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“I call it a ‘cultural effect’. It is an abstract quality of the architecture”: Ben Van Berkel on the architecture of education

Ben Van Berkel of UNStudio is changing the way your children will learn. Discover how architecture has revolutionised knowledge sharing.

“I call it a ‘cultural effect’. It is an abstract quality of the architecture”: Ben Van Berkel on the architecture of education

I received a typical education. By this, I don’t mean that I just learned the standard curriculum but, instead, the spaces in which I did so were typical. Traditional. Predictable. From my first day in primary school all the way through to my final university lecture, the rules never changed: a frontal-facing blackboard (remember those?); rows and rows of desks separated individually and stretching interminably behind; a teacher standing at the front of the classroom. I’ve always thought it odd that such a layout is only ever seen in places of learning or places of worship. Odder still that this similarity between classrooms and churches is often overlooked. What might this resemblance suggest? What might this spatial negotiation and interpersonal arrangement bring to effect? A power negotiation? A removal of individuality? An appeal to reverence? 

The potential questions are endless. And with the utterance of each, I find myself wondering whether the traditional classroom in which I learned instilled in me a reverence for education. Or, did it merely instil a reverence for the educator? In this messianic – Sermon On The Mount-ish – transaction between pupil and teacher, did any of us truly learn? Or were we merely taught? Did we have agency? I expect not. After all, we all remember a handful of peers who could never quite get the hang of it. I’m thinking of those class clowns and ‘characters’ who, in breaking the mould – ‘sit down, eyes to the front, mouth closed’ – were only ever punished for doing so. More still, I’m thinking of the frustration, the loneliness, the anxiety and (as was sadly too often the case) the self-despair experienced by students of all ages when they just simply don’t ‘get it’. Without agency, does the onus of not ‘getting it’ truly fall upon the frustrated, confused student? Is the lesson not learned due to its complexity? Or is it simply ‘un-learnable’ for some individuals forced to experience it under such rigid, universal, abstract structures? 

These are questions that we, as design practitioners, famously ask of offices: how can the conditions of the workplace improve the quality of the work undertaken within? And yet, it seems that such questions are potentially more profound within our spaces of learning and teaching. This was why I so looked forward to my interview with Ben Van Berkel, co-founder of UNStudio and a persistent questioner of how and where we learn. With Van Berkel’s characteristic curiosity and experimentation, UNStudio’s work within the education sector worldwide challenges the very core of both architecture and learning. In 2010, the firm shored-up its position as a leader and iconoclast in educational architecture with the Singapore University Of Technology Design campus – a design that embraced new frontiers of flexibility, offering students greater freedom of choice that, ultimately, changed the pedagogical structure of the institution itself. With its recent plans for University College Dublin, Van Berkel again offers a prospective glimpse into a new future of learning and teaching: an omnidirectional marketplace of knowledge, no longer the uni-directional pulpit of wisdom. For Van Berkel, it seems, learning springs from engagement between one another, and it was with this spirit in mind that I sat down with him in order to learn more about this fascinating evolving taxonomy of architecture and design in the education sector. Read the full conversation below.


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David Congram: You are an educator as well as a practising architect. How has your experience being the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard influenced your approach to design in the education sector?

Ben Van Berkel: Teaching gives you the perfect inside perspective on what is missing now in educational facilities and what issues they will be facing in the future. You not only experience these things as an educator, but you can also see and hear first-hand what the students need to get true value out of their education and how architecture and design can contribute to this.


And on that topic of ‘true value’, are you seeing this change? Or, more directly, as more and more pressure is placed on universities and schools – increased enrolment numbers, smaller available real estate stock and so on – what kinds of new theoretical approaches for architecture and design are emerging in this sector?

We’re definitely seeing this change. In the past, campuses usually consisted of a number of separate buildings – sometimes quite far apart – each housing different faculties. Today ‘connectedness’ is essential, as it is widely understood to foster serendipitous knowledge sharing and engender a culture of engagement. For this reason today’s ideal campuses are designed as a compact and connected set of buildings, each housing a mix of different faculties as well as didactic spaces, study areas and social spaces. More broadly, learning is transitioning into a flexible engagement and communal endeavour. This means that the future campus needs to be programmed with a series of agile spaces that invite students and faculty to learn, collaborate and co-create. But as student numbers continue to grow, the future campus – or additional buildings for existing campuses – also need to be extremely flexible. They not only need to operate for shared, interfaculty use, but also need to be agile – housing a large variety of flexible spaces that cater for various ways of teaching and studying and varying class sizes.


So in aiming for these more flexible spaces and providing students and teachers with an educational environment that can continue to adapt, what kinds of impacts are technological advances making here?

One interesting aspect is that technology is now making it possible for us to measure how we use spaces through data collection. With the use of sensor technologies, we can monitor spaces for temperature, light levels, air quality, humidity and energy consumption – simultaneously improving both our health and the health of the planet. But we can also now monitor the daily use and performance of learning environments, and with AI and machine learning potentials, in the future we will be able to unveil correlations of data allowing for better understanding of cause and effect. This, I believe, will greatly improve our ability to create highly tailored design solutions for educational facilities of all types and sizes.

Another interesting possible future scenario that our Futures team at UNStudio has been investigating recently is one of decentralisation, the potential for the establishment of ‘micro campuses’. By this, I mean physical spaces that could cater to distance learners in a different part of a city, or even a different part of the world. The Micro Campus could provide a mediating space between educational and professional, digital and physical worlds and serve as a physical amplifier to digitally re-spatialised modes of learning and working.


Well, staying on that theme of the future for education and its environments, what else has the Futures Team at UNStudio been uncovering that suggests new directions for design in this sector?

I foresee the users – the students – having a greater say in the spaces that are designed for them, but as I just mentioned, I also predict that data collection, analysis and application will have a significant effect on the design and improvement of learning spaces in the future.

There has also been a rise in informal learning, with the introduction of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) that enables people to re-appropriate education themselves and in a sense de-spatialise learning. The risk here is the loss of interaction between students and faculty, as well as a lack of access to facilities. But perhaps where the future is concerned in education, as Yuval Noah Harrari comments in his book 21 Lessons from the 21st Century, “Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve mental balance in an unfamiliar situation.” 


Do you think, too, that these kinds of pressures are coming from sectors beyond that of education?

Workspaces and learning spaces are increasingly facing very similar challenges and requirements, so much so, that new office developments are often referred to as business campuses. These similarities are perhaps not surprising however, as learning has in fact become an integral part of our everyday working lives. Conversely, the residential component of campus design could be said to have influenced new models of urban micro-living, where residents can enjoy both private as well as shared spaces and amenities.


What recent projects for universities, schools or institutions in the education sector do you believe have approached the design of these amenities in an innovative way?

Not a recent example as such, but one of my favourite buildings in Amsterdam is the Open Air School by Jan Duiker. It is an excellent example of how architecture can be used to promote health. Also the Apollo Schools in Amsterdam, designed by Herman Hertzberger. These are two schools which are almost identical and were designed to resemble the large villas adjacent. The classrooms are arranged around fantastic central voids, which serve as the communal spaces.

But a more contemporary example is perhaps the Stanford2025, a conceptual model for future learning, which proposes teaching hubs based around a variety of competencies and skills, rather than around unique disciplines. This ‘axis flip’, as they call it, is of course a somewhat extreme example of learning spaces responding to changes in the information age. Nonetheless, it is an interesting example of the questions that are being asked about our current education systems and how these need to respond to change in order to create and accommodate new models.


And in terms of considering the broad array of stakeholders for such environments (including students and teaching staff), are we seeing a new form of ‘best practice’ emerge in the design of educational spaces?

It has, in recent years, been understood that it would be best practice to engage the users – the students – in learning space design, as this has been shown to yield the greatest benefits. In the past it was always the people who manage learning spaces that determined its design, but we are becoming increasingly aware that the users should actually be the key drivers of the design of the spaces in which they learn.


What is the role of the smaller-scale, interior elements in this? Take furniture, for example

Furniture actually needs to be designed with the same aims as the buildings: to facilitate learning, collaboration and co-creation. This, in turn, means that flexible or hybrid furniture solutions are often the most useful, enabling as they do, group or quiet work. The SitTable that we designed for Prooff is an example of this [pictured, above]. It is also essential that some items of furniture can be easily re-arranged, stacked or moved when the spaces need to adapt to different set-ups. Similarly, issues of sustainability, circularity, health and intelligent production techniques are as important in furniture design as they are in architecture. Health was also a primary concern in the thinking behind the design of the StandTable; to encourage standing during all kinds of work or study, in private or in small group meetings.


And last, but certainly not least. I want to hear your personal perspective on what you find most interesting about design in the education realm.

The specific challenges it presents are always very interesting, but for me, it is even more interesting to look beyond these and find ways for the experience of buildings to have a positive effect or influence on the user, in ways that are difficult to describe or pin down. I call it a ‘cultural effect’. It is an abstract quality of the architecture – perhaps found at the crossing point between function and aesthetics – when everything not only works, but becomes more than merely the sum of its parts and makes people want to stay in the building, or to return to it time and time again. This is something I am interested in for all types of buildings, but perhaps with educational establishments it is particularly useful!


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Discover more in The Learning Portfolio by Living Edge, featuring pieces by Van Berkel for Prooff.  

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