South Harbor School

Positioned along a canal, the school has playgrounds on top of multiple terraced rooftops. A large outdoor stair made of ash doubles as a gathering place for students. Photography by Torben Eskerod and Laura Stamer

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Shortly after the first school year began last August, teachers at the new South Harbor School in Copenhagen, Denmark, discovered an interesting problem: They were having trouble keeping track of students because they were spreading out all over the building. “The kids go in spaces where we do not expect to find them,” says headmaster Morten Biering. “Some kids [choose to spend recess] in the atrium—they think it’s an exciting room.”

The allure of the architecture by Copenhagen-based JJW Architects is such that students elect to come in from an expansive playground during their free time. Indeed, the building, which will eventually serve 850 students from the Danish equivalent of preschool through middle school, was deliberately designed to offer a wide range of environments for learning and socializing in direct contrast to the formal rigidity of many schools, particularly those in dense urban settings.

“We know from science that kids learn better when they are active. We focus on creating diverse learning facilities that motivate them to move their bodies and open their minds,” says Lars Lindeberg, a partner at JJW, a 30-year-old firm that also specializes in public housing and commercial buildings. The dramatic design was the winning entry in an international competition held by the city of Copenhagen in 2006. The school was completed in 2015 after the plans were revised to accommodate population growth.

Building as landscape and playground
A focus on childhood activity is evident from the outside, where a landscape of well-designed playground features literally envelops the school. The building-cum-landscape incorporates playgrounds on rooftop terraces that double as a public park for the Teglholmen neighborhood, a formerly industrial area that is being redeveloped. A grand 50-foot-wide outdoor stair, constructed of wood and inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome, provides a place to congregate and watch the activity along the canal. The architecture integrates smoothly with the adjacent area: There are no barriers between the school’s playground and its surroundings, and the stairs lead directly down to the water’s edge.

From the street, the building’s two-layer facade creates a dynamic effect for passersby The building is clad in rock wool fiberboard panels printed with graphic patterns and words, such as phrases from The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and the diary of Christopher Columbus from his voyage to America. Thin aluminum fins serve as a screening element over the facade, revealing the underlying architecture and graphic patterning.

Planned for new education pedagogy
Located on a wedge-shaped parcel along a canal, the complex building is five stories high at the entrance and gradually slopes down to three stories toward the waterfront. The ground floor contains a science lab, music rooms, and a wood shop. Above, the first floor is primarily administration and student services, as well as a dental clinic. Upper floors are designated for the different grades. While every class has its own classroom, each of the floors includes a large shared area designed to accommodate two or more classes for newer forms of instruction, such as team teaching and mixing students from different grades. Students can also spread out here for small-group gatherings.

A soaring atrium near the entrance allows profuse daylight as well as natural ventilation into the center of the building, leading to a double-height school square. One can get a glimpse of the various spaces from the diff erent levels, but the routes to them are not obvious: That is by design. “Some of these kids might be in this school for 10 years, and the traditional layout of long corridors with classrooms on either side is so boring,” says Lindeberg. “We wanted to create many ways of moving through the building while still having quiet, acoustically controlled learning spaces.”

Inside, finishes and furniture were chosen with an eye to durability. Wall fenestrations are a combination of pine, Kerto, metal panels, and plaster. The ground-level floor is concrete, while the upper levels have floors that are either wood or concrete covered with a polyurethane finish. The music room’s floor has carpet tile to improve the acoustic quality of the space.

The walls of the atrium and common spaces are lined with vertical knotty pine slats. These can be easily replaced if damaged and also help to absorb sound—a welcome design consideration for a school with hundreds of children. The spacious gathering areas increase the possibility of many different activities when compared with a typical school plan.

who Architect and interior designer: JJW Architects. Project team: Lars L. Lindeberg; Lars Christensen; Marie Myrup Staalsø; Stine Lykke Kjær; Tine Nielsen; Janne Raahauge Dyhr. Contractor: B. Nygaard Sørensen; G.V.L. Enterprise; Lindpro; Jakon. Construction Management: Friis Andersen Arkitekter. Artistic project: Peter Holst Henckel. Landscape: JJW; PK3 Landskab. Sport consultants: Keinicke & Overgaard Arkitekter. Artistic project: Peter Holst Jensen. Engineering: Niras. Kitchen: Jakon; Brønnum. Graphics: Modulex. Acoustician: JJW; Mogens Rasmussen.
what Laminate: Formica. Drywall: Fermacell. Carpet/ carpet tile: Ege. Ceilings: Mogens Rasmussen. Windows: Krone vinduer. Recessed lighting: Fagerhults. Floor/table lamps: Artemide; Luceplan. Pendants/ chandeliers: Flos; &Tradition. Doors: Skandi bo. Workstation/ task seating: Duba. Conference seating: Vitra. Lounge/reception seating: L K Hjelle; Jensen Plus. Cafeteria/dining seating: Vitra. Other seating: Højer Møbler. Upholstery: Kvadrat. Conference tables: Special design JJW; Jakon; Paustian. Cafeteria/dining tables: Jensen Plus. Training: Højer Møbler; Duba. Reception desk: JJW; Jakon. Shelving: Duba; JJW; Jakon. Closet systems: ifø. Architectural/custom woodworking: Jakon.

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