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Romance of the rose

Henning Larsen Architects and Buro Happold draw on Syria's glittering cultural past to build an even brighter future.

Model of the Massar Children's Discovery Centre.
Model of the Massar Children's Discovery Centre.

Henning Larsen Architects and Buro Happold draw on Syria's glittering cultural past to build an even brighter future.

Few flowers carry as much symbolism as the rose. Depending on its colour, it's the flower of love, or friendship, or innocence, or grace. For the city of Damascus, the rose holds a special significance.

Of the many types of rose in the world, the Damask (or Damascus Rose) is one of the most important. "The Damascus rose is very unique and special, it has special resonance for the Syrians," says associate and lead architect Anne-Marie Galmstrup.

The Damask Rose now takes on a new form, as part of the 15,000m² Massar Children's Discovery Centre.

We looked at the rose and started to take inspiration from plant structures and nature - Anne-Marie Galmstrup.

Massar is non-profit organisation, aiming to use non-formal learning techniques to held build a better future for Syrian children.

The new building in Damascus will effectively act as a headquarters for the organisation, as well as provide a unique space for children to learn and play. "It's about providing an education and showing that you're able to learn through play," explains Galmstrup.

Key to creating this environment was creating large open spaces within the building where children could interact with each other.

"The centre of the building is very important because this is about creating a space for kids to share knowledge and develop new ideas, so they have to have this reference point where they can talk and have a dialogue, and see things from a different perspective," explains Galmstrup

Initially, Henning Larsen Architects considered the idea of a large roof with a facade shell. "Then we looked at the rose and started to take inspiration from plant structures and nature," says Galmstup.

"What the shell is doing-the 'petals'-is forming a shield, but it also allows light into the building between the petals."

Think of the children

As the name suggests, the Children's Discovery Centre will cater primarily for young people. "75% of who will occupy this building will be kids under 15 years of age, so we've designed with that in mind," says Galmstup.

The centre of the building forms an orientation space, while between the petals are places for exhibitions and classrooms. The building has also been kept deliberately simple to navigate.

"Towards the central courtyard, there are a lot of balconies and rafts where kids can look at each other. You can always visually connect to the other parts of the exhibition. You're not really getting lost," explains Galmstrup.

Making the building accessible to all is also an essential part of the design, says Tom Hay, associate at structural engineers Buro Happold.

"There's obviously a lot of ramps and that works in certain ways for certain kinds of disabilities, but the ramps have become a big issue and we've had to look at breaking them up for other kinds of disabilities.

These things have been very important in terms of the client's input, since the client views accessibility as being key to the success," he says.

75% of who will occupy this building will be kids under 15 years of age, so we've designed with that in mind - Anne-Marie Galmstrup.

Initially the building had both ramps and 'shortcut' stairs, but the design has now removed these shortcuts to create greater equality within the building.

"Everyone has to use the same route, so that no-one is discriminated against. Everybody has to be part of the activities," says Galmstrup.

A local labour of love

However, the building is not just a place to educate children. The design has been carefully calculated in order to draw not only from local architecture, but also local experience. "It's getting local craftspeople to maintain their skills," says Galmstrup.

Because Damascus occupies an earthquake zone, this limited the choices of structural material to either reinforced concrete or steel.

The Centre will be built with reinforced concrete, which Hay identifies as being the material which dominates the construction industry in Syria.

"We've developed a very simple reinforced concrete structure, where everything is set out in a very simple radial arrangement," he explains.

The building itself is modelled by computer in three dimensions, but can be broken down to make the project more feasible for local contractors.

"Everything in this building can be drawn in two dimensions. That's the key to delivering the building in Syria," says Hay.

The use of local craft and materials has also added extra elements to the design. Original plans for the centre asked for a smooth, plastered surface, or possibly tiling, but both these proposals were rejected on the grounds of feasibility or fitting in with the local architectural character.

Limestone is now used on the facade, creating a new effect.

"It's adding texture to the facade by the relief picking up shadows throughout the day," explains Galmstrup. On the interior of the structure, clay will be used for its acoustic and absorbency properties.

The locality also informs the architectural design, as well as its material specification and implementation. As the one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus has around 7,000 years worth of architectural heritage to draw from.

A walk through the Children's Discovery Centre is based on the feel of walking through the Syrian capital itself.

"The inspiration came from all these journeys which we had in the Old Town of Damascus," says Galmstrup. "You have the busy souk streets, and you go into the tiny corridors, and then you open doors into amazing, quiet courtyards."

These quiet spaces are an important part of the way in which the building design contributes to the education of the children who will use it.

"So there are both very active spaces in the centre to make it vibrant, and then we need to give the children space to reflect and learn from what they've done," says Galmstrup.

A sustainable future

Any project explicitly concerned with building a better future for children would do well to include sustainable elements. Hay explains that sustainability wasn't a pre-requisite of the project but has been incorporated into the design.

"Water is probably one of the biggest issues in Damascus, so within the building we're looking at ways of limiting demand," he says. This includes the use of rainwater for the toilets, which is unusual for Syria.

The building is also socially sustainable. "It's a place that inspires dialogue," says Galmstrup. "How they're taught at school in Syria is very fact-based and very one-way communication.

In the park, you can ask questions. In the building, you can ask questions, so from a social side, we've laid out the building to create openness and obvious clashes where people can meet and start dialogue."

The Massar Children's Discovery Centre is a building designed for a specific purpose. As well as building a structure, it's very much a case of building a future, while drawing on the past.

Says Hay, "It's an immense privilege to be brought in as North European architects and engineers to work in such a culturally significant place." Galmstrup agrees. "It's a project that grows. There's projects you like, and there's projects you love. We definitely love this one."

Fact sheet

Cultural Innovations

Operational planning & project management; content planning & development; exhibition masterplanning; (also Massar branding, logo and identity).

Henning Larsen

Architectural design

Buro Happold

Engineering design

Martha Schwartz Ptrs

Public realm, urban & landscape design

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