A New Interior for Sortedam School: Putting Identity + Learning up on the Walls

Andreas MortensenEducation, Interior Design

At Sortedam School, right by the Lakes of central Copenhagen, we designed a new interior for the stairs and hallways. Based on the students’ visions and spatial logistics, we were there to plaster the walls with identity and education.

We conducted focus group interviews and made an online survey for all the important users of the school: students, teachers and administration. This led to two fundamental insights: Firstly, the school had a very interesting history. It was the first mixed gender school in Copenhagen and had many prominent alumni like the Danish natural science family [Niels, Harald & Aage] Bohr. Secondly, and somewhat shockingly, none of the pupils knew about this history! Furthermore, there was a lack of positive associations with the school. It was kind of an identity crisis.

Enter: arki_lab.

With the teachers’ help, we incorporated the school curriculum so that the design was relevant to the students’ learning and the updated hallways could be used as an extension of the classroom. This led us to combine the school’s rich history with interesting lessons about mathematical formulas, grammar, human development, geography, and so on. This was illustrated with fresh, young graphics inspired by street art workshops that were conducted with the students over the previous year, based on their desire for something that looked ‘professional and cool.’

Through our discussions with the teachers and administration, we also gained some unique inside information and personal anecdotes regarding the school’s history. For example, we heard a story about the school’s founder, Hanna Adler, known for her revolutionary hands-on approach to teaching, bringing a cow into the classroom for the students to see, smell and touch. This tactile understanding of the animal was then combined with lessons in home economics about where various cuts of meat come from. So we plastered a life-size cow walking past the front door.

After gathering an immense amount of historical, contextual, and anecdotal information, along with an understanding of the subject matter taught at the school, the challenge was to translate this knowledge into a design concept, and then integrate these ideas into physical space using the walls and hallways. This is where we needed to contribute our skills as architects and designers to enhance the school’s odd layout, while creating engaging designs that would be both interesting and beautiful.

We decided to make the main staircase the central focus of our design, as this seemed to be a true anchor point of the school–each hallway led to this 5-storey stairwell, one wall of which was floor-to-ceiling glass all the way the the top of the building. We came up with the concept of using this dramatic space to take people on a journey through space and time, starting in an underwater world where we can see how the Fibonacci sequence dictated the formation of the world’s first seashells all those years ago–a wonderful example of the perfection of nature.

On the next wall we find a large diagram of the evolution of species, and third comes the evolution of humans.

From here you can peek your head in through the doorway toward the library to see the majestic birch forest. Down in the corner, you’ll find a little boy reading peacefully, as birds fly wildly out of his book and scatter out through the trees, representing the magic and wonder of reading. If you look closely, you’ll also notice something curious about the birch trees; the black spots in their bark are actually made up of words. Can you recognize the text hidden in the trees? Each tree contains a significant piece of prose or poetry, in the various languages taught at the school: Danish, English, German, and French. If you look hard enough, you’ll find the school’s official song, H.C. Andersen’s “Den grimme ælling”, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, among others.

If you continue up the stairs, you will find a map of the world depicting the variation in landscape, animals, important buildings and landmarks, and activities you find across the globe.

Next we find Mille Dinesen, a successful actor and Sortedam alumni, who tells us a story of the challenges she faced growing up when she felt self-conscious about her big lips. She goes on to explain that while we all have growing pains as teenagers, there is confidence to be found on the other side, as today she is very happy with her lips. Standing out is nothing to be ashamed of–in fact, it’s what makes you unique. With reference to the first wall in the sequence, we recognize the Fibonacci sequence again, showing us that while this “perfect” mathematical formula can be seen throughout nature, you don’t need to have a Fibonacci face in order to be “perfect”, because you’re perfect just the way you are.

Climbing to the height of the Copenhagen rooftops, we find Tobias Trier, a well-known musician and alumni of Sortedam School. He is belting out a tune into the clouds, and prompts us to contemplate the relationship between music and language.

We continue our journey into the sky as we meet a beautifully engaging depiction of the water cycle, with references to current climate debates.

At the top of the stairwell, we find ourselves in outer space, where we can see the layout of the solar system, and discover the link between Niels Bohr’s atomic model and the vastness of the universe, through Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten.”

Each wall contains a specifically tailored street art collage that combines learning material with local identity. And the school was thrilled with the result! While working in the hallways to mount and apply our work, we were consistently met with smiles and positive comments from the students, which reassured us that we had delivered successfully. The teachers echoed this sentiment:

“Our new wall art creates a great link between the interesting history of the school and the variety of subjects taught here. Students have the opportunity to be visually acquainted with concepts from many disciplines, and the teachers now have an engaging backdrop when explaining things like the solar system or the water cycle. The students say that the once-tedious walls are now full of life and inspiration, and guests at the school can easily learn about our history and gain insight into the values of Sortedam School.”

The project will be officially inaugurated once school resumes after summer holiday. We’re looking forward to celebrating with the students, teachers, and the school board!


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