University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


The fish tank – on moving in to KUA3

Associate professor finds it difficult to get used to the walls made of glass in the new KUA3 where the Faculty of Law has just moved in. It goes against some of the fundamental values of university work, like concentration and contemplation, he writes.

As a recent newcomer to KUA 3, there are a lot of new impressions to digest. Some things are worse, some things are better. But the most radical change – when I come from an office in the city overlooking the Studiegården – is that the walls consist mainly of glass.

When I arrive in the morning, I can look directly into the offices on the ground floor. When I walk down the corridors, I can see who is holding meetings with whom – or who is doing their exam today (yes, exams are held in rooms that can be freely viewed from the ‘main street’). When I approach my office, I can see what my colleagues are up to.  And when I myself am in my office, others can follow what I’m doing, and who is visiting.

Before we moved out here, I was convinced that the biggest problem for me would be that I could not concentrate when people walked past, through the corridors all the time. This is also a problem, but I’ve been lucky with the location: I live in a corner quite far away from the stairs. And so far part of my vision has been blocked by moving boxes.

When I have gone around the corridors, however, it dawned on me that there is something more fundamental going on. When I pass a number of meeting rooms, which in their design reminds me pretty much of aquariums, I cannot help but look in.

This is registered by most participants (some even wave) and I immediately get a bad conscience over having disturbed them in their meeting. The same experience I get when I for the third time on the same day look into a colleague who – just as I do when I have guests in the office – has placed her/his guests with their back to the glass wall and is therefore forced to sit facing the corridor where we pass by. Our visitors must experience us as very unfocussed.

Before we moved out here, I was convinced that the biggest problem for me would be that I could not concentrate when people went by on time all the time. It is also a problem, but I’ve been lucky with the location: I live in a corner quite far away from the stairs, and so far a part of my vision was blocked by boxes.


When I pass a number of meeting rooms, which in their design remind you of aquariums, I cannot help looking in.
Lars Holmberg

But I could not just learn to not look in? Look straight FORWARS! as they might say in the army? No this is not really a solution. The Faculty of Law is my workplace and the people I meet here every day are my colleagues. Many of them I know only sporadically, because we know that the relocation has brought us together in new ways, and I think it is important to help create a good working atmosphere.

Acknowledge without disturbance

The first prerequisite for this is that you as colleagues acknowledge each other’s presence. That is why we say hello in the morning, chat by the coffee machine, and nod to each other the rest of the day. We may not have any direct cooperation, but we recognize in this way that we are bound together in a working community.

Recognizing others to the right degree is not easy. There is an anecdote about the American baseball star Joe DiMaggio, who once joined some friends on a car ride around the countryside. They stopped to talk to a local farmer, and the farmer looked into their car, but ended up in a dilemma. He wants to show his respect for DiMaggio (and therefore cannot ignore him), but he would also like to respect the star’s right to be left alone. He solves this elegantly by interrupting his conversation with the driver, turning to DiMaggio and saying “I see you, Joe,” and then returning to the conversation.

At KUA, I now move into a dilemma like this, but I have not found any elegant solution. I struggle constantly to balance two conflicting requirements: on the one hand, the need to recognize the presence of others, on the other hand, the requirement to interfere with my colleagues as little as possible. On top of that, a strategy to just look straight ahead and not greet anyone, would bring even more disorder, albeit indirectly – as most people are affected by feeling overlooked.

Makes peace and concentration impossible

In Studiegården I could, if I wanted to concentrate, close my door. It signaled to everyone that I wanted peace, was holding a meeting, or something like this, and I was therefore not disturbed. When I close my door now, it does not work in the same way, because I can still be seen. The other day I caught myself walking in to a colleague without knocking on his – closed – door because I could see that he was messing with wires on the floor. This would never have happened if I had not been able to look straight in.

The point is that the physical environment in parts of KUA3 – the transparent aquarium – affects my behaviour. I find myself in an architecture that requires me to consider / change basic features of my social interaction.  And it works against some of the values that I, at least, associate with working at the university, such as concentration and immersion.

Some of us, years ago before the construction began, made the architects aware that we found glass walls unsuitable. Back then we were told that this was necessary for the lighting of the corridors, but that you could always could put an opaque foil on the walls. This foil we haven’t seen yet, so how much it will help, is difficult to assess.

On the other hand it is surely not just for the sake of the lighting that we’ve been put in something like medium-sized aquariums – there seems to be a profound idea behind ​​it. Arkitema, which designed the building, writes on their website that KUA3 is an “at all levels sustainable piece of architecture, socially, in terms of resources and economically – with learning and research environments that promote the interaction between people.”

And yes, the interaction we’ve got – but I’m not so sure that it is particularly constructive in its form. Arkitema also writes that “the architecture is developed in close collaboration with clients and users, based on their goals and visions in ‘Campus Plan 2010’, ‘Future teaching at the university’ 2010 and the management vision ‘Feel the rush’ 2006.

If this is true that the architecture is a tangible expression of the University’s vision of its own future, I can start being just a little concerned…