Olson Kundig turned kids into co-curators and consultants for the design of Anoha Children’s World at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Alan Maskin has a secret weapon when it comes to designing for children. The principal and owner of Seattle-based Olson Kundig was a teacher before becoming an architect, giving him a unique perspective on the demographic. He’s also the man responsible for the design of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s Anoha Children’s World, which has materialized after work began in 2018 but is as yet unable to officially open due to COVID-19-related restrictions.

Located in a former flower market hall opposite the Jewish Museum Berlin, Anoha is designed for visitors between the ages of three and ten, and their families. Rather than trying to squeeze themselves into kids’ shoes to decide what the young audience might want from such an institution, the design team engaged 20 local school children to consult on the project and act as co-curators. Teaching children the power of collaboration wasn’t just limited to the process either, but to the programming inside the museum’s walls. The space includes several workshop areas and studios in which kids are encouraged to come together to create, whether the output is music, a play or other creative pursuits.  

Dominating the space is a seven-m-tall circular ‘ark’ constructed from CO2-neutral wood, a home to animals made using recycled materials. Olson Kundig was heavily inspired by a story that predates the tale of Noah’s Ark by a thousand years but was only translated in the last decade. The protagonist, Atra-Hasis, is warned of an impending flood by Enki, the Sumerian god of water. Enki instructs Atra-Hasis to build an ark that, unlike that described in the Bible, is circular.

In the context of the museum, the ark becomes a symbol of care, inclusivity and tolerance, all of which are particularly timely given the project and its opening date: 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. As Anoha states on its website: ‘Many animals live in the ark – large and small ones, popular animals and outsiders. We invite the children to accompany the animal passengers, take care of a zebra, cow, or one of their friends, and to contribute to their well-being. Less popular animals such as the naked mole rat also have their place, standing for respect, openness, and tolerance of anything that may at first seem foreign.’

A spokesperson for Olson Kundig says that while the ark represents a historical vessel from the distant past, ‘it also looks a little like a spaceship. In this way, it brings together the past and the future. Its narrative architecture allows visitors to experience the flood and rescue on the ark on multiple temporal levels, and to interpret it in the context of current social and ecological questions.’ And, according to Anoha’s website, the animals aboard do the same: ‘The extinct mammoth, as well as endangered animals such as polar bears draw attention to environmental problems, their consequences, and our possibilities for action.’