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The Smart School winning design: "Extraordinary comes out of the ordinary"

The Smart School winning design: "Extraordinary comes out of the ordinary"

Following on from our interview with Smart School runner-up Rudanko+Kankkunen, now we talk to one of the architects behind the competition's winning design – Carsten Primdahl from Danish studio CEBRA, whose locally inspired design for an intelligent new school in Irkutsk blew away the judges. Carsten talks to WorldBuild365 about CEBRA's winning design, the importance of content and architecture working together, and why Irkutsk and Denmark are a lot closer culturally than they are geographically.



 Congratulations on your successful pitch for the Irkutsk Smart School. What attracted you to the job?


The brief for the school was very cutting-edge compared to many schools in Western Europe, a high-octane concept, and this explains why many of the finalists were high-profile international offices. The brief promises to be an exciting commission – working on schools like that allows us to give something back. 


We’ve taken part in competitions organised by Strelka (the organisers of the Smart School Competition) twice before, and the level of their work is very professional. They have international experience, so they are a very good mediator between the Russian community and us. 


Cebra's winning Smart School design 


Were there any adjustments you had to make when going to Russia, in terms of your design and approach?


The first time we entered a project in Russia, we didn’t manage to accommodate the Russian building codes in small, detailed places. We submitted a beautiful design, but it was too challenging on a technical level. One main problem was fire safety regulations. In northern Europe, these regulations are based on the building’s functions and determined by computer simulations, which is different from the method used in Russia.








This time we kept our previous experience in mind. We planned a very ambitious project, but our design was driven by the content, which was based on many years of research on how to build learning environments.



Irkutsk is a long way from Denmark. How did the difference in climate, culture and building tradition influence your plans for the school?


We Scandinavians have the same understanding of seasons as Irkutsk. If we went 6,000 km south of Denmark instead of 6,000 km east, it would have been a different story!


Irkutsk has a strong tradition of building in wood, so we incorporated wood into our design in different ways. We used local Russian larch, so in 30 to 50 years the cladding of the building will be self-supporting – when they need to renovate, they can harvest wood 50 metres away from the school. We wanted to create an ecosystem and support the culture of local craftsmanship in order to draw on local knowledge and tradition in the building process. We also used pitched roofs as a distinctive shaping element – although this is not particularly characteristic for Irkutsk– because, like in Denmark, it is one of the most widespread and recognisable building elements, one which contributes to establishing a harmonic relation between the school complex and its surroundings by reducing the building scale. 





A lot of our strategy was governed by a combination of the learning methods and the climate. The local climate is characterised by very cold winters followed by a pre-season with a lot of rain and extremely hot summers. In order to use the outdoor spaces as an integral part of the daily school life, you need some sort of shelter from the elements.  The cantilevering roof’s eaves and canopies are a good way to provide shade and stop the building from overheating. Our design was also inspired by the yurt – the Mongolian hut that is focused towards the centre.




We had a dialogue with the clients to discuss the conceptual layout and how we could move forward. We are very much in line with one another – we have the same aspirations for life and share a set of common values. It was a great experience sitting down with people who wanted to achieve goals that embody some of the same values we base our architecture on.



Do you have a philosophy you apply to education buildings?


We talk to the experts – the teachers and the students. This is the foundation of what we do, and over the years we have developed this into a good understanding of what we want to do and how we do it.



When we saw the proposals from the other participants, we thought that many of them showed beautiful architecture, but with a lack of focus on pedagogical content. At CEBRA, we believe that a building can have stunning architecture without compromising programme and content, so we try hard to make the design and appearance of our architecture as good as the content. We think that extraordinary comes out of the ordinary, and that you can make a difference with everyday architecture. Doing educational buildings makes a lot of sense for us – it brings value into the world, it’s about the kids that come out on the other size as global citizens and happy people.


The Georgian Ministry of Highways building in Tbilisi.



Do you have a favourite Russian building?


I really enjoy the Russian constructivists. They are very inspiring for us, because in the early days of our education there was a period of deconstructivism, so constructivist architecture was part of that. The Georgian Ministry of Highways building in Tbilisi, the Druzhba Holiday Centre in Yalta, the House of the Soviets in Kaliningrad and the Tatlin Tower (although this was never built), are all particularly exciting exponents from that era. Some of those buildings are heavy, concrete structures, but they have a quality of endurance. It was a different time and a different mindset, but the architecture in itself, if you reinterpret it and put it into a modern context, is very interesting. It is a part of Russian culture, and I consider the constructivist movement to be a part of modern Russia.


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