This week we spent a day with Jens and Mie (and architect colleague, Andreas), and visited Berte, Jens’ wife and Mie’s mother at the after school activity centre she runs in Copenhagen. This family have a commitment to children, designing schools and developing community infrastructure that provide connection and spark interest and creativity for children and young people.
Mie and Jens are LOOP, a company that designs spaces and works with the community to provide places that the community want. Birte runs Baune, an after school centre like no other we have seen.
The footer on Jens’ stationary proudly states “public schools – good enough for royals” as the Danish royal family have enrolled their son in a public school for the first time in Danish history.
Thinking about grouping students differently
The first school of the day was Maglegard in the suburbs of Copenhagen. Danish schools go to Year/Grade 9, and after that the students attend senior high schools, known as Gymnasiums. This school starts at the kindergarten levels.
The physical environment is comprised of beautiful older buildings, surrounding enlarge leafy playground.
Instead of arranging the students in three classes of the same grade, Maglegard have homebases of three classes in cross grade groupings, repeated on the different levels of the building. All students are grouped in this way. The first learning area we visited was 4, 5 and 6, about 60 children.
On each level, there were three instruction spaces allocated for each class, that were connected to an open central space, shared by all classes, where they could work in groups, pairs or alone.
The shared space felt like a living room in a home. There was a kitchen with a large table and stools, sofas on a rug around a coffee table, sectioned off communal table for small group instruction, and a nook with a small table and couple of stools. The ambience of home was also created with lamps and candles (yes, candles + children) in the true Scandinavian style.
Two of the class groups were in their instruction space with their teacher, the others were choosing where to work – in the nook, at the kitchen table or on the sofa, with their feet on the coffee table. The size and furnishing of the instructions spaces discourages classes from being in their too long, the round tables with stools are just for that particular type of work.
The cultural elements of Scandinavian school life add to the sense of home. Jeans are acceptable clothes for students and teachers and they wear indoor shoes or socks. It is also a characteristic of schools in Denmark, Sweden and Finland that everyone communicates on a first-name basis.
“School with no doors”
This is a new building for a new era, a design to enhance learning in groups for all ages. Hellerup is famous for it’s internal broad staircase, used as a magnificent gathering place for the community of 650 students. The design allows flow and movement between the spaces for learning. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photographs. We needed to wear ‘indoor shoes’.
The flow between spaces was particularly evident in the space where the library lives. There are no actual walls to define the space, the library emerges, evident by the sets of shelves for books in three arms radiating from a central point, about four shelves high. Again there are sofas and comfortable chairs and even some tea available. The library sits inside a large sun-filled space, with huge picture windows. An inviting place to come and read.
On each level of the building there are spaces for different subjects all with spaces for different types of learning. The most spectacular space on the top floor was the teachers area with magnificent views over the harbor at Hellerup.
Children active, everywhere
Baune, an after school community place for children funded by the city and run by Birte. Children were everywhere, involved in craft, cooking, TV production, radio plays, woodwork, parcour, sports, computer activities, band, skate ramps, rankles and guinea pigs, drama.
There was no excuse for children to be sitting around watching TV when these great activities were available every afternoon. The children would come and go, no signing in or out. An amazing community of fun, care, creativity, innovation and activity.
It has been nearly 10 years since Hellerup opened and in that time there have been several principals and from my research, prior to the visit, my observation is that the original of the school as an open place for learning is not as evident.
What makes the difference?
I believe that the custodian of the vision for the school and the use of such an important landmark space is responsible for maintaining the values. I’m not sure that the Hellerup we saw this week truly reflects the original idea that was the catalyst for such a unique design.