Learning can happen at any hour on university campuses when students choose to linger. To better accommodate 24-hour study schedules and attract prospective students, the University of Copenhagen held a competition to reimagine its existing Faculty of Humanities building. Copenhagen–based Arkitema Architects adapted portions of the existing building in its winning design while essentially creating a new facility that is more flexible for students, aligns with the university’s green initiatives, and establishes a framework for future expansion.
The University of Copenhagen comprises four campuses around the city and the Faculty of Humanities is located in the South Campus on the island of Amager, just south of Copenhagen’s center. The building that had housed many humanities departments “might have been considered highly modern [when originally built] in the 1970s, but today it was absolutely useless. It had no identity and no spatial hierarchy,” says Per Fischer, a partner at Arkitema Architects.
The Danish Building & Property Agency—the government agency that served as client—asked the architects to reuse portions of the existing structure, but did not place any particular constraints. Arkitema chose to strip it down and ultimately reused about 30 percent of the existing building’s concrete structure, which was built on a twenty-three-foot-square grid that served as a module to guide the new layout.
An interior campus square
The original building was part of the campus colloquially known as “old KUA,” and referred to as KUMUA. In Danish, that is an acronym for the University of Copenhagen’s Temporary Addition on Amager. Design of the new building, called KUA2, mitigates between the dense urban setting on one side of the campus, and a nature reserve along the opposite side. The mass of the building, which contains 407,950 square feet, is composed of four, five-story volumes connected by three, three-story volumes. Arkitema was required to use travertine—the signature material of the campus—to clad portions of the exterior, and they made it appear modern by turning thin slabs on end and articulating narrow vertical joints.
Framed by the travertine, glazed facades capture views of the campus and the nature reserve, and are outfitted with sun-shading devices that double as trellises for greenery during summer months. Additional sustainable features include green roofs atop the three-story portions of the building and solar panels on the five-story portions.
KUA2’s open interior is organized around an internal square that forms a new center for the campus. Arkitema chose to enclose an existing exterior courtyard with a new roof structure since Copenhagen is cold for much of the year. Taking cues from American universities, the design of the internal square and adjacent areas incorporates many services—such as a bookstore, two cafes, a conference center, and a printing office—that can remain open 24/7, thanks to carefully zoned circulation.
To invite students to stay and study or socialize, the architects designed a setting reminiscent of home. Students can choose from a variety of experiences, from curling up in a cozy corner to gathering around tables in a lively cafe. Built-in benches made from end-grain oak and a beverage bar along one end anchors the square. Flooring of the same oak defines an inviting zone, much like a rug within a living area. Leaf Lamp Tree light fixtures by Green Furniture Sweden appear to grow from planters and burst into tree-like canopies, which prove much lower-maintenance than the live versions. Freestanding tables and chairs by Hay, a local furniture designer and manufacturer, surround a central water feature that contributes to the relaxed atmosphere.
Promoting friendly debate
The teaching facilities and departments—including Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies; SAXO Institute; Media, Cognition and Communication; and Arts and Cultural Studies—are connected visually around the square. A system of circular stairs and ramps that twist like a white ribbon contrasts the building’s regular grid. A screen of wood slats suspended from the ceiling wraps down to form a screen along one side of the square to create privacy for the offices and lounges beyond, while still admitting natural light.
Now that KUA2 has been open for several months, both the university and the architects are pleased that students are spending more time on campus. But Fischer admits he had some initial concerns. “Many of the humanities students are anarchists, and we were quite nervous about what was going to happen when they took over the building,” he says. So far, the home-like feel of the space has curbed destructive tendencies.
Arkitema Architects have also designed a 540,000-square-foot addition to house the law and theology departments that will connect to KUA2‘s internal campus square. Fischer anticipates many “law versus bible” debates to be held within the space, and—perhaps then—its durability will truly be tested.