Originally from Copenhagen, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has put down business roots in both New York and China. Hardly a week goes by in which the firm doesn’t make a big splash with yet another spectacular competition entry or international high-rise, museum or urban development project. In so doing, BIG’s architects steer clear of a consistent formal idiom – their remarkable structures and their penchant for bringing together diametrically opposed building briefs are always good for a surprise. In Copenhagen, for example, they built a multistory car park with a slanted roof and topped it off with a residential estate. The dwellings are staggered on a footprint that is shaped on the figure eight. Moreover, BIG’s proposal for a waste incineration plant that was to be crowned by an enormous ski slope won the first prize in a competition, but it seems unlikely that it will actually be realized.
However, things can also be taken down a notch, as BIG demonstrated this summer in the small Hellerup community in Greater Copenhagen. For reasons of space the architects decided to locate a new gym beneath the yard of a 1950s’ school complex and transform its roof into a walkable wooden hillock. The three existing red-brick gable-roof buildings surrounding the yard are either two or three stories high and as such blend in well with the villas and detached houses of the well-to-do suburb. Bjarke Ingels, who went to this school himself, was happy with the personal scale and quality of the existing buildings, which he extended as part of the brief. Accordingly, the school was simply fitted with a new entrance, whose undulating green roof anticipates the shape of the gym and leads straight to the school cafeteria and further along to the new gym, which reaches down five meters under the ground and can also cater for events such as graduation ceremonies and proms. The middle section of the tripartite structure is considerably higher than the two flanking sections and in combination with the elegant flow of the ceiling creates an impression of ample spaciousness in the gym, which has quite a limited footprint. Using a wooden truss structure, Ingels applied the parabolas from his math lessons and translated the different handball and basketball vectors into the architecture. The undoubtedly very elegant design is compromised by some minor details, such as the lighting, which only really works lengthways, when the neon tubes are concealed between the wooden trusses and the dazzle in inhibited. And while the concrete walls make for a superb contrast to wood as the material predominantly used, when doing PE could would certainly want to avoid any hands-on contact with them.
Outside, the vaulted ceiling makes for a walkable hillock, which is popular with pupils and visitors alike as they head for its crest. Due to technical problems with the subsurface, the wooden structure does not rise directly from the ground but is mounted on a podium that is approx. 50 centimeters high. Skylights have been cut into the surface to provide the gym with daylight along the perimeter. Pupils like to sit on the wrap-around platform during break times, or on the seats made of white enameled steel that are randomly scattered on the elevation. Their primary use is to provide seating for outdoor lessons, however; notwithstanding the playful buoyancy in the architecture it’s still a schoolyard after all. With the introduction of the new building, BIG have succeeded in upgrading the outdoor space and making it more communicative. Typically for the firm, the unusual marriage of two strikingly different functions is far from sensationalist, but has a subtle and completely natural aesthetic about it.
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