Babes in the Woods

At a Berlin day-care center, children get an interactive tree in which to play and daydream.

When architect Susanne Hofmann was charged with reimagining a day-care center in a nondescript residential area in Berlin’s funky Kreuzberg district, she was faced with typical institutional drabness. Although the center’s personnel had playfully dubbed the space “Tree of Dreams” in 2004, after a takeover by the German volunteer association Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, the two-story building looked about as dreamy as a hospital.

So Hofmann—who has worked with architecture students from the Berlin Technical University in a program called the Baupiloten since 2003—took her inspiration from the evocative new name. Inaugurated in September 2005, the space is now a dynamic sensory environment—and a “tree of dreams” itself, with trunk and leaf systems framed by light blue, bright green, pink, and citron yellow walls. Its “trunk world” features round textile alcoves in various sizes that are backlit in soft colors. Irregularly installed near the floor, these “blossoms” invite kids to sit or lie within them and gaze up at the steel “leaves” that are calibrated to reflect rays of natural light coming in through the building’s glass roof. Kids can even call each other through a “tree telephone”—an intercom-like tube connecting the upstairs to the largest blossom downstairs.

“We searched for architecture that was strong enough to transform the structure, presence, and perception of the long dark halls and atrium as well as stimulate the children’s imagination,” says Hofmann, who with the Baupiloten had some of the center’s 120 children draw their interpreta-tions of a “tree of dreams.” “They drew personified trees, colors, and even what they thought sounds would look like,” she says. The team, led by student Martin Janekovic, then worked with the kids’ ideas through the entire process, moving from collages to models to construction. Especially inspired by the thought of sound, the Baupiloten made the largest blossom “snore” with simple noisemakers that react to children’s weight and a “tickly branch” that “giggles” when the tree is shaken.

The low-tech project cost just $61,000, but for the children—90 percent of whom come from immigrant families—its effect has been dramatic. Right before lunch one morning, a few lively preschoolers bound in and fling themselves into the landscape. “We love to play here every day; it’s fun to hear the sounds,” says six-year-old Leila, enthusiastically shaking the tree’s tickly branch while her four-year-old sister, Helen, looks on. As they run toward a blossom, Hofmann breaks into a huge, almost maternal smile: “It’s amazing how architecture can have a positive effect on the people using it.”

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