Learning environments

When most investigation and communication is mediated through screens do we still need specialised spaces for learning? Or is contact and collaboration the key to successful education and research? What do work places and learning places have in common?

Learning Environments: Future-Proofing our Education Spaces, a one day event organised by the team behind Workplace Trends, explored these and many other issues last week at the new campus of Central St Martins in the Granary complex at Kings Cross.

The rather conventional lecture theatre was packed to capacity (well over 100 people attended), with architects and designers strongly represented alongside estates and facilities people from more than 30 universities and colleges.

The theme that speakers returned to again and again was the response of those commissioning and running buildings to what was called the ‘new pedagogy’.  Steve Howe, director of estates for the University of the Arts (which comprises six colleges including Central Saint Martins) described the new Learning Zone, located alongside a more traditional library, as providing for “social learning and activity-based work within an ambience that facilitates collaboration and creation”.

Central St Martins is interesting because as well as access to online resources and print material students need layout space and equipment for photography and model making. The space has to cater for concentrated, individual work alongside collaboration. The students seem to like it: “There’s space and quiet. Feels like home but with equipment. You can feed off others’ creativity and work ethic. Good for group work.”

Key to the success of such spaces appears to be a fairly relaxed management regime. The idea is to encourage a culture of student ownership, to create a facility that is “welcoming and informal in character, with few rules in place.” Mark Kelly of architects Hassell talked of “self-organising” and “user-managed” spaces.

See the article by Rachel Shaw on social learning in Learning Spaces e-journal issue 2.1

According to Kelly, the shift from a “conceptual age” to a “sharing age” coupled with mobile technology and ubiquitous networks is leading to a merging of space types  -the workplace, collaboration hubs, learning environments.

Universities are subject to the same pressures to use space efficiently as other organisations, perhaps more so. Howe said that the utilisation of traditional lecture spaces (such as the room we were sitting in) is not great. The college is looking at other spaces which can be used for both student activities and teaching.

Lecture theatre

Image courtesy of Jamtree

This point was picked up later by Wendy Sammels of Jamtree who said that new types of lecture theatre allow more collaboration between students and with lecturers (see image above). Such spaces are increasingly being used outside formally programmed sessions, increasing utilisation.

Eleanor Magennis from the University of Strathclyde shared her research into effective learning spaces. One particularly interesting development has been the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (Scale-Up – the acronym has changed over time) initiative from Dr Robert Beichner,  a physics professor at North Carolina State University.

He has changed how students study STEM subjects  at more than 100 institutions. The Scale-Up approach uses digital technology combined with innovative teaching centred on hands-on activities and roundtable discussions. There’s a good video at http://scaleup.ncsu.edu/

If we truly are in a sharing age then learning will be an essential part of all activity and spaces will need to facilitate it. Commercial and other organisations can learn a lot from what is happening in education right now.

The art of placemaking

As part of the London Festival of Architecture (1st – 30th June) I went along this week to the site of Riverlight, a new residential development by St James (part of the Berkeley Group) in Nine Elms beside the Thames. I was especially interested because I used to live across the river and played in Battersea Park in the early ‘60s.

It’s a challenging site in a neglected area. The new buildings will sit between a pumping station, a cement works and a waste transfer station – that’s a tough sell to prospective purchasers. Change is on the horizon though, with the transformation of the iconic Battersea Power Station to the west finally set to commence this year and the new US Embassy due to open down the road in 2017.

Riverlight comprises six buildings, stepping up west to east from 12 to 20 storeys, set perpendicular to the river and providing 806 apartments, 106 of them affordable. On the lower level there’ll be commercial uses, including a health club. The footprint of the buildings is just 25% of the site, 75% is open space, with 60% of that accessible by the public. It will all be fairly exclusive but this is not meant to be a gated community.

As the design team of architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and landscape architects Gillespies took visitors through the thinking behind the project, I was struck just how much care goes into some developments. From orientation to materials, from the history of the site to the involvement of artists (check out advisors Future City) this is an attempt to make a new piece of urban fabric, a place, rather than simply exploit river views for the benefit of a few.

Of course it’s not entirely altruistic – the developers need to make a return and quality sells. But the challenge of the location and site, a former FedEx depot, seems to have inspired the designers to look beyond the predictable.

Two thoughts – for a new community to work, you need people. If the apartments go to investors who rarely use them, then Riverlight may not have the vibrancy of the CGI images shown in the marketing suite. See recent comments from Simon Hughes MP.

London has too often turned its back on the river (although access and design are improving bit by bit) and this stretch of the embankment is pretty uninspiring.  Creating new open, public areas alongside the river is to be applauded but the key will be maintenance and management. The designs we saw on Tuesday evening were captivating – a pocket park, streams and ponds, weirs and a “beach”. But a few yards away is the harsh reality of Nine Elms Lane – a busy and unforgiving main road.

Riverlight could offer sanctuary and inspiration and not just to its residents. I hope it works and doesn’t become just another privatised space in the city. I look forward to returning.