LIFE Campus – Ninety-six raw oak columns referencing DNA and Fibonacci welcomes visitors to LIFE Campus – a visionary learning centre set to evoke the interest of children in the natural sciences. Located on old hunting grounds, LIFE Campus manifests an interplay between nature and science with a digital learning environment that includes high-tech labs, a 360-degree projection hall and modern workspaces.
Architizer chatted with Thomas West Jensen, Partner at Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, to learn more about this project.
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Thomas West Jensen: The design concept reflects the entire vision of the LIFE Foundation – to promote an interest in lifelong learning and induce curiosity about the natural sciences into children and youth. As the concept is rooted in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics), we wanted the building to be a manifested interaction between nature and science. The exterior of the building is very material and refers to the surrounding nature, while the interior of the building is based on honest and raw materials that function almost as an imaginary space.
This project won in the 10th Annual A+Awards! What do you believe are the standout components that made your project win?
This manifestion of nature in architecture. LIFE Campus is located on an old hunting ground with no road connections, which is quite unique in Denmark. Vegetation is high and there is a lot of trees. It became a focal point for us to create a transition from a living landscape to a living building. Thus, the 96 oak façade columns mark the coherence between nature and our ability as humans to understand it. Each column is placed to reference mathematical patterns and systems, such as the Fibonacci pattern and DNA strands. This transition is also visible as you approach the entrance. Here, large columns appear to lift and play with your perception and expectations. This design grip reference part of a DNA strand and is meant to create a counter-intuitive experience – to evoke natural curiosity. The lift creates a striking entrance, but it is remains light and understated.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
We began this project almost completely without a physical framework or a defined space, but with a need of high flexibility. Thus, we started to create spaces called ‘Black Boxes’. Each ‘box’ included basic support functions, such as electrical outlets, a flexible ceiling grid and technical installations. With this basic package, a ‘Black Box’ can change function over time. You can perform biological experiments with accompanying plants and plant lights for a period of time and later on clear the space and completely rethink the use.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
The LIFE Foundation initiative delivers inclusive and equitable quality education for all Danish children and promote an interest in lifelong learning. To them, all Danish children should have equal access to the inspiring world of the natural sciences. This is reflected in the inclusive building that embraces all visitors – from large groups to the individual. It embraces the large gathering in the auditorium and foyer area, and the smaller groups of students, in the building’s subject rooms and teaching labs and the building also accommodates immersion if the individual student wishes to quiet down in smaller seating areas. LIFE Campus is designed to be long-lasting for current and future generations of students. At its core, it is flexible and can adapt and transform to accommodate the dynamics and developments of science.
What drove the selection of materials used in the project?
Early on, we decided to design a building that could be part of the learning processes of LIFE Foundation. So that the building does not only facilitate learning, but it becomes learning in itself. The palette of materials is therefore raw, transparent and simple: steel, wood, glass and concrete. This relatively low-key and humble choice of materials, contribute to a high functionality. It was important for us to create a basic framework that the building’s users could subsequently add-on to. One way we worked with add-on was to build rails into the walls where monitors, screens or boards could be hung. This way, LIFE Campus is enormously flexible and spatial for its users – with a longer lifespan.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
Throughout the building you can find details that reflect our aim to create a building that is learning in itself. Instead of hiding installations as we would often do, we gave way to visible piping and wiring and connected it to fully accessible monitors. This show students how a building essentially functions – how it ‘breathes’.
In what ways did you collaborate with others, and were there any team members or skills that were essential in bringing this Award winning project to life?
To create this ambitious learning environment we collaborated intensely with users where we agreed on nice-to-have and need-to-have. We held about 30 workshops with LIFE Campus and teaching professionals that added significant didactic value. And on landscaping we collaborated with LYTT to create surrounding learning spaces that welcome everyone. Thus, an experience path now connects the building to the landscape and guides visitors to science-inspired art pieces by world-renowned artist Jeppe Hein. The southern end is home to learning gardens LIFE Arboretum and LIFE Orchard with a vast variety of trees. In continuation, shelters are under way for school classes to stay overnight.
Were any parts of the project dramatically altered from conception to construction, and if so, why?
The intense early dialogue with the client allowed us to stay loyal to the design concept ultimately finalised. Thus, there were no significant changes along the way. In the process, LIFE as an organisation also evolved and grew tenfold during this period when we were doing the project design. And because we focused on a high level of basic flexibility, we were able to engage and reassure everyone involved that the building would be able to accommodate changing needs. Mainly, due to the flexibility of the individual ‘Black box’ spaces allowing for easy changes.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
Our impression is that the client is happy with the new campus. Together, we have created an environment where students are actually inspired to pursue science – which was the whole point of the project. The broad positive response to the project makes us extremely proud and we have continued our collaboration with four new regional LIFE Hubs – they will be small, locally based extentions of the campus and can ensure that as many Danish children as possible will have easy access to the inspiring world of natural sciences.
What key lesson did you learn in the process of conceiving the project?
Science is dynamic, and new discoveries are constantly being made. We don’t know what the future holds or how the needs of tomorrows learning environments will look. What we can do as architects is to ensure that we have created a dynamic building that can accommodate these unknown developments. Here, dialogue is our main design tool for a flexible building. We believe that we have struck a balance between functionality and design, creating a building that can accommodate the natural evolution that will be taking place for the whole LIFE initiative.
How do you believe this project represents you or your firm as a whole?
This year Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects celebrate our centennial anniversary and our culture is rooted in the Danish modernistic design tradition of architects and founder Vilhelm Lauritzen – that high-quality and sustainable architecture is timeless and democratic. That form must follow function from the inside out, with respect for the context and with the fundamental intention to improve the quality of life. And despite 100 years of architectural ideas, currents and beliefs have come and gone, we continue to base our work on the universal ideals of early modern architecture; that when you create form from an imprint of human behavior, you maximize the chances that it is long-lasting and will naturally adapt to the changing uses and needs of the times. The same we did with LIFE Campus.
How do you imagine this project influencing your work in the future?
Constant to the project’s genesis, we had five design drivers as part of our design strategy, which we had devised in collaboration with the client. They later became our benchmark for the build. In this way, we were able to create a sense of security for our client by following the design drivers, which we interpreted and developed together during the design process. The clear guideline also helped to create a clear common dialogue.
Is there anything else important you’d like to share about this project?
From the outside, the building stands in a relatively natural area, but as you approach the building you will encounter a more structured zone around the many wooden columns. When you enter the building, you will experience a completely controlled and structured house. In the centre of the LIFE Campus, you find the core that supports one of Northern Europes biggest 360-degree projection auditorium, consisting of advanced AV and sound design. It allows you to experience the natural world in new ways. Alternating between having both the simulated and the natural creates an interesting tension in the building, which focuses precisely on investigation into the big and small issues of nature.
COLLABORATORS: LYTT Architecture (landscape), COWI
CLIENT: LIFE Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation
For more on LIFE Campus, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.