Interiors

Designing with an Eye to the Future

An inside look at two schools in Copenhagen that feature transparency and flexibility.

Extensive use of daylighting, overall energy efficiency, transparency, flexibility and high-end performing arts facilities, to name a few, are all present in the interior spaces of many public and private school buildings in the United States. These are among the features that signal meritorious responses to changing educational times.

That being said, it is useful to consider educational interiors elsewhere, such as in Scandinavia, which has long been noted for its design acumen.

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

A telling example is the Copenhagen International School (CIS) in Copenhagen, Denmark which opened in 2017. Designed by C.F. Møller, the school has won several architectural design awards in Europe. Its 1,000 students are the children of international executives and diplomats stationed in the Danish capital, in addition to youngsters with scholarships.

As the architectural firm puts it, “the main school building is subdivided into four ‘towers’, ranging from five to seven stories, each specially adapted to meet the needs of children at different stages of development.” For example, the youngest pupils’ classrooms are large to hold and enable many activities, C.F. Møller explained. Furthermore, those youngsters’ classrooms open directly onto a rooftop playground.

The four towers, which form the “subdivision of the school [which] facilitates community, identity and easy wayfinding,” sit atop a ground-floor base that holds common areas.

A School Like a Town

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

“It’s modeled in a way [like] your typical town,” Thomas Nielsen, the school’s director of Communications and Advancement, said of the design of the building. For example, the main entrance, through a vestibule, leads to an ample foyer overlooking the school’s large central communal space. Like a town square, the expansive space is a hub for social interaction. A level below the foyer, it features the cafeteria dining room, which is also overlooked by the library and a grand learning staircase. The ample exterior glass at the base whimsically conjures the notion of the “town” being lifted up a floor, with sunlight pouring in underneath.

The design of the central interior space was the result of tradeoffs, made after some debate, Nielsen indicated. For example, the open library overlooking the dining area was placed front and center as opposed to being cloistered away deep within the school. Library programs are coordinated to avoid noisy lunch periods. Planners considered glassing in the entire space (study rooms are glassed in) to cut noise, but chose instead to leave the library open and accessible and an integral part of the center space and the life of the school.

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

Gym Daze. The hub is at the core of the school’s first two floors, which hold common facilities such as three gymnasiums, a fitness center, a dance studio and a performing arts facility.

The hub is at the core of the school’s first two floors, which hold common facilities such as three gymnasiums, a fitness center, a dance studio and a performing arts facility, featuring a 300-seat theatre. The theatre, with professional grade lighting and sound systems, is not only used for school productions — the school’s International Baccalaureate curriculum is strong in theatre arts — but also, occasionally, by production companies, which in turn offer master classes to students, Nielsen explained. The theatre also has other functions: At first glance, its seats seem immovable, but are in fact accordion, opening up space for exam sessions; a second use that is apropos given the theatre’s soundproofing.

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

On Deck. The main school building is subdivided into four towers, ranging from five to seven stories, each specifically adapted to meet the needs of children at different stages of development.

The school has a rooftop garden and event space with student-designed furnishings — some are constructed from repurposed wooden pallets. There is also a greenhouse tended by middle schoolers; sections of green roof; adjustable LED lighting with bright, sunlight-like settings that acknowledge Scandinavia’s long, dark winters; interactive smart boards instead of projectors; and locker banks that are small and mobile with wheels.

A Public School Example

Another illustrative example is taking shape elsewhere in the Danish capital. Møller, worked with another firm, Tredje Natur, to deliver a different and distinctive educational design — this time for a public school, New Islands Brygge School in Copenhagen’s Amager section.

The middle school, now being developed, will feature a double-height dining room beneath oculus-like ceiling openings, adding daylight. Another dramatic feature — a grand exterior “activity staircase” — starts at street level and leads to the school’s rooftop terrace which doubles as an outdoor learning and physical education space. The staircase itself serves as a teaching and learning space and can be used as an amphitheater for outdoor events. Additionally, climbing the stairs will provide physical activity for students at the school, where healthy eating and physical activity are a key focus.

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

Expressions of Transparency

Back at CIS, transparency is expressed in various ways throughout the building. There are ample expanses of exterior glass, which enables views inside and out of common spaces and classrooms; open areas, such as the library; interior practice rooms called music pods with large windows facing corridors; and the corridors themselves are wide enough to enable transit and contain open areas for pausing, study and supervision. Transparency is also evident in other ways, such as interior glass walls of classrooms at the perimeter, bringing daylight deep within the building and views of the outdoors. The corridors that run the length of the building provide lines of sight to perimeter glass at both ends, thus enhancing the ability to be visibly-oriented to the outdoors from within the building.

Copenhagen school 

ARCHITECT: C.F. MØLLER ARCHITECTS; PHOTOGRAPHER: ADAM MØRK

A final expression of transparency found at the school looks to the future. Beams and members of the steel-frame construction are revealed at various points, thus the structure of the building itself is made more apparent for young people who may be, or become, interested in engineering and architecture. And with the revealed steel-frame construction come the possibility for future options: by having fewer load-bearing walls, changes to the interior — such as combining rooms or otherwise changing the configuration of spaces — will be easier in years and decades to come.

In doing so, the interior meets today’s needs and acknowledges that its spaces may have to change to meet future needs. As Nielsen adds of that possibility, “We know what we want now, but 10, 15, or 50 years from now, who knows?”