Changing lifestyles and working environments make it that children spend increasingly more time at school. Accordingly, the school building and the relevant open space are not only learning but also important living spaces...
High up in the sky
By Linda Gebhard and Andreas Hunck (Hunck+Lorenz Freiraumplanung)
In summer 2009, the Katharinen school was the first school building to be constructed in Hamburg's newly developing district, HafenCity. One of the most unusual features of this school is undoubtedly the way its playground spaces have been designed ‒ the larger section of these is positioned on the roof of the multi-storey building.
In the form of a public-private partnership approved by the city senate, Hamburg developer Otto Wulff was awarded the contract to construct the building designed by Spengler Wiescholek, an architect bureau also based in Hamburg. This proposed a hybrid structure that would consist of a primary school, a day care centre and 30 rented apartments that would be integrated in the very densely developed urban environment of HafenCity.
To provide enough space for playing children, it was thus necessary to also use the roof of the building. During the planning phase, the siting of the playground on the school roof became a contentious issue as the overall concept used for the design of HafenCity has on occasion been criticised as being insufficiently child- and family-friendly. Our aim was thus to ensure that the idea would be positively welcomed by providing the children ‒ on a scope that was admittedly very limited ‒ with the maximum of space they could use and a high quality of options for exercise during breaks.
The largest section of the resultant playground extends to 1300 m² and represents the fifth floor of the building where it extends across the entire roof. This playground is supplemented by an additional 950 m² outdoor space for games and recreation located next to the building ground floor.
The building's nursery school has its own dedicated 350 m² outdoor space on the roof of a first-floor structure that is linked with the ground floor by a slide and stairs.
To contrast with the neutral hues used in the classrooms, we developed in collaboration with the architects a distinctive colour concept for the playground. The deck (in some cases only 20 cm in depth on top of the roof insulation) was given a colourful, striped, seamless EPDM surfacing in which are inlaid the words 'GANZ HOCH OBEN', i.e., 'High Up in the Sky'. A tinted skipping game was integrated in the first 'H' of 'HOCH' while the second was adapted as a seating element in the form of an 'H'-shaped raised wooden bench. There are also coloured EPDM globes and small elevated snaking floor undulations to encourage the children to play balancing and jumping games. To ensure further active exercise during breaks, also provided is conventional playground equipment, such as horizontal bars, a 'Spaceball' climbing frame together with space enough to run about in.
There is a section of wooden decking positioned 45 cm below the level of the activity-dedicated space. This more restful area is covered by awnings and here are large, weatherproof ‘coffee sacks’ (Hamburg has long been the home of major coffee importers) on which it is possible to relax.
As a safety barrier around the roof playground, the architect has put in place a 4-metre high steel fence with supports that can be described as 'dancing' ‒ they are positioned at oblique angles ‒ and steel mesh is spanned between these. We decided to place a bench extending along the barrier split up by exposed concrete planters to allow greenery to be introduced into the space. There are small niches that can be used as spots for relaxation and to look out into the surroundings. The skyline may be dominated by construction cranes and other high-rise buildings of HafenCity but from the roof it is also possible to see the River Elbe, the port and Hamburg's most prominent historic landmark, St. Michael's Church.
The ground floor
The ground floor playground that is partly covered by a 7-metre overhang of the second floor has a stone surface except for a 50-metre running track surfaced with green EPDM.
Ground sleeves have been inserted in this track in which small football goal posts can be anchored so that ball games can be played here in the breaks. When the track is to be used for running, the goal posts can simply be removed.
To act as counterparts to the coffee sacks used on the roof, the wooden seating elements here look like tea chests ready for shipment, evocative of Hamburg's past as a busy seaport.
The adjoining public pathways have been allowed to continue across this playground as outside school hours the site is publicly accessible, providing a direct route to the neighbouring Sandtor park.
The vivid colouring of the roof playground is repeated on the school gates that, when open, sit flush with their concrete supports so that a generously sized, open link to the park across the playground is provided. The Sandtor park, opened in 2011, also serves the school as an additional recreation area.
The nursery school
The outdoor play facilities of the day care centre and the crèche are located on the first floor of the section located between the school and residential buildings and on the ground floor to the east of the building. EPDM surfacing has also been used here in differently broad stripes. Predominant are warm, earth-like brown and beige tones that are alternated with orange, red and green. In the case of the roof space, the skylights of the rooms below have been integrated as deliberately disruptive elements and as obstacles add additional spatial quality to the play concept. On the roof area are a sand box and rocker and the entrance to a tunnel slide that connects the roof and ground floor sections. The two levels are also connected by a flight of stairs.
The play options for the young children are supplemented in the ground floor play area by a large nest swing while the built-over ramp of the underground car park provides a sloped surface, also covered with EPDM, on which the children can run about. The ramp is flanked by tiered wooden platforms that can also be used for climbing or resting.
During a visit to the school in summer 2019 as part of our office trip, 10 years after completion of the work, we were able to verify that our concept had stood the test of time. It was true that exposure to the sun had caused the colours of the EPDM surfacing to fade a little but the impression made by the playground features was on the whole excellent. The only problem we could see was with the planters placed along the roof fencing ‒ at least as far as their original intention was concerned. It seems that the children prefer to use these as a running course ‒ as a result the originally planted shrubs did not stand a chance. However, a few robust grasses and weeds, together with the climbing plants, had managed to survive so that the roof fencing is now pleasantly overgrown.
Of course, there is no doubt that we too would prefer to have more external space available for newly built schools with extensive grassed areas, green classrooms and more nature directly on the playground itself. However, this was simply not an option in this case and would not have been possible in view of the approved development plans, the urban concept and the size of the available site.
We are thus all the more gratified that, despite all the initial criticism and doubts, we have been able to demonstrate that urban spaces of this kind that take the form of a playground on the roof of a building can work well. The pupils and teachers of the Katharinen school now use their playground up in the clouds as a matter of course and are very happy with it. The children considered and still consider their playground to be awesome and included a tribute to it in their new school song to mark the school's opening. The result is thus all we hoped for and more.