An architecture school might be one of the toughest projects an architect could take on—it comes with a built-in audience of blossoming critics and their professors. Collaborating together, Copenhagen-based firm Henning Larsen Architects and Stockholm-based White Architects were brave enough to accept the challenge of designing a new building to accommodate the Umeå School of Architecture in Sweden, part of a new Arts Campus situated along the Umeå River. Conceived as a single open volume, the design for the new architecture school presents a chicken-or-the-egg proposition: did the curriculum shape the building, or will the building itself inform the way students interact and learn?
A simple, programmatic recipe
One could easily over-analyze the programmatic requirements necessary for both a five-year undergraduate and graduate program, but the designers followed “an extremely simple recipe for a school,” according to Louis Becker, partner and director at Henning Larsen Architects. So simple, in fact, that the footprint of the four-story structure is a near-perfect square. The architects placed the studio spaces along its perimeter, and the center of the building remains completely open. This vertical volume extends from the ground floor to the fourth-floor ceiling, which is punctured by several skylights. A wide, sculptural concrete stair facilitates movement between levels, and its steps and landings become backdrops for lectures and exhibitions, as well as informal get-togethers like quick critiques.
The square motif of the plan is also reflected in the building’s elevations. The four facades are studies in solid and void, presenting a grid of prefabricated, insulated larch wood panels (finished with birch on the interior) and glass. But this rhythmic pattern is not purely aesthetic. The designers conducted daylighting studies using computer-modeling software to determine the optimal locations for the glass. In Sweden, daylight proves a precious commodity in the winter when the region gets as little as one or two hours per day; on the other hand, summer brings near-permanent daylight. Despite these extreme conditions, the designers managed to achieve light penetration three desks deep into the studio spaces. The facade pattern additionally strategizes on views and reflections from the river. Windows near the floor level afford views for students seated at their desks. Other windows align with standing-height eye level, and higher windows permit indirect light.
The interior finishes emphasize a functional and industrial aesthetic—white walls and tabletops, concrete floors, and exposed decking that help reflect light. The neutral and simplistic palette was also selected so that “the students’ work colors and informs the space, and it changes constantly,” explains Becker. Throughout the building, those surfaces that were pristine when the building opened are now covered with drawings and models.
Carving out spaces
If there are any drawbacks to such openness, they’re acoustic ones. Hard surfaces plus the noise generated in a studio setting contribute to the potential for issues. To lessen the impact, the architects added acoustical dampening to the inside face of the wood panels and also within the ceilings. Classroom volumes are glazed to offer some separation without sacrificing a visual connection to the rest of the space. Every architecture school, no matter the size, needs plenty of exhibition spaces and surfaces to pin up. “The open form offers possibilities, but we have to inhabit it and carve out different types of spaces,” acknowledges Rector Peter Kjaer. Faculty implement transportable dividers to create temporary critique spaces.
The school’s open layout is ideal for fostering communication between studios. The layout purposefully mixes programs of graduate and lower level students together to create “the potential for students to learn from each other, instead of only through formal teaching,” explains Becker. The sharing of knowledge and cross-pollination are both crucial for the practicing architect, he believes. “In the past, education presented the architect as artist and the client as passive,” Becker says. “But today, clients want to be a part of the journey.” For Henning Larsen Architects, White Architects, and this school, it’s been a successful collaboration.
Key Design Highlights
- The façade, comprised of insulated wood panels, filters light and views while mitigating acoustical issues on the interior.
- An open floor plan promotes cross-level communication; it’s common for freshmen to sit near graduate students.
- The centerpiece of the building is a wide stair that serves as the backdrop for many lectures and impromptu gatherings.
Umeå School of Architecture
Where Umeå, Sweden
Designers Henning Larsen Architects and White Architects
What 59,000 square feet on four floors
Cost/sf Withheld at client’s request