Fit for a Kid

Denmark is a pretty good place to have kids. New parents receive a combined total of 52 weeks (one full year!) leave from work, and the government guarantees children space in day-care facilities after their first birthday. The latter provision has had an interesting architectural side effect. When a recent baby boom in Copenhagen necessitated the construction of new day-care centers, the city commissioned Dorte Mandrup-Poulsen—one of Denmark’s most acclaimed and busy young architects—to design two of them, bringing smart design to preschool digs.

Since establishing Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter in 1999, Mandrup-Poulsen has built a reputation for designing high-quality yet modest projects, often under tight budgets and tricky site requirements. She has proven particularly adept at rehabilitating Copenhagen’s defunct industrial spaces: in 2001 she converted a seaplane hangar into an office and a nineteenth-century industrial building into a neighborhood center; two years later she carved light-filled lofts out of a 1950s-era workshop.

Mandrup-Poulsen’s first foray into day-care centers, commissioned in 2000 and completed four years later, required her to squeeze a new building into a long, narrow plot of land bordered by lime trees that cast half the site in shade. Further complicating matters, the center would sit on the grounds of a popular local garden, to the ire of neighborhood residents. “We stacked the program in a triangle to keep as much of the garden as possible and still let the evening sun into the neighboring housing area,” Mandrup-Poulsen says of her effort to minimize the building’s impact on the site. Dominated by glass and galvanized steel, and flooded by light from its east-facing windows, the resulting structure resembles a sort of industrial greenhouse. The interior rooms are connected to create “one big play space,” while the amply preserved garden offers recreation to both the children and nearby residents.

On the heels of this project the city commissioned Mandrup-Poulsen to create a second day-care center in a dense neighborhood whose residents were, again, wary of a new building that might block light to already sun-starved apartments. Here Mandrup-Poulsen took the opposite approach: instead of stacking the interiors vertically onto a diminutive footprint, she designed a building that filled the site yet rose only 13 feet. “The whole point was to build a day-care institution on the small side—only one story—so as not to take light away from the neighbors,” Mandrup-Poulsen says. However, that left a lack of outdoor space for the children—a problem she solved by lifting the play space onto the roof, accessible to the children via a wide ramp clad in granulated rubber and further padded by attached beanbag chairs. Completed last September, the structure is playful, elegant, and pragmatic. Apparently Denmark is also a pretty good place to be a kid.

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