It’s a little bit frightening

But Copenhagen’s South Harbour School is thrilling too, with plenty of places for little ones to explore or retreat to, and young adults to flex their social muscles

A huge staircase down to the water’s edge punctuates the south elevation.
A huge staircase down to the water’s edge punctuates the south elevation. · Credit: Torben Eskerod

There’s a cruel irony to the fact that a waterside school, commissioned to make the most of its enviable position as part of a new city quarter in Copenhagen, should have fallen victim to a devastating arson attack just before it was completed in 2012. But the fire serves to cement the story of South Harbour School, which opened for its first cohort of pupils last August, as very much one of a phoenix rising confidently not only from the ashes, but from the waters around it.

Jutting into the harbour nearby is Future Systems’ curvaceous 11-storey Metropolis apartment building, completed in 2005, which was the figurehead of this area’s regeneration, and the more recent award-winning Sluseholmen canalside housing. The school itself was the subject of a 2006 competition by the City of Copenhagen, to provide a facility that could have a dual civic purpose for the fledgling and still isolated residential quarter. Local practice JJW Architects won the commission with a scheme that took full advantage of the harbourside location and was planned to ensure potential for a wider range of community uses in the future.

In a manner typical of Denmark’s education system, the 650-pupil, 9500m2 school provides one education facility for children from 6-16 years before they move to high school to complete their studies. JJW partner Lars Lindeberg says this ‘merged’ educational approach came about as much through the state wishing to promote notions of social cohesion from an early age as it has been about economies of scale for this small country.

  • What seems a cacophony of diagonals from afar makes clear sense once you’re there.
    What seems a cacophony of diagonals from afar makes clear sense once you’re there. · Credit: Torben Eskerod
  • The playground steps all the way up to the roof, giving dedicated space to each year.
    The playground steps all the way up to the roof, giving dedicated space to each year. · Credit: Torben Eskerod

Where the school diverges from the norm – and it’s a big diversion – is born of its particular maritime location. The whole formal shape of South Harbour School is developed from the idea that it should address itself and its pupils to the water to make it a fundamental part of their growth and experience. Here, children will learn to swim by diving straight off the foot of the school’s grand staircase into the harbour and they’ll learn to canoe using the kayaks from its boathouse; they will dry themselves off on its south-facing terraces and grassed areas, participating in an aquatic urban idyll that few UK schools, let alone a state one, could dare to dream about.

JJW’s clear formal strategy is consistent throughout. It set itself two distinct tasks. The first was to create a space that could double at ground and first floor level as a form of extended urban realm running from the ‘city’ side of the building, through the double-height entrance area to the harbour side. The second was to generate learning spaces on the upper three ‘school’ levels that are specifically tailored to the social and educational needs of the primary, junior and middle school pupils.

Those changes are registered in plan at every level, with the school ascending in height with the seniority of the pupils. It is a concrete and steel ‘Y’ shape in plan, stepping down from five floors on the city side to the water’s edge. In various ways, the whole building engenders ideas of growth, learning, challenge and overcoming. For example, the primary school entrance on the second floor can be reached internally from the exposed staircase in the vertiginous 18m atrium on the city side, but the kids prefer to drag their parents around the back to scale the hill of wide exterior timber stairs. It is not for nothing that externally, the building is shaped like a mountain.

  • At upper levels another amphitheatre connects junior and middle schools as a contemporary agora.
    At upper levels another amphitheatre connects junior and middle schools as a contemporary agora. · Credit: Torben Eskerod
  • An 18m high atriium introduces a dramatic sense of scale to even the youngest pupils.
    An 18m high atriium introduces a dramatic sense of scale to even the youngest pupils. · Credit: Torben Eskerod

The school has both programmatic and sectional complexity, to serve the needs of inquisitive and growing minds. Lindeberg feels changes in scale allow children a breadth of spatial experience, some of it intimidating perhaps, but there are also spaces to which they can retire before exploring again. This accounts for that 18m high atrium, and the 7m, double-height space that overlooks the amphitheatre and refectory at ground floor and again connecting the second floor juniors and third floor middle school.

These grand, open spaces are counterpointed throughout by more private niches, some overlooking the echo-filled atrium allowing protected views, others tucked behind the banks of loos, acoustic panels deadening sound almost to a whisper. Internal rough timber slats, cartoon characters partially hidden behind perforate aluminium ceiling panels and lines from Hans Christian Andersen glimpsed beyond the recycled aluminium vertical profile rainscreen cladding, add to the visual and auditory stimuli that the architect intends as part of a bigger experiential journey of discovery over time.

Communal spaces at ground and first floor level are dictated by the harbourside location. Under the grand stair that cascades down to the water lie the kayak store, changing rooms and wetsuit area, even a workshop for boat maintenance. Internally, 7m high and unified by a floor of robust parquet, is the school’s stepped amphitheatre, a large refectory that can be used for community events, and a state of the art science room set behind a huge lobby aquarium. All are accessed from the city-side atrium, the whole floor direct and instant evidence of the architect’s desire for sectional complexity.

On the teaching floors, the psychology of the children was considered from the outset, and the treatment changes to account for their social development as they grow. At primary level entrance spaces are generous, allowing for the bustle of parents arriving with their kids, and the taking off of coats and shoes, and lead to two large kitchen ‘hubs’. Lindeberg says the children will spend more of their waking time here than at home and that their social circles are smaller.

The wide routeway down the south facade, connecting all the years’ play areas with the harbour, is a bold and generous circulatory gesture
The wide routeway down the south facade, connecting all the years’ play areas with the harbour, is a bold and generous circulatory gesture · Credit: Torben Eskerod

Each kitchen and its table act as a domestic setting from which to start their forays into their development as social beings, and can be homed back to if they feel the need. Beyond each is a generous soft space for more interactive play. At junior level on the floor above, the kitchen zone is replaced by timber ’houses’ sitting in a free space within which children can huddle and learn with a teacher, or study at tables within its external niches.

The middle school floor above is almost completely open, housing banks of networked tables for hot-desk study, with individual classrooms on the east side of the building. Connecting the middle and junior schools is yet another amphitheatre space which kids of both years seem to claim as their own. It’s at the middle school level that the green vinyl floor and openness of the space begin to grate. I don’t see sufficient distinction between the spaces for juniors and those of younger seniors; the lurid colours take on a childish air and there is not enough spatial intimacy to acknowledge that these are young adults who might be reducing their social circles. With this group becoming more territorial, I could imagine the connective agora of this amphitheatre more as a site for intimidating intrepid juniors than friendly interaction.

But it is from this upper vantage point that the true nature of the school’s playground becomes apparent. Twenty percent of its total area takes the form of a stepped timber routeway that starts at the middle school’s rooftop AstroTurf, with suspended seating frames and basketball court. From here it meanders down the south face of the building, accessible to every year as it descends to the second floor primary school entrance, where it takes a deluge-like tumble to the harbour’s edge. Lindeberg says the firm had to fight tooth and nail for this final flourish; its width, steepness and material homogeneity going against almost every code in the book. On the dry sunny day that I visited, I cast my mind back to being a child again, faced with this hazard-laden descent on a cold, snowy winter’s day. Even as a grown-up, the prospect was thrilling.


 

Credits

Architect JJW Architects
Client City of Copenhagen
Engineer NIRAS
Landscape JJW Landscape/PK3 Landskab
Sports consultant Keinicke & Overgaard Arkitekter
Main contractors B Nygaard Sorensen/GVL Entreprise/Lindpro/Jakon
Construction manage
r Friis Andersen Arkitekts
Artist Peter Holst Henckel