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Student Communion: Campus Hall in Odense, Denmark by C.F. Møller

AR Housing 2016 highly commended: The new Campus Hall adopts a pinwheel plan nudging the students towards its core

Academic legend tells of a Copenhagen university professor, having travelled to Odense to see his new workplace, wandered up and down Niels Bohrs Allé unable to find it. ‘Only after much vain searching did it occur to him it might be nestling behind the low hedge of dog-rose he had passed several times without noticing anything that remotely resembled a university,’ recounts Professor Emeritus Per Boje.

Odense University – the Rusty Castle to its friends – has an image problem. It’s not that the image itself – a low-rise campus of concrete and Corten Danish functionalism huddled among green ramparts and surrounded by a protected forest – isn’t incredibly beautiful. It is, and ageing with enviable grace. But it has historically been a little hard to see. Call it Danish modesty that one of the country’s first major university buildings should be placed somewhere only the initiated could find.

‘While alone it is not a game-changer, Campus Hall’s attitude to the dormitory is one that other institutions and countries could learn from’

But there are rumblings beyond the grove of academe: since merging with the Southern Denmark School of Business and Engineering and the South Jutland University Centre to form the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), the surrounding area is becoming the urban face that the university never had, much to the puzzlement of the horses and hares. The original campus enjoys the best of both worlds in that the protected forest keeps it cloistered while construction springs up outside – even CF Møller’s new Campus Hall, one of Odense’s tallest buildings at 15 storeys, is often hidden behind the trees. 

‘We knew from the start we wanted to create a tall building: a landmark for the university’ says Julian Weyer, partner at CF Møller and project leader. For the heavyweight firm, Campus Hall is another landmark for Odense; their flamboyant SDU Technical Faculty riffed on concrete and Corten without falling foul of the admittedly tempting copy-paste trend that lingers on campus, and the 200,000m2 Cortex Park development, won in 2009, promises to transform what will become the main procession into the university in the area surrounding this student housing. As such, Campus Hall references angles and lines-of-sight that do not yet exist, and looks out onto urban areas that are slowly forming, and its current, object-in-the-landscape existence may be idyllic, but will not last.

‘Call it Danish modesty that one of the country’s first major university buildings should be placed somewhere only the initiated could find’

All of these projects share, much like SDU itself, an incredible compactness. If, as Weyer describes, Cortex is to be something of a ‘medieval city’, tightly dense to avoid spilling out into the surrounding fields, then Campus Hall is its lookout tower. Weyer admits, ‘we could have covered it all with low-rise … but a concentrated footprint freed up green space.’ The nearby village of Killerup was the only party to express concerns over Campus Hall’s height, and in fact the resulting views over the university (not present anywhere else save for aerial photography) were a big part of the sell.

Campus Hall is a ‘gift’ – at least for a lucky few – from the AP Møller Foundation, tied to shipping giant Maersk and the funding behind projects such as Henning Larsen’s Copenhagen Opera House, as well as the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute established in 1997 and housed in premises in Odense donated to SDU. The brief, asking for 250 units, provided a generous site – but nonetheless CF Møller’s choice to go tall and dense was favoured. ‘It wasn’t a particularly expensive project’, says Weyer, ‘and because of the foundation we were able to act like it was a private client instead of a public client, and tender it in different ways. Once we decided it would be tall, we thought about it from the inside out. Up to 50 per cent of these students are international, and many from other areas in Denmark – how would that relationship pan out in a floor plan?’ The hall sits alongside Campusvej – the main route into the campus off Niels Bohrs Allé that will soon be a thoroughfare extending to the new (yes, more development) University Hospital to the south. Split into three towers in a pinwheel, Campus Hall not only looks out onto this future thoroughfare, but out to the forest and landscape – soon to be Cortex Park – beyond. Private balconies protrude from every single bedroom – seven to a tower – and the gradation of privacy smooths inwards to the centre, where an average of 21 students share a kitchen/living/dining space. Twelve floors follow this layout, topped by two floors that include flats for two university researchers and their families, shared meeting and party spaces, and a terrace. At ground level the SDU housing office has moved in (a vote of confidence if ever there was one), as well as a café (all kebabs, pizzas and bagels), laundry facilities and bike storage. This all spills out onto a leisure park – currently full of diggers – that will complement the nearby sports park that dips below a green rampart.

Led by the slippery concept of ‘community spirit’, Campus Hall shuns the corridor-based experience of much student housing from the past few decades, embracing what is essentially a circular plan that gently nudges its residents to a shared centre. Clichés suggesting all Danish student dormitories offer well designed co-living will quickly be dispelled by those who have experienced any built during Denmark’s functionalism love affair. While CF Møller are not revolutionary or making a grand statement here, they are continuing a push for high-quality student housing that goes beyond one-off examples in large cities – another prominent example being Copenhagen’s Tietgenkollegiet by Lundgaard & Tranberg.

‘It’s probably the best dorm in Denmark’, computer science student Mark Jervelund tells me as we reach the 12th floor. A group of sports science students are on sofas revising. ‘Most evenings there is always someone here cooking. We have a common dinner on Monday but even when we cook ourselves you have someone next to you.’ Having previously lived in Copenhagen’s Kampsax, where ‘the kitchen was the size of my room here’, Jervelund is full of praise. His floormate, medical student Jakob Schmidt, is more reserved, having experienced a similar housing concept in Aalborg. ‘It depends on the people’, he adds. ‘If all of your friends move out then it’s not really the same any more.’

The furniture and fittings in these shared spaces are not superb, but as the spaces that will bear the brunt of cooking and parties this is perhaps a tactical decision. The individual rooms and the exterior make up for it: the grey brick and tombac panels (an alloy of brass and zinc) are enough of a nod to the university so as not to be trite, and concrete interior walls between rooms reduce noise. Lucky residents who sit at the edge of each tower have a particularly pleasing detail – a perforated brick section that sits behind a window to allow for light and a breeze without sacrificing privacy. Jervelund confesses to never having used his slim radiator which sits discreetly against the wall, and in summer some serious co-ordinated cross ventilation can be had across the entire floor plan if floormates open their balcony doors.

‘Led by the slippery concept of ‘community spirit’, Campus Hall shuns the corridor-based experience of much student housing from the past few decades’

‘We all have these perhaps outdated experiences of shared dormitories, so we set up a focus group and built a full-scale mock up of one floor’, explains Weyer. While this was inevitably more about design comforts than attitudes to sharing (the latter will not be resolved by a certain number of towels or door handles), it brought a level of detail to the spaces that is conducive to a sense of shared ownership and care. To this end, each of three ‘islands’ in the shared kitchen is subtly coloured, corresponding to a coloured graphic next to each resident’s door. The interstitial spaces between each tower and the centre double as semi-private areas with seating for each group of seven, separated by what were initially installed as sliding fire doors (the escape route runs around the perimeter) but, somewhat unexpected by Weyer, are used to cut off the spaces when desired – especially during the exam season.

It is worth bearing in mind that while this is the stuff of dreams for students in the UK, there is a far bigger interest and drive for such projects in Denmark. ‘It’s night and day’, says Richard Cowie, a Bristol-born student of Physics and Technology who moved to Odense after an Erasmus year. We exchange British uni digs horror stories, I of a townhouse for 10 in Leicester and he a six-to-a-bathroom arrangement in Swansea. ‘I lived in three houses over three years in the UK, and it completely segregates student living from this final permanent step when you graduate and get a job. OK, for one you are learning and the other you’re being paid, but effectively your job is being a student.’

Cowie lives on Floor 4, in a state of ‘blissful anarchy’. There are no rules on Floor 4, unlike say, Floor 3’s ‘cleaning/dinners’ rota, which ensures everyone cooks or cleans once a month. Cowie himself is enjoying watching each floor settle into its own little way of life. ‘It’s sort of a human experiment’ – he confesses to having watched High-Rise recently – ‘there’s something nice about seeing all of these systems at work.’ I sense Weyer finds the High-Rise ‘experiment’ metaphor a little flippant, but I have to ask if the Campus Hall has ever had to deliver justice. ‘We had to blacklist one guy who said fuck you to the janitor’, says Jervelund.

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Considered though the individual floors are, their stacking in the name of compactness seems something of an antithesis, the route of door to lift straight out into communal kitchen fast tracks you to your floor, but doesn’t treat the tower as much of a whole. ‘It was a tricky question – who would you want to have access to your floor?’ says Weyer. Unless invited, students can only access their own floor, but given the layout of the building it seems it would be uncomfortable were it any other way. So it is left very much up to the residents to organise mingling between floors, and it is an aspect high on the list for the residents’ committee, chaired by Cowie and vice-chaired by ground floor-resident Benedicte Mortensen. Both report to a university board on behalf of a representative on each of Campus Hall’s floors. The first residents having only arrived in September 2015, passions for the building’s success are currently high – and tensions are not. Game of Thrones night takes place on Mondays on the top floors, on 2 July a barbecue has been organised for the end of exams, and Jervelund tells me of a planned ‘balcony crawl’ that will follow the sun around and up the three towers with the requisite libations. Being a part of this community comes with the small contribution of 20 kronor a month – only protested by a handful of residents – which goes towards items for the shared spaces or throwing parties.

‘While CF Møller are not revolutionary or making a grand statement here, they are continuing a push for high-quality student housing that goes beyond one-off examples in large

While many I speak to have come from other dormitories, Mortensen moved from a house share in Odense with one other friend, and feels as though Campus Hall has hit on a shared housing ‘sweet-spot’. ‘I prefer a lot to a few – if 20 people share a kitchen, if you don’t clean up you will have 20 people reminding you. If you are with three or four that’s not necessarily the case.’ This being said, Mortensen has a larger, double room (one is available on each floor, along with one slightly larger accessible room), with its own kitchenette. Any huge problems in the kitchen and she is able to retreat to her room. As for the committee – ‘it’s normal to have one’, says Mortensen, ‘but it is not normal for it to do anything other than organise a party’. As Cowie says, you can ‘go in as much as you like’, as far as both the sharing and the community is concerned.

What satisfies about a visit to Campus Hall is how many of its residents are in line with what the building is trying to achieve. This is its first batch of students, and they have made a concerted effort to lay down groundwork for those who follow. The lifts may be a little pokey, and the execution of a thesis of compactness (to the detriment of circulation) may sometimes jar with the generosity of the communal areas, but it is these shared spaces that have released a sense of community among the residents. While alone it is not a game-changer, Campus Hall’s attitude to the dormitory – painting the student not as a drifter, but as an active agent – is one that other institutions and countries could learn from.

Architect: C.F. Møller

Landscape architect: C.F. Møller Landscape

Structural engineer: Niras    

Photographs: Anthony Coleman

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