When FEAS acquired the former hospital buildings on Nørrebrogade, it almost doubled the amount of square metres in its portfolio. The large project enables Aarhus University to reduce the distance not only between its academic environments, but also between the university and the city.
By Thomas Grønborg Sørensen
It is impossible to say what went through the minds of the many people assembled for Christian X’s inauguration of Aarhus University’s first yellow-brick building in 1933.
But lack of space was hardly one of them.
The detached building was surrounded by green on all sides. And even though the new university had plans for more buildings and great ambitions, few hardly imagined that ninety years later the yellow-brick building would be part of a university of high international class – with close to 10,000 employees and almost 40,000 students.
Things have been progressing rapidly since the turn of the century. Aarhus University has grown both in size and renown – and mergers with the Aarhus School of Business and the School of Engineering, among others, have created a growing need for more room for researchers, students and equipment.
Initially, the need was met with new buildings at e.g. Katrinebjerg, Fuglesangs Allé and Navitas in the harbour area. But when the opportunity to acquire the site of the former Aarhus Kommunehospital measuring just under 100,000 square metres, the Aarhus University Research Foundation did not hesitate:
‘FEAS’ acquisition of the hospital site has almost doubled our real estate portfolio. The project involves both demolition, renovation and new construction, and needless to say it is a huge undertaking. But it is also extremely exciting, and we have the resources and expertise to do it. At the same time, it is a unique opportunity for Aarhus University, and that is the reason why we are here. Therefore, we did not really need time to think it over, and we managed to negotiate a reasonable purchase agreement with the region’, says Managing Director of the Foundation Jørgen Lang about the DKK 807.5-million purchase.
Once in a Lifetime
Rector of Aarhus University Brian Bech Nielsen agrees. He looks forward to being able to implement one of the most important development plans in the history of the university, and he says that new urban campus universities rarely get a chance to make extensions to their building stock:
‘There is a unique feel to a university located in the middle of a city. However, city campuses often have a fixed amount of space available. Therefore, Aarhus University is extremely privileged to be able to move several environments closer together, while continuing to be a city campus. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity’, says Brian Bech Nielsen and adds:
‘My colleagues in other countries often tell me that Aarhus University already has a unique campus. So good physical surroundings are a great asset that helps strengthen our chances of attracting leading foreign researchers and students. In addition, you should not underestimate the effect of physical proximity on the quality of core activities. Even though we live in a digital era, it is still easier to establish strong collaborations between academic environments that are located relatively close to each other. And we need cross-disciplinary collaborations to be able to help solve the great global challenges facing the climate, biodiversity and democracy’.
A United Faculty – Now Also Physically
One of the disciplines that will benefit from the University City is Aarhus BSS, the faculty of Business and Social Science research and education. Since its merger into one unit in 2011, the faculty has been spread across town.
However, recent years’ growth has generated a need for more room, especially at Fuglesangs Allé. And even though he will be sad to leave the buildings that have housed the former Aarhus School of Business since 1968, Dean Thomas Pallesen is happy to be given this opportunity:
‘We will be able to give our staff and students physical surroundings that are more up-to-date. At the same time, being able to unite the faculty physically for the first time ever – with the exception of our Herning-based activities – will stimulate collaboration between our departments. I believe it will prove very rewarding’.
Aarhus BSS will move to the western part of the University City, and a new tunnel below Nørrebrogade will ensure direct access to the faculty’s buildings in the north-eastern corner of the University Park. The move has been scheduled for 2025, and Thomas Pallesen looks forward to being able to strengthen both research and education, but also the faculty’s collaboration with the city and business community:
‘It is part of Aarhus BSS’ DNA to be in contact with a lot of public authorities and private companies. We expect the new facilities in the University City to expand our network considerably.
The Kitchen Is Buzzing
Contact with external collaborators will mainly be established at the entrepreneurship house ‘The Kitchen’, which opened in February 2020. The building is named after its previous occupant, namely the central hospital kitchen. But in the next five years it will house the university’s many entrepreneurs. More and more students and researchers have developed a taste for entrepreneurship and business collaboration, and The Kitchen will be home to a lot of their activities.
Innovation Fund Denmark and Vaekstfonden will also be present in the house, linking the many start-ups with the regional and national innovation ecosystems. This will make it easier for companies to receive guidance and make upgrades.
‘It is our clear ambition to make the University City a centre for business development in Aarhus and the Central Denmark Region. We want it to buzz with activity in the form of presentations and workshops on innovation and entrepreneurship, and on the whole we want the area to attract both established and newly established companies who want a piece of the knowledge and network available here’, says Jørgen Lang.
The Managing Director points out that the house also plans to invite small businesses, e.g. cafes, bookshops and bicycle repair shops, to set up in the University City. At the same time, there are plans for establishing a day care facility.
Buzzing with Life
However, the students will be the main source of life in the University City. As it should be in a university campus, says Jørgen Lang:
‘No university without students. They are the backbone of the life we wish to create in the area – especially outside office hours. Therefore, right from the start we have been planning to offer a good amount of student accommodation in the University City as well as accommodation for visiting researchers’.
The former patient hotel will provide accommodation for a total of 132 students, and it is expected to welcome the first occupants in 2022. Thus, the university campus will be able to house approximately 170 students. The yellow-brick University Park Colleges, which are being refurbished these years, are already home to around 500 students.
‘College life is an important part of the spirit and history of Aarhus University. It is something we need to preserve – and if we want the accommodation to continue to be attractive to the students, it needs to be refurbished. At the same time, this enables us to offer a more varied selection of accommodation as an alternative to the traditional residence halls and thus attract a different target group. On the outside the colleges will continue to look as they have always looked. And I look forward to the yellow-brick colleges to be accompanied by red-brick student flats in the University City. And who knows, perhaps the future will see an annual football match between the two colours’, says Jørgen Lang laughing.
Focus on Sustainability
In connection with idea development for the University City project the students emphasised the importance of sustainability. It has therefore been decided to DGNB-certify a number of the buildings focussing on their environmental, financial and social sustainability.
The DGNB programme is voluntary and comprises three levels: silver, gold and platinum. The university aims at a gold-level certification, says Director of Aarhus University Arnold Boon:
‘In early 2020 Aarhus University launched an ambitious climate strategy, so it comes naturally to us to seek to ensure that our building stock helps reduce our overall impact on the climate. Our researchers make a huge effort to generate knowledge about sustainability, but we, as an organisation, also need to do whatever we can. And with a large project like the University City it is a matter of course that we are ambitious with regard to sustainability.
Respect for Cultural Heritage
Managing Director of FEAS Jørgen Lang points out that the project focusses on what we might call historical sustainability. That is, that the project to a great extent takes into consideration that a lot of the former hospital buildings are considered worthy of preservation.
This includes e.g. the characteristic red-brick Building 1, which was built as early as 1893. Its design is reflected in the remaining hospital buildings built in the 1930s and designed by Architects C.F. Møller and Kay Fisker, who also designed the university’s yellow-brick buildings. According to Jørgen Lang, the former hospital buildings also deserve to be treated with care and respect. And therefore, fronts, roofs and the pavement in the main street of the University City will mainly be built in red brick.
’The yellow-brick buildings in the park represent a unique design and are historically significant, and that also applies to a lot of the red-brick buildings. There is a correspondence between the overall design of the two areas, and it is something we wish to preserve both when refurbishing and in new construction. We feel the great responsibility associated with preserving an important part of the architectural history of the city. It is an awe-inspiring job, but also an interesting one – having to balance the local history aspect and constructing ultramodern facilities for an internationally oriented university’, says Jørgen Lang.
The University Merging with the City
On the whole, the university’s relation to the city of Aarhus has been a main focus at both FEAS and Aarhus University. Even though the Danish universities have become far more outward-oriented in recent decades, the idea of the academic ivory tower still stands. The University City must help demolish the tower once and for all, believes University Director Arnold Boon:
‘The university’s campus is already open and inviting to the citizens of Aarhus, who use the University Park as a green oasis. You might say that the University City will become an urban counterpart hereto. Its design should to a greater extent demonstrate that it is part of the city, and businesses and a day care facility will help make the area very different from the one found on the other side of Nørrebrogade. The University City represents an opportunity for the university to merge with the city, and I very much hope that the citizens of Aarhus will welcome and use the area’.