the future of learning — architectural experiments

Chris Ford, Michael Bell, and Michael Shanks report.

Project Urban Futures[Link]

The current COVID-19 crisis and “stay at home” policies have prompted many schools and colleges to shift to online learning and remote teaching. Educators are being forced to rethink their role in the classroom, raising old questions about how we teach and learn, and where – at school, home, at work, on the go?

Last week (April 29) we joined Michael Bell of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) for the final reviews of his Master of Architecture design studio. The challenge this semester was 

“Everything Must Scale: The Teacher-less School”.

This was part of a sequence of studios addressing future architectures (topics have so far included mobility and energy), and the brief was framed in January. Events have since made the challenge very pertinent to the current disruption to socio-technological systems and higher education worldwide. In particular the studio modeled creative processes that can generate radical and fresh alternatives to those that derive from incremental innovation. 

Learning spaces

Some context for our interest. From 2008-2011, Metamedia, our studio/lab, ran a project, Stanford Strategy Studio, that addressed the question – What kind of spaces facilitate strategic conversations, creative learning? We challenged the efficacy of the ubiquitous neutral, blank and anonymous spaces of boardrooms and many classrooms. Instead we experimented with ways of saturating spaces with rich suggestive “conversation pieces”, artifacts, images, texts, in digital and analog form that offered different kinds of framing, possible lines of inspiration, windows on other worlds. Graphic recording of conversations helped make these spaces rooms with memories.

In contrast, our studio classes in Stanford use flexible reconfigurable spaces that support many scenarios in design project work – bring in the tables and tool-carts for small-group discussion and sketching, arrange the chairs in a circle, move them out and roll in the whiteboards-on-wheels. Mobile carts are well-stocked with tools and low-fidelity prototyping materials. Separate fab labs (both in the building and the Stanford Product Realization Labs) complement the studio spaces with all that is needed to build higher resolution models, prototypes and anything to assist in running a design project.

Designing for innovation

How might we design better learning spaces? One strategy is to start with high level concepts and policy. MS joined colleagues in the 2018 World Learning Summit in Norway [Link] where the challenge was discussed in relation to educational technology (EdTech) and other big agenda items – learning management systems, curriculum design, blended hybrid learning and flipped classrooms, AI assisted learning, and experiential learning. 

We might alternatively start with actual practice and experience in learning spaces, explored ethnographically. We might ask teachers and students what they need from their perspective. We might compare and contrast their insights with field observations made in classrooms and other learning spaces, to more fully identify, needs, requirements or features, and to prompt the generation of diverse design options.

Michael Bell’s studio took a different route to generate innovation.

  • 1. The challenge was defined: design a school without teachers, taking account of scale (micro-schools in scalable networks, for example).
  • 2. As a foundation for speculative design, an iconic work of architecture was “transcribed” – its key features, materials, forms, attributes, copied, translated, transformed into architectural principles, insights, schemata.
  • 3. The design was oriented and constrained according to a concept or paradigm drawn from education theory (such as Chomsky on language acquisition, or Dewey on Pragmatism, for example).
  • 4. Transcription and concept were combined in a model or prototype for a “teacher-less” school.
  • 5. The prototypes could be the basis for collaboration with education experts and practitioners. The architect might present their prototypes and ask educators – “might this work for you?”, “if not, why not, and what might be done about it?”.

This is a fascinating approach to a speculative design process. Here are some comments.

Transcription as creative metamorphosis. To develop the features of one architecture to inspire another, perhaps completely different, is a kind of katachresis where one juxtaposes two unrelated phenomena so as to force frictions that generate insight and catalyze innovation. We found this process of transcription to be compelling. Compared with an act of “translation,” transcription is less exact, is playful and experimental, attuned to ambiguity. Transcription opens opportunities for discussion around a design challenge, for productive acts without having to account for the legibility of the original precedent. Nor does transcription come with an obligation for knowing how exactly it will be helpful for making future architectural decisions.

The relation between ideological concept and material-based architectural form prompts a range of crucial questions about our human experiences and the ways we describe them. Are some types of designed spaces more “open” to free thinking than others? What kind of architectural ambience might facilitate learning through doing?

The process also raises critical questions of ontology. Just what is a school? “How do the constraints of locale, specificity of place, and shaping of space combine to positively influence learning?”

Here are the projects, in order of presentation.

Mind in Motion  – Qi Yang

Transcription: Phillips Exeter Academy Library (New Hampshire USA) – Louis Kahn 1971.
Concept: John Dewey on mobility.

Knowledge is never static, so it should be the experience of architecture. This micro-school put the students’ minds and bodies in motion. The traditional auditorium and classroom as centralized education machinery are dismantled into an open canopy for the student discovery. All furniture is movable to encourage self-organization. The school becomes wonderland that allows the students to explore themselves, be self-reflective and cross disciplines.

Architecture as the possibilities of the Universe – Hyeokyoung Lee

Transcription: Schröder House (Utrecht, NL) – Gerrit Rietveld 1924

AEG turbine factory (Berlin) –  Peter Behrens 1909
Concept: coordinate systems and geometry.

In their design work, and in geometry more generally, architects might use mechanical tools, such as a compass and ruler, materials, such as wood or cardboard for building models, and, more recently, computer-based digital CAD toolkits, software and languages such as Grasshopper, Cinema4D, Python. Each medium has its own syntax and constraints that affect the capacity to imagine and create. The project is focused on this intersection of spatial perception, manipulation, and learning, aiming to have architectural space liberate students’ perception and understanding of these fundamental features of our experience ranging in scale from local environments to the universe itself.

Occupying Language – Ge Guo

Transcription: Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Robert Venturi 1964.
Concepts Saussure and Chomsky on language.

The notion of “language” is experienced in space through children’s navigation. If the syntax of the space is its physical structure, the semantics of the space is constructed in children’s minds by connecting previous memories when physically moving inside/outside the architecture. Just like the complexity of language, diverse human experience is achieved through elemental, repetitive, sequential architectural elements in multiple scales.

Untitled – Jiacheng Wang

Transcription: Glass Pavilion, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Ohio. SANAA  2006.
Concept: John Dewey on individual experience.

Architecture, as a container of education, can materialize otherwise opaque learning processes, making it physically understandable for students. The interaction between people and architecture can become an impetus to promote the education process. So in a teacher-less school, architecture becomes a teacher not to teach people any specific knowledge, but how to learn.

Spatial Sfumato: A Teacher-less Micro School  – Leon Esmaeel

Transcription: Wall House II or Bye House, Groningen NL. John Hejduk 1973 (constructed 2000).
Concept: John Dewey’s pragmatism.

Transcription and inspiration for this teacher-less micro school involved a Renaissance painting technique called sfumato used for softening the transition of colors or the edge between plastic forms and space, so as to introduce elasticity, plasticity, viscosity.

Designed as a site-less prototype, this 1000 ft2 teacher-less micro school challenges the meaning of a school in terms of its pedagogical approach, conceptual configuration, spatial characteristics, and programmatic functions. The perceptual illusion caused by the blurring of boundaries of inside and outside makes this architecture a chief actor in the role of educating the students. 

Untitled – Adam Susaneck

Transcription: Los Angeles Metro system.
Concept: John Dewey on learning as game play.

This project aims to create a school imbued with Dewey’s pedagogical ideas of intellectual freedom. It does so through the deployment of temporary public and learning spaces around the city of Los Angeles, designed by students and riding on the back of Los Angeles’ burgeoning Metro. By furnishing children with easy-to-use design software and a modular architectural system which can be transported by metrorail, this project empowers children to be aware of and to be active participants in the built environment.