When Danish practice CEBRA took on the brief to create a new home for the Experimentarium science centre in Copenhagen, it created some ‘gunpowder’ moments, including a double helix staircase clad in 10 tonnes of copper
Words by Anthea Gerrie
It was in many ways the brief from hell — take an antiquated, inward-looking building not fit for purpose and transform it, while doubling the space without increasing the footprint, into a highly visible, fully functional home for a 21st-century science and technology museum.
Architecture was not even mentioned in the brief when an international competition was launched for the new face and body of Copenhagen’s Experimentarium: ‘Our first consideration was for the inner needs of the building,’ admits CEO Kim Gladstone Herlev of a museum that even lacked space to conceal the vital cabling modern exhibits require; in the past wires had to be duct-taped to the floor for visitors to step over.
Exterior view of the Experimentarium shows its stacked levels ‘pushed out into the street. Brick from the original bottling factory was washed with a chalk and red pigmen. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
He does concede, on reflection, that it was vital to signify a building in which something special was going on to distinguish it from the bland office buildings which have grown up around it: ‘When we opened in 1991, we only had a boat to Sweden as our neighbour.’ There was a need to create a dialogue with the surrounding city, he says, and to give the building ‘eyes’ to signify transparency.
Danish architects had no special advantage in an international competition where all bids were anonymous, but nevertheless it was CEBRA, a practice based not in the capital but the country’s second city, Aarhus, which won the bid. Despite problems ranging from extensive site pollution to a fire that held up construction, it has created a stunning building on the site of a pre-war brewery whose fabric remains enmeshed within its construction.
The shine of the copper isn’t expected to last much more than a year, but will be replaced by a warm mellowness that will eventually turn green. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
‘All new achievements are based on old knowledge, so we wanted to base the future on history,’ says Kolja Nielsen, one of CEBRA’s founding partners, pointing out exterior bricks that now look new, thanks to a wash-down and a coat of chalk mixed with red pigment. Originally the walls of a 1927 bottling plant, they now form a traditional base over which lighter, new materials — perforated aluminium patterned to represent fluid dynamics and textured steel polished to a mirror finish — float, cladding the new upper floors. They form a facade staggered across a series of boxes that Nielsen says were ‘pushed out into the street to make the building interact more with the city’.
These boxes are punctuated with huge windows that form the all-important ‘eyes’ of the building. It was, however, not cosmetic considerations but the urgent requirement for more on-site construction space that mandated a new building when the foundation owning Experimentarium acquired the site in 2008. ‘It was never really fit to be a science centre, but it was such a success when it opened in 1991 that within months of buying the brewery we called for bids for a new home that would represent everything we aspired to be,’ says Herlev.
Same staircase, different view — this time looking from the top to the ground floor through the curves. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
‘The museum itself was a bit of a secret, being outside the city centre,’ adds Nielsen, who had never ventured into the old Experimentarium until the competition was announced in 2010. ‘And until we opened the envelope, we had never heard of CEBRA,’ admits Herlev.
He says that if architecture was not specifically mentioned in the brief, respect for design was a given, embedded in the Danish DNA: ‘A lot of science museums don’t care about the design of their exhibits, but we care about it passionately. When we get visitors from San Francisco, Chicago and other cities with science centres, they say: “Wow, maybe we should have done it this way”.’
CEBRA’s brief was to double the pre-existing inside exhibition space and add space for outdoor exhibits on the rooftop to lure in summer visitors: ‘That’s when locals head for the beach, and we have great beaches on our doorstep,’ says Herlev. But as a building that visually expressed science was also called for, CEBRA’s astonishing central spiral staircase replicating the double helix of DNA and clad in 10 tonnes of solid copper was the audacious statement that surely won the practice the £59.6m contract. This staircase, Nielsen says, as we gaze down the vertiginous well of its white concrete core, ‘is one of three areas where we decided to use all our architectural gunpowder’.
Sub-floor cavities conceal cabling, while the floors are constructed in modules that can be reconfigured for new exhibits. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
Within a year it will have lost its shine, but this is intentional, says Nielson: ‘There was much talk about whether to varnish it, but we decided to let nature take its course, and you can already see children’s handprints. As there is no acid rain on the inside, it will take many years to go green, although it will mellow, like an old leather bag, and the reddish colour warms up all these other cold surfaces.’ Graffiti is already appearing in the copper, etched by rings children have used to carve their names, but Nielsen shrugs this off: ‘It’s like a stainless-steel kitchen table — the first scratch really hurts you, but soon you don’t think about it any more. Within a year, you won’t be able to see the graffiti as the copper deepens with oxidisation.’
More ‘gunpowder’ was poured into the facade, inner panels of polished steel that create kaleidoscopic reflections and a mirror-clad, folly of a staircase that leads nowhere. Such surface pizzazz may be missing from the two vast exhibition galleries, but they gained the vital advantage of sub-floor cavities up to 30cm deep to conceal cabling, while the floors themselves are strong enough to support a car or fork-lift. They are constructed in modules that can be lifted one square at a time, an important element to facilitate the dismantling of exhibits and installing new ones.
Some 10 tonnes of copper clads this front staircase, already attracting handprints and graffiti. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
On-site production of content being all-important, the designers now have high-level, glass-walled offices from where they can survey the galleries, accessed at a low level from the mirrored staircase, that has injected function into the apparent folly of two flights of stairs not going anywhere: ‘Each [flight] can also seat 25 pupils listening to their teacher,’ says Nielsen. The steps also access an as yet uncompleted rooftop exhibition space to be topped, via an outdoor staircase incorporating a waterfall, with a higher-level terrace cafe overlooking Sweden, barely a mile away across the sound.
In spite of the building’s good looks, Nielsen believes CEBRA really won the competition for its mastery of flow: ‘There were so many public spaces to integrate with private ones such as the meeting rooms, administration offices and design and construction spaces where the exhibits are made on site. ‘And way-finding, which was difficult inside the old building, was important. Now children who are let loose to run will be able to find their grandparents in the restaurant because they know it’s on the other side of that copper staircase you can see from everywhere.’
A staircase, faced with mirror, and sitting at the rear of the building, is another of CEBRA’s ‘architectural gunpowder’ features. Photo Credit: Adam Mørk
Making the new space pay its way was a key to the profitability of a museum owned by a foundation, says Herlev, who called for a restaurant flexible enough to feed schoolchildren and families by day, but be transformed into a sophisticated dining room for evening events, and conference rooms to accommodate business visitors. ‘Meeting here and getting the chance to interact with the exhibits is a bit special,’ he says of a museum fielding irresistible 21st-century experiences like the chance to play a laser harp by breaking light beams instead of tweaking strings.
Early indications suggest the new Experimentarium will be a huge success. As Denmark’s only science centre, it has made the list of the country’s top 10 attractions, and is already set to exceed first-year target visitor numbers of half a million. That’s just paying guests — it’s a fair bet that thousands more will come just to gawp at the world’s most thrilling staircase and plunder a museum shop more elegantly designed than much of the merchandise it sells.