Friday18 August 2017

Michál Cohen’s inspiration: Hellerup School

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Michál Cohen of Walters & Cohen Architects explains why this Copenhagen school, built only eight years ago, transformed her notions of what a school could be like, and tells how she has fared trying to introduce its ideas to British clients

Inspiration: Hellerup School
Architect: Arkitema
Completed: 2002
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Hellerup School is a one-off. It’s not a pristine, perfect piece of architecture or landscape, but a brilliant interpretation of the brief – the first of a new type of open-plan school typology that I’m aware of.

I first saw Hellerup published in 2003 while researching a project for the DCSF (now Department for Education), to design an exemplar primary school for the Building Schools for the Future programme. I then visited the school on a study trip with the British Council for School Environments in about 2006. The headteacher showed us around, and it blew me away.

The school [which is for six to 16 year olds] is so different from anything you’ll find in the UK; it was as if someone had taken the blinkers off, and made me wish I could go back to school.

I realised that the school vision, curriculum and pedagogy are essential to the design of a school, and why we often can’t persuade people in the UK to do things differently in terms of school design. It’s because of the way we run our schools and teach our children.

If we change the way children learn to more independent learning, then we can design buildings like Hellerup that are so interactive and flexible.

Kenn Fisher, a world-renowned expert in school space planning, has produced research showing that we learn the most by discussing and doing, and the least by sitting and listening. Hellerup School provides pupils and teachers with the environment to engage with personalised learning.

The outside is very unadorned, but in a good, plain way. The “wow” factor is inside, which has a very different sensibility. When you go in, the big atrium space overwhelms you. It’s completely open with small group break-in spaces, rather than separate classrooms with break-out spaces. Even the staff area with its hotel pool-style sun loungers is open to the rest of the school.

Hellerup is also very beautiful: there is a very clean palette, the materials are simple – render, timber and linoleum – and so is the quality of the light, as the central atrium is lit by enormous roof-lights. The circulation through it and the big atrium are breathtaking, and give focus to the school. In the UK we’d be paranoid about not making the most of every bit of space but here there’s a generosity of volume, which is impressive.

Hellerup has a very relaxed environment. The first time I visited, a class was sitting out on the stairs having a lesson. We had our presentation in the auditorium, which is also a staircase, and pupils were walking right through it up the side during the presentation, which wasn’t a problem for us or for them. This time, they’ve just been playing ball games at the top of the stairs. Over there are some sofas and a group of children, seemingly unsupervised, on the computers. On the terrace a boy is preparing a barbecue. There’s an enormous amount of trust in this school and lots of life skills are being taught, not just academic theory.

At first you think it looks messy, but when you analyse it, it’s all organised. Leading off from the main space on three levels are areas that act as bases for each class of students, each with their own toilets and kitchen area. There’s no central dining room – each group prepares its own lunch and eats in its own space together. This avoids the problems inherent in large, antisocial dining spaces.

Each one of these class bases has mobile screens that can form a circular space where the whole class gathers for half an hour first thing in the morning to talk about what they’ll be doing that day and how they’ll deal with their tasks. They are then taught together or they go off and find a suitable space where they can work in small groups or individually. Pupils know what sort of learners they are – for example auditory, oral, kinaesthetic – and can organise their learning accordingly.

The absence of a formal timetable means that there are no bells, which contributes to the relaxed feeling in the school. Instead, all pupils have their own timetable, which we saw pinned up in their own homebase. Every space is flexible because of the mobile storage and screens, except for subjects like science, woodwork and cooking which need special equipment and so have their own glass-fronted rooms. There are banks of six computers associated with each homebase. There’s also a library full of books at the bottom of the main stairs, visible to the whole school, but it could function as anything they want.

Hellerup was revolutionary, but it’s not prissy: there’s nothing precious here. The building stands up really well to its flexible use. Inside, you look around and can’t help thinking “what about health and safety?” But unlike in the UK, they seem to have a very sensible approach to regulations.

For example, at Hellerup, the toilets are individual cubicles just off the main space – there’s no two-door regulation – and that avoids any potential problem with bullying in the toilets.

At Hellerup there’s no fence to the school, children play on bikes and skateboards close to the pavement while there’s a lesson going on in the empty car park next door – and I don’t even think it’s the school’s car park.

When I went to Hellerup the first time, up the stairs and just a metre or so away from the top there were pupils playing at a ping-pong table and no-one was saying they couldn’t do that. Likewise, when I went in the gym, there were some girls just swinging on some very lofty swings. In the UK, they’d never allow it. It’s about helping children to judge risk. The headteacher at Hellerup said that at this school, they “grow human beings”.

Hellerup was one of the first open-style schools that everyone in the UK got excited about. Back in 2003 when I first saw the school published, it was very innovative because of the way it dealt with the lack of formal teaching spaces. These ideas aren’t entirely new: in teaching, styles of education tend to go in cycles. There were a lot of open-plan schools in the UK in the 1970s but often the spaces were too small and they didn’t have the right acoustics, so the idea failed. At Hellerup, they don’t have those problems as it is generous and all ceilings and balustrades have acoustic absorption.

The size of school has a lot to do with its success – there are only 400 or so pupils so it is very personal in scale. The architects also had the luxury of six months at feasibility level talking about what might work without putting pen to paper; under the Academies Framework we have 14 weeks of design work before putting in for planning. Another factor was that after the building was finished, the school didn’t occupy it for at least six months, allowing educationalists and staff to try out furniture and layouts, rather than having to sweep up the night before opening like we end up doing here. Teachers didn’t get the space until it was really ready, which is a wonderful luxury.

Many UK architects have taken some ideas from Hellerup, especially the stairs, rather than the whole of its “all-in”’ approach. For the BSF exemplar project, Walters & Cohen came up with a hybrid with a central space that could be used for different things, combined with traditional classrooms. We can – and do – suggest a more open plan approach, but
you need the right client to do something like Hellerup, which requires a complete change of the curriculum and pedagogy in the UK. When we submitted the exemplar design, the DCSF wanted to see the flexibility of the design proven, so we worked up an alternative version where we “did a Hellerup” and questioned the need for walls instead of thinking in terms of having break-in spaces rather than break-out spaces. However, the UK wasn’t ready for anything like that and we never found anyone interested in using that design.

We speak to headteachers constantly about some of the ideas we see at Hellerup and at other inspirational schools. Primary schools are more receptive. But the beauty of Hellerup is the three-floor atrium – the sense of space is amazing – and it’s very rare to have three-storey primaries in the UK.

Hellerup allowed us to consolidate some of our ideas. For example, we had been thinking that it would be good not to centralise the toilets and we took heart from how this had worked so well at Hellerup. We also realised that it was possible to get the acoustics right in big spaces without having to shut them off. However, I don’t think we’ll ever get a school in the UK where pupils are trusted in the same way, and which has the same approach to the curriculum and pedagogy.

Our new teaching and administrative building at Bedales school in Hampshire (completed in 2005) shares Hellerup’s sense of light coming into the centre of the school. This is something we do as a matter of course in our school designs.

At the moment, we’re on site with a two-storey primary at Elm Park in Havering where we’re doing our version of the “Hellerup stairs”, which creates a communal focus for the school. There’s the same idea of light filling that central space that works so well at Hellerup. It’s something of a halfway house, as it still keeps the classrooms together with the multifunctional central space.

The headteacher at Redbrook Hayes School, our first school based on the exemplar design (completed in 2006) now says she wishes she’d been more adventurous and got rid of more walls from the classrooms to the “heart” central space, or at least made them more transparent.

Kunskapsskolan, a Swedish school company, is in the process of designing a number of academies in the UK. There are some similarities of approach to Hellerup in terms of personalised learning and the choice of where pupils want to learn; also in terms of openness and transparency.

Apparently the first year Hellerup opened was difficult as staff and pupils adjusted to such a different school environment, but it has gone on to become a top performing school. There’s a happiness there. And happy children learn.

Michál Cohen was speaking to Pamela Buxton.

Original print headline - ’It’s revolutionary, but not prissy: there’s nothing precious here


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