The folk high school is a Danish institution that goes back over 150 years to when the first was set up by a pastor called Grundtvig. He is famous in Denmark for his idea of lifting people in poor rural areas and giving them a radical view of society. We now have about 70-80 folk high schools in Denmark and Performers' House is the only new one in ten years. Each year 7,000 people take six-month courses and 45,000 students come to study for a few weeks, so it's a real cultural
Performers' House was founded by two very passionate people – Lars Ilum and Allan Agerbo. Sponsorship came from the Realdania Foundation, and the community and the city also gave money. The brief was a competition, which five teams entered. The plot and capacity were fixed, but the brief wasn't too regimented. We were the only team to plan two separate structures, leaving the original boiler building, and creating a new one nearby.
We wanted an integrated, intimate space. When people are studying, they want to focus on the course. For half a year they have the chance to spend day and night with people who share their interests. If that sharing happens, then education develops.
All the world's a stage
We tried to integrate the idea that whatever the students are doing, they are always on stage. Before you go on stage, you have to be totally focused.
The idea was that the performers could close the shutters on the façade of the building and prepare. Then they could open the shutters and perform in the window; this was the symbolism. Trying to fit so many functions into one space was like a puzzle.
We wanted to take the DNA of the building from what it once was – a paper mill – and create a tribute to the buildings in the area. We related the new building to that atmosphere of industry, which is why we incorporated the fantastic red rust panels, which are like a skin, and the red bricks of the area. We decided to leave cable bearers and ventilation visible to make a backstage atmosphere. Usually in Denmark you look up and see nothing on the ceilings, but leaving the top of
the rooms open gives you more volume.
Incorporating big windows so that passers-by can interact with the school is symbolic in a way, but also practical, because the plot opens on to a public area. The school can open big sections of the façade and use the rooms as a stage. It holds regular performances, when crowds gather around and watch through the windows. It also involves people on another level because it is possible to rent space at the school. Travelling artists can stay there cheaply for a few days in exchange for
a performance. It's a Danish tradition that you try to integrate professionals with school life so that the students can learn from them.
At our practice we have fun with everything and that doesn't depend on the scale of the project. It depends more on the relationship between the architect and the client. Here we worked very closely, so that was fun. The client was passionate because the project started from nothing.
We were very happy to be chosen as the LEAF Awards Grand Prix winner. It's a big honour for our office and a credit to our teamwork. It was a unique project with no reference points so I think the award also gives credit to the client, what they wanted to achieve and the risks they took.'