“The students whizz through a landscape of physical challenges at high speed just like a ball in a pinball machine. We have combined classic races, throws and jumps with unconventional obstacles. Students jump up the sandy slope and run around in the lanes. The daring athletes grapple with the 12 challenges of the obstacle course, while roller skaters let the light guide them in the dark. It’s always athletics-time here,” says architect Flemming Overgaard from the Danish architectural firm Keingart.
Keingart has designed the athletics facility at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense as a true Exploratorium when it comes to opportunities for physical expression. The Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics use the facility as an outdoor laboratory and they have testing equipment, crossfit elements and an instruction room. At the same time, it is an open sports playground for the townspeople and passers-by.
The University of Southern Denmark had an old athletic facility that needed restoration. At some point in time, the people involved in the project began to talk about the opportunity for building an extraordinary athletics facility. The people contacted Lokale- og Anlægsfonden, which is a foundation that supports the creation of sports, culture and leisure spaces in Denmark, and the foundation got Keingart involved.
Keingart was established in 2007 and has created numerous activity spaces, where people are inspired to move and use their body. Excited about creating a different take on an athletics facility, Flemming Overgaard and his colleague started to reflect on the concept of doing athletics.
“What are the primary actions, when doing athletics? To run, to jump and to throw. So we thought, let’s find more ways to run, jump and throw – and at the same time include the classic ways of doing it. That was a big part of the main idea, when designing the athletics facility. It had to be inspiring and welcoming,” says Overgaard.
The big grass field that is usually placed in the middle of an athletics facility and takes up a lot of space, was replaced with other areas, where you can do all sorts of physical activities. Keingart were partly inspired by military obstacle courses when designing the different elements of the athletics facility.
To emphasise the diverse appearance of the athletics facility, the landscape changes from one end to the other. At one end, the grass is neat, while at the other end there is wild grass, which is not mowed, making it more natural-looking and thus creating a more diverse experience.
Another important parameter was to open the 20,000-square-metre area to the city – to invite the people of Odense to use the space. This was partly done by extending the 100-metre lane out onto the public bicycle lane behind the athletics field. In addition, Keingart examined the possibilities of making the classic 400-metre lane more exciting to use.
“We investigated the experience of running on a typical 400-metre course. We found that it was kind of dull to run around the course – it was not a great experience. That’s one of the reasons why we made this hilly landscape next to the course. The experience of running around something is way more exciting than running in a flat landscape, because you get a different spatial experience with different views as you run,” says Overgaard.
And it has paid off. The Athletics Exploratorium at the University of Southern Denmark was inaugurated in 2013, and has since won a gold medal for the world’s best outdoor sports facility, an award from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association for Sports and Leisure Facilities.