At-risk students in Copenhagen take refuge in a youth center by Bjarke Ingels and Julien de Smed.
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 3/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Denmark has long, proud traditions of promoting civic-mindedness and fostering young architects. When these two traditions dovetail, unexpected and wonderful things appear, quite literally, on the horizon. Case in point: the nonprofit Sjakket organization's Ghetto Heroes Academy youth center in Copenhagen's immigrant-heavy northwest quarter. Founded 16 years ago as an after-school program to help underprivileged kids keep up with the city's rigorous school system while keeping off the street, Sjakket is named for the Danish slang word for gang—more in the sense of Little Rascals than Snoop Dogg. The Copenhagen municipal government had become a partner and supporter by 2000.
Around that time, 27-year-old Bjarke Ingels moved back to his native Copenhagen—after a stint at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam—and set up Plot Architects with fellow OMA alum Julien De Smedt, 26. (The two have since parted ways to form the Bjarke Ingels Group, aka BIG, and JDS/Julien De Smedt Architects.) Among the first clients to come calling on Plot was Sjakket, which had plans to open a youth center in an abandoned 1937 building that had achieved landmark status as the auto-repair shop serving His Royal Highness, the King of Denmark.
Along with the usual client requisites was a particularly unusual one: street cred. “Sjakket's founders had to believe we'd connect with the kids in the community and make something they'd actually use,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, now a senior architect at BIG. With employees from around the world, Plot's own diversity was a good start. The firm had also worked on a mosque in Denmark and enjoyed an excellent reputation in Copenhagen's Muslim community, much of which is concentrated in the northwest quarter.
Research for the project included a scouting trip to see converted industrial buildings in Germany's Ruhr Valley. “The biggest question was how to create a state-of-the-art facility while preserving the energy of an industrial space,” Ingels says. “The Copenhagen kids had already been hanging around in this abandoned building, skateboarding, tagging it with grafitti—and the roughness was what they liked. So we couldn't make it too nice!” Still, it had to be just as comfortable for tutoring as for shooting hoops.
The 10,000-square-foot structure is composed of two barrel-vaulted hangars set side by side, with a single-story connector. Denmark's Category Four landmark status allowed for serious alteration—a good thing, considering the state of the twin structures. “They were infested with such a pervasive fungus that there was a giant mushroom growing on the floor the first time we visited,” Ingels says. So Plot stripped the building to its brick walls and started again.
One hangar remains a single space, complete with a basketball court. The other hangar is divided into two stories. Upstairs, classrooms and administrative offices are connected by catwalks, allowing maximum sunshine from bubble-shape skylights to penetrate a multipurpose room below. Both hangars are a happy riot of bold blue, hot pink, and traffic-light red. “The graffiti that was there became the basis for our palette,” Bergmann says. The west-facing walls of both hangars, carved out with rows of windows covered in multicoloredpolyurethane film, create a light show every afternoon.
Between the two hangars, Plot filled the narrow connector with a series of rooms, essentially big plywood boxes. Three of them, the kitchen and two storage rooms, have garage doors on either side to allow passage from hangar to hangar. The others are locker rooms, blue for boys and pink for girls. Particularly nice touches include porcelain tiles and rain showers, not usually found in urban youth centers.
More noticeable than these interior details, however, is the giant red box sitting on the building's roof—and described by Plot as the Ghetto Noise Studio, “shouting out the center's identity to the whole neighborhood.” Most of the box is corrugated steel, like a shipping container, but one long wall is glass. Inside, other walls and the ceiling are lined in perforated gypsum-board painted an inspiring shade of fuchsia. Still awaiting digital equipment, it's primed to become the heart of the Ghetto Heroes Academy.
Sjakket cofounder Khosrow Bayat calls the whole facility the “a great foundation for our educational purposes.” As for the neighborhood kids, they're pretty into it, too. They're the ghetto heroes who came up with the academy's name.