Concrete for public buildings

The 20th century witnessed the progressive universalization of social rights and public services. For this purpose, new typologies were needed to provide services for a growing society. Technical and social innovations in fields like medicine or education are recognizable through changes in both the typologies of these specialized buildings and in their design.

Some of the buildings that have been highlighted in the Innova Concrete “100 from the 20th” Selection bear witness to a turning point in the development of public policies in their own countries:

Social services of the Northern European countries are among the most advanced in the world. In Norway, a large hospital, built in the 1970s, represents the spearhead of its healthcare system in which excellence in care and research, resulted in an architecture that attends to absolutely every detail.

In post-war Holland, a group of architects were able to translate pedagogical innovations in the education of children into buildings that changed forever the architecture of schools.

We present here these buildings that are part of the “100 from the 20th” Selection of the INNOVACONCRETE project.

HERLEV HOSPITAL in Harlev, Denmark

This building, dedicated to health, is the highest in Denmark. This gives an idea of the importance given to the social coverage system in Denmark, its excellent public health system being one of its greatest achievements. Herlev Hospital is a symbol and plays a key role in the Danish national health system, of which the country is proud and is among the most renowned and best funded in the world (with a public contribution of about 10% of the country’s GDP).

Beyond the broad portfolio of services and the high consideration of public health professionals, the Danish health system is based on two pillars: quality of care, focused on a personalized patient attention and, as a differential fact, the consideration of biomedical research as a fundamental pillar of the system. All these principles are recognized and collected in the architectural project of the Herlev hospital.


Opened in 1975, after 10 years under construction, the building stands out for the high quality of its architectural design and for the exquisite care of all the details. For instance, the landscaping project of its open spaces, integrates an interesting vision of the therapeutic power of nature. It also takes into account the decoration of its interiors, made by Poul Gernes, one of the most important artists in Denmark in the second half of the 20th century. Gernes conceived the interiors as an immense work of art in which colors help the patient’s orientation and avoids the typical monotony of hospital spaces. In total there are 65 linear km of paintings with unique geometric patterns,10 km of specially designed printed fabrics and 4.500 doors in 21 different colors.  Gernes’ decorations extend from the lobby to the auditoriums and the treatment block, and to the 25-story skyscraper in what represents one of the most extensive and complete interior decoration projects in Europe with unique designs for power outlets, railings, signalling and even wall clocks.

The architectural project is signed by Gehrdt Bornebusch together with Max Breel and  J. Selchau. It stands out for a profound thought on how a modern hospital should function, in which the program is translated into the volumetric ordering of the whole. The 120-meter-high main tower, for example, consists of three vertical volumes connected to each other, dedicated respectively to patients, doctors and students and facilities. The vertical routes of each part of the tower are unique and independent for each type of user. At their base, they are connected respectively with the lobbies and cafes –for patients and visitors–, the internal areas dedicated to medicine such as operating rooms, classrooms and laboratories –for doctors and students– and the areas of facilities –for technicians and maintenance services–.

The use of exposed concrete, which combines elements in situ and prefabricated panels, is completed with a careful design of metal carpentry and finishes that give the buildings an aspect of high architectural quality. The expressive possibilities of concrete are shown in the inclined volumes in cantilever of the auditoriums, at the base of the tower, which complete the iconic image of the building.


Today, the hospital has 4.000 workers, 1.600 beds and treats more than 80.000 patients per year. It also has a medical faculty, research centers, auditoriums, coffee shops, etc. Herlev Hospital is still today the flagship of Danish health and was expanded in 2017 with a new building of more than 50.000 square meters for maternity and paediatrics.

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Maria Montessori was an Italian educator who worked between the 19th and 20th centuries. Her experiences with children from the peripheries of Rome culminated in the development of an educational method based on child-led activity and the teacher’s observation and support. The “Montessori method” laid the foundation for what childhood education would be like in the twentieth century and the adaptation of school spaces to a new pedagogical concept, in which the child was at the center of learning. With Montessori, education ceased to be exclusively the responsibility of religious institutions, and school buildings changed forever. Montessori schools now number in the thousands around the world and have remained very active in the implementation of new pedagogical strategies, accompanied, of course, with a continuous critical thinking on the physical space where learning takes place.

One of the architects who made more relevant contributions in this regard was the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, who put into practice many of his thoughts at the Montessori school of Delft.

Hertzerberger’s buildings, whether for school use or for other programs, contain aspects that later have been central to contemporary architecture. One of them is the building’s ability to vary its configuration and functionality over time. Another is the ability to combine private and intimate spaces with others for collective use whose versatility favours social encounter without determining the functions they can hold or how they can be used and lived. Both aspects connect deeply with the “Montessori” vision of what a space for pedagogy should be. Above all, Hertzerberger’s buildings always incorporate the human dimension and are capable, with a calculated complexity, of creating rich inner micro-worlds that constantly stimulate creativity.

In Delft’s school, the architect also wanted the user, in this case, the child, to be able to understand the construction, even participate in it, as if it were an assembly game. That is why he chose to use small and manageable construction elements such as the concrete block: a prefabricated and inexpensive piece that could adopt structural functions, as bearing walls, when, once assembled, they were filled with concrete. The concrete block can also be left as it is, with no coating or finish, facilitating the understanding of the construction system of the spaces, once the process is finished.

Through these and many other strategies, Delft’s school becomes a great built device for playing and learning; the interaction and relationship that the child establishes with architecture is one more element of the creative stimulation that the Montessori method pursues in its students.

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BURGERWEESHUIS (ORPHANAGE), Amsterdam, Netherlands

Aldo van Eyck, the architect who designed the Amsterdam orphanage, had an intense professional relationship with Hertzberger. They both shared an interest in children and in their education, which was fundamental in their architectural thoughts. Van Eyck and Hertzerberger represent the definitive renovation of the contemporary school architecture in Europe in the second half of the 20th century and their work would have a profound influence on the school architecture of later decades.

Both Hertzberger and van Eyck considered the school, and to an even greater extent, the orphanage, as the centre of the child’s small universe. Consequently, they thought that the complexity of educational buildings and their private and public interior spaces should reflect the city’s complexity, as well as society’s. An orphanage should also be an intimate, familiar and protective home space and, simultaneously fulfill the collective, social and educational objectives of a school. This represents a challenge to which Van Eyck’s building responds masterfully, with a proposal that is organised as a small city.

One of van Eyck’s most important contributions to the field of school architecture are his studies on play areas, in particular playgrounds and school courtyards. When designing a city, it is extremely important to take children into account, and Van Eyck’s proposals were a critic to modern urbanism of the CIAM. In this sense, the orphanage is a small-scale manifesto of what a city should be like.

Van Eyck applies a construction system that follows a vision of modular spaces that allow for organic growth. Simple modular concrete elements are formed by beams and prefabricated domes of two different sizes. Though repetition, they create interior spaces of great complexity and variability, as well as diverse and changing outdoor spaces. These dissolve the boundaries of the building and connect it to the landscaped environment. The air-faced concrete elements and their vaulted ceilings qualify the interior spaces, resulting in an architecture that resembles a small town and reminds us of an Arab souk.

Van Eyck succeeds in a complete renovation of orphanage typology, freeing it from its social stigma. Van Eyck’s orphanage is an institution of great social responsibility in which society assumes the protective and responsible role of caring and educating children and providing them a hopeful future.

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Are you interested in other school buildings? Visit the website “InnovaConcrete 100 from the 20th” to find out more.


Roger-SubiraRoger Subirà, Architect.

Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico.

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