All senses are in play in a swimming centre

Creating a good swimming centre requires a functional awareness of the building’s mechanics and the human body’s reaction to the transition from dry to wet, according to Dan Cornelius, co-owner of Cornelius + Vöge. 

Together with Japanese Kengo Kuma & Associates, the studio has designed the new Waterfront Culture Centre to be built on Paper Island in Copenhagen’s harbour.

Photo: Luxigon

A trip to the swimming centre is usually a very corporeal experience, where all the senses are working overtime. As a user, you clearly notice the different sounds, smells and temperatures that change as you move through the various zones from the foyer to the changing rooms, before finally lowering yourself into the water.

“In designing new swimming centres, architects need to be aware of the corporeal experience associated with visiting such centres, as well as the transformations users undergo at the centres. Such projects are also strongly dictated by technical functions, and the sharp division of the buildings into wet and dry zones,” says architect Dan Cornelius.

He is co-owner of Cornelius + Vöge, which won the contract to design a new world-class Waterfront Culture Centre on Copenhagen’s Paper Island in collaboration with Japanese Kengo Kuma & Associates. 

“One of the clear qualities of our centre is the way in which we have merged the wet and dry zones to ensure that visitors are aware of what’s happening. In many swimming centres, you don’t really know what’s going on when you enter the building. You might catch a glimpse of the water through a window, but the smells and temperature change gradually, until you suddenly find yourself in an oasis. By means of large glass facades, we have made it very clear what’s happening even before you enter the building,” says Dan Cornelius.

Kengo Kuma’s feeling for water

The Danish-Japanese partnership behind the project has previously worked together on the Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Odense.  The team quickly partnered with Niels Sigsgaard, who has built numerous swimming centres in Denmark, to fully get to grips with the functional mechanics of such centres. While Cornelius Vöge was able to contribute knowledge about the special role played by Paper Island in Copenhagen architecture, Kengo Kuma came with an approach to water as a substance and material that is very different from what we are used to in Denmark.

“We approached the task with no preconceptions whatsoever. We rarely work consciously with water as a material in Danish swimming centres. We often see a swimming centre as a collection of pools, walls, ceilings and floor surfaces, without thinking about the water as anything other than something that fills up the pools. Kengo Kuma brought a completely different insight, for example into the way in which the surface of the water captures the light,” explains Dan Cornelius.

Yuki Ikeguchi, managing partner at Kengo Kuma & Associates, adds:

“The design strives to offer an experience of water in various stages and forms, such as the reflection of light and shadow, water vapours and currents, that appeal to human senses.”

Hard surfaces – an acoustics challenge

From the outside, the new Waterfront Culture Centre will appear as a collection of brick pyramids, floating on lightweight glass structures. The design connects the indoor swimming pools with the outdoor harbour baths, but the many hard surfaces in the massive stone monolith present an acoustics challenge in the centre.

“It’s extremely important to us that the interior surfaces reflect the centre’s architectural premise. Given the many hard surfaces, we’ve really created a challenge for ourselves in this respect. We’re therefore working with things like absorbers built into the brick walls, to ensure better acoustics in the building,” says Dan Cornelius. 

Facts about the new Waterfront Cultural Centre:

  • Client: City of Copenhagen
  • Expected year of construction: 2020-2021
  • Expected cost price: DKK 360 million
  • Consultants: Kengo Kuma & Associates
  • Consultant team: Kengo Kuma & Associates, Cornelius Vöge – Atelier for arkitektur, Søren Jensen Rådgivende Ingeniørfirma A/S
  • Size: approx. 5,000 square metres