A new day-care center in Copenhagen, Denmark, exemplifies the notion of making the most of what you are given given. Supplanting a narrow courtyard, on the site of a former mechanic's shop in a neighborhood of densely organized nineteenth-century housing the 835-square-meter (approximately 8,987 square feet) facility owes its form and sensibility to the architect's interpretation of strict conditions governing both the neighborhood and the building's unique program.

Setback regulations decreed a distance of five meters (approximately 16 feet) from existing structures on the north and east sides of the site. To satisfy fire codes, the façades facing those buildings could not have windows. In addition, institutional buildings in the district are relegated to one story and Danish law requires the outdoor space of its day-care centers (which are provided for every child over one year) to be equal to the square footage indoors. The client needed three separate nurseries with attending amenities such as a cloakroom, kitchen, diaper changing areas, and places for napping. And finally, in this region where winters are notoriously dark, the design had to make the most of the sun's path across this confined area without casting shadows on neighboring buildings.

“We cut out what we could,” says Dorte Mandrup, whose eponymous firm is responsible for the innovative solution. “It quickly became clear that the outdoor space would need to be placed on the roof of the building.” The architect and her colleagues provided a natural connection between indoors and out by creating a central ramp linking the spaces that constitutes a unique play area in itself. The 30-degree slope, clad in rubber, rises from outside a common room beyond the center's entrance, and is enhanced by the presence of weatherproof beanbags with removable shade umbrellas. The sun's passage there during the summer, from northeast to northwest, echoes the cut of the ramp's slope and offers the optimal exposure to the south and west.

Capitalizing on the amount and direction of daylight, as well as allowing for multiple functions within all spaces, helped to shape the structure's tightly programmed form and determine its materiality. The southern and western walls, made of etched glass, welcome as much light as possible, protect the children from the gaze of those outside and keep them from losing concentration while allowing views out. The etching marks appear like slender trees, a theme that is echoed in the area beneath the ramp, where an interior forest of concrete support-columns is broken by swings hanging from the ceiling overhead. The children play in this area during cold and wet weather.

In Denmark, public buildings must use low-energy light bulbs. Mandrup regrets that the illumination they provide is diffuse and without direction and that they convey only about 80 percent color accuracy. “We used color in the furnishings to get warmer light into the indoor spaces,” she explains, outlining their method of compensation. Another thoughtful adjustment that saved space came in the way of designing the circulation as a centrally located common room, off of which the main activities may be easily reached.

Danish national code requirements gave rise to an open-air napping retreat tucked in the northeast corner, away from light and noise. During daily rest times the children are placed there in down sleeping bags. “We believe they sleep longer and awaken more rested after being outside,” says Mandrup.

The courtyard's history as a car mechanic shop constituted a contaminated site. Following guidelines, Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter covered the ground plane with a net and topped it with concrete. The two planes forming the building's lower level and rooftop playground rise in opposing directions from that surface. Surrounding the outdoor ramp and rooftop and augmenting the rhythm of the frosted window bays are squares of a white, transparent polyester fabric that also provide screening while welcoming light. While the rooftop is outfitted with a barbecue, sand box, water zone, and tricycles, quieter, more focused play may occur in another small yard available to two of the nurseries and located on the western edge of the site at ground level.

Apart from providing a healthy atmosphere for the local children it shelters, the day-care center is a good neighbor: It contributes a refined and unpretentious building to the settled district and also makes provision for the tenants of an adjacent housing block to use the rooftop after 5 p.m. each day. The presence of the day-care center amidst the hustle and flow of everyday adult life also provides comforting memories, especially when the building glows like a lantern in the waning light of day. Who doesn't remember the mysterious sensation of watching sunlight move across the floor of a favorite childhood space, like a sundial? Understanding that exposure to such elemental delights is the first order of meaningful architecture is the first step in producing buildings such as the day-care center that live on in our memories long after we've grown.

Julie Sinclair Eakin is Executive Editor of Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston. Trained as an architect, she is the author of The Architecture of Beauty published in 2005 by Rockport Publishers.


PROJECT Day-care Center Skanderborggade, Copenhagen

CLIENT City of Copenhagen, Department of Labor & Family Affairs

ARCHITECT AND LIGHTING DESIGNER Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter, Copenhagen

PHOTOGRAPHER Jens Lindhe, Copenhagen

PROJECT SIZE 835 square meters (building and exterior play areas) (approximately 8,987 square feet)

PROJECT COST $7 million Danish Krone (approximately $1.23 million)

MANUFACTURER & APPLICATION Thorn Lighting | Custom-designed ceiling fixture in nursery