large sports deck above the gateway.
As the children move up through the school there should be less stress about each change as the idea is that, with the single site, there will be a well-developed sense of familiarity and above all a strong sense of community in the school as a whole. Perhaps not so much a city as the scale and community of a village - safe rather than daunting - and with a very strong sense of locality.
Or is that comparison with a village too rural - too simple?
For Copenhagen I guess it really has to be a city within the city.
the part of the school for the older kids to the north of the gate
sliding metal shutters can be used to provide privacy or opened to give views right through the block
view out from within the school with the staircase up to the sports area over the gate and the 'town hall' just visible to the right. Many schools, as here, have miniature road layouts with signs and road markings where children are taught how to use public roads safely.
the central activity area with the red drum of the fire station ... landscape work to be completed
the restaurant set back from the pavement to create an area where parents can meet and talk while they wait to collect kids. Note the timber cladding of the building on the right is continued up to enclose and screen a roof area ... with a relatively tight plot open space on the ground, lost under a building, can be reclaimed on a flat roof above.
the mixture of flat and pitched roofs above what appear to be small, self-contained volumes gives visual interest but also establish a human scale that would be lost if the same overall accommodation was in a single block covered by a single roof
the simple blocks that are linked together to form the different parts of the school have different cladding and different colours ... here the vertical timber cladding and the treatment of the window is reminiscent of the design of Forfatterhuset - also by COBE - but here vertical strips of timber rather than ceramic
The model of the school that was shown as part of the exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre reveals some parts of the design of the buildings that is not easy to appreciate at ground level. Each of the three areas - the separate areas for the different age groups - has one key central part that is set at an angle to the other blocks in the group ... so for the part of the school for the youngest children that is the restaurant and the glass house above. This creates some interesting wedge-shaped spaces that, for instance on the south side of the restaurant is an internal corridor.
Looking down on the model you can see that what appear from street level in the real building to be relatively tall simple blocks are in fact a single-storey room with the outer walls continued up to form a high parapet around an open play or teaching area on the first floor. In some blocks where the facade is vertical timbers then these continue up as open fencing to the roof area so the upper space is more obvious.
From above it is also clear that what appear to be two separate adjoining blocks with different wall treatment to the outside are actually a single rectangular space internally with no structural cross wall between the two parts ... so not strictly 'honest' with detail expressing form ... but perfectly understandable in trying to simplify an extremely complicated arrangement inside with what has to be a rational overall scheme for the exterior. Roof drainage must have been a design challenge.
The large block with a black roof, set at an angle at the centre, is the City Hall. It is interesting to see this has a glazed or visually open ground floor. We tend to associate town halls or city halls now with administration and lots of offices but many were traditionally simple meeting halls ... hence the generic name ... and in some, like the old City Hall in Copenhagen, in Gammeltorv, the hall was set above an open arcade that was used for events and markets.
the buildings for the middle age group where building work has just started
the part of the school for older kids has the raised courts for sport (bottom left) and the City Hall to the right
If there is a criticism, or perhaps better simply a concern, it is that the realities of the economy means that possibly the construction work is not as robust as in new school buildings of ten or twenty years ago so there is a short-term feel to some of the facing material and the buildings are not so much solid construction as wood frames plus the most recent in the development of insulation.