Light of Learning

Designing a learning space is more than just architecture. It is an amalgamation of context, climate and culture shaped into a building that encourages connectivity and hurdle-free knowledge exchange, finds out Preeti Srivastav

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Schools and institutes play an important role in shaping a human mind. While the lessons give character to their thought, it is pertinent that the space in which the lesson is imparted supports the ambition of the space and performs as a cohesive and conducive environment for knowledge exchange. Experts from the field of architecture share their insights on the subject of designing a unified learning space.

The Key Factor

Sharing their design intent, renowned architects Oscar and Ponni Concessao say, “We believe passionately that when you walk through the door of a place of learning, you should feel proud, uplifted, motivated.”

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Further elaborating on the subject, Concessao says that learning has changed in 21st century. Technologies such as interactive whiteboards, personal learning environments, wireless networks and mobile devices, plus the internet and high-quality digital learning resources – are used today. The ability to access many of these from home and the workplace – are altering the experiences and aspirations of learners.

Ar Rahul Kadri of I M Kadri Architects says, “A cohesive learning environment is possible in a building where friendships and interaction grow exponentially. To me, the most important factor is natural light. A school has to be full of bright places with minimum dark spaces. Students must experience positivity, empathy and friendliness. A well-lit building can help in discouraging bullying – one of the major problem in schools. While daylight is crucial, it is also important to use the interaction in the environment as an educational tool, right from having an organic vegetable patch in the school where students learn how things grow in nature to have a building that doesn’t use energy from outside rather recycles. If students can themselves generate energy and run it like a project, the school will become a live laboratory for them to learn real life skills.”

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However, Bipin Bhadran of Educational Design Architects (EDA), opines that the designer has to keep in mind the users of the space. Students of different age groups have different energies, requirementsand the design must incorporate that fact. One must also keep in mind adjacencies of various spaces and functions that are co-related or inter-related such that learning spaces are self-sufficient. Since learning is not limited to the indoors, it is very important to have a seamless connection to the outdoor environment. In a nut shell, the design should breakdown the hierarchy and foster collaboration between the participants of the environment. The connection between the built environment and learning outcomes is arbitrated by the concrete and the obvious such as the quality of air, light and space planning as well as the more obscure such as the learning culture and atmosphere. After all, the physical learning environment acts as a catalyst in developing young minds.

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Other Important Factors

An educational building is an expensive long-term resource. The design of its individual spaces needs to be: Flexible – to accommodate both current and evolving pedagogies; Future-proofed – to enable space to be re-allocated and reconfigured; Bold – to look beyond tried and tested technologies and pedagogies; Creative – to energies and inspire learners and tutors; Supportive – to develop the potential of all learners; Enterprising – to make each space capable of supporting different purposes. “A learning space should be able to motivate learners and promote learning as an activity, support collaborative as well as formal practice, provides a personalised and inclusive environment, and be flexible in the face of changing needs,” say Architects Oscar and Ponni.

Some of the examples of brilliantly built educational spaces are: Sastra University Bio Tech Park, Tanjore; GRT Institute of Technology; Hindustan University Library; Lawrence School, Lovedale; and Jeeva Velu International School, Tamilnadu, they added.

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Listing the important factors, which are to be kept in mind while designing, Ar Bhadran says the primary factors should be climate, culture and context. He says that climate has to be taken into account while designing a space as it will have a direct impact on the comfort of the occupants and thus on their learning too. Physical wellbeing is important and hence climate is to be the first consideration while designing. Then comes the context, which is the purpose of the educational institute. As an architect one must create an environment that ultimately leads the mind, even as a sub-conscious level, to the subject of education or vocation and infuse excitement towards learning and exploring. The third most important factor is the local culture of the place where the institute is built. A building, be it residential, commercial or educational, it must respect and imbibe elements of local culture. The idea is to customise the project according to the above mentioned factors to design a space that teaches basic life skills along with other educational topics and vocations.  “I would like to cite an example of the Vega School in Gurgaon. Gurgaon being on a continuous helm of construction and development, the need of the hour was to design a school that fit the urban scenario as well as catered to the framework of upper middle class families. Architecturally the school building has a state-of-the-art energy sensitive exterior with efficient mechanical cooling systems that bring down the running costs of the school. The interior learning environment resonates the 21st Century learning philosophy by providing open and flexible learning pods with a seamless connection to the commons and outdoor terraces.”

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Emphasizing on the importance of climate, Kadri says that most of the schools they design use less energy, are well-lit and have cooler indoors because of the orientation. “The longer sides of the classrooms face north allowing ample natural light to come in. Corridors are placed on the south so that the sun never hits the classroom wall. We close off the east and west. Classrooms are planned with a singly loaded corridor that allows for cross ventilation. As a result of these factors, you don’t need lights during the day and no fans mostly. We are using these strategies at the Ensaara School in Nagpur, the IB School for Symbiosis Society in Lavasa, an extension of the JSW School in Vidyanagar and the Jindal Vidya Mandir in Ratnagiri.”

Best Designed Schools

Oscar Concessao states that University Technology Petronas or UTP, designed by Sir Norman Foster, located in Seri Iskandar, is one of the best designed schools. “The design concept of the master plan utilised a circle to describe the well-rounded graduates that UTP seek to produce. The Star – the form evolved out of the aspiration of the academic master plan and site positioning – is a symbol of quality and excellence,” he adds.

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Bipin Bhadran thinks that the Pearl Academy in Jaipur and the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco by Ar. Renzo Piano are good examples. “The latter flawlessly sits in its surroundings as if they are natural green mounds with skylights that are erupting from the park. It’s the world’s first double platinum LEED certified building,” says Bhadran.

Kadri says that he admires the works of Perkins + Will and Gerard Da Cunha. “The scale of the building, homeliness, materials and art is designed well, to make kids comfortable and warm, the quality of light within the courtyard is nice and warm. Perkins have done huge schools in America. Architectural language is clear and simple, striking in its architecture. France school Norman Foster, minimalist and fundamental use of large atrium space that fosters interaction.”

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Effects of Building on Learning

“Both building and education are dependent on each other for holistic smooth functioning. A good and thoughtful design can make learning environments more collaborative. A building, in its physical form should perform well and not be a hurdle in learning process. An educational institute needs to be agile and flexible to facilitate flow of knowledge and information and encourage mutual respect between the culture, climate and the context,” opines Bhadran.

Likewise, Oscar and Ponni Concessao too believe that well-designed learning spaces have a motivational effect. “Learning areas infused with natural light, for example, provide an environment that is easy and pleasurable to work in. Wireless connectivity within a brightly lit atrium, learning cafe or open-plan social area will encourage engagement in learning, and instill a desire to continue activities beyond timetabled classes.”

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Quoting a scientific report, Ar Kadri says that if a classroom is well-lit with natural light students’ attention span increases by 30 per cent. “It also shouldn’t be too crowded or too sparse, one must get the scale just right. The open spaces need to be just right so it sparks interaction of the correct measure. If it’s crowded, people will walk past and if it’s too sparse, people will huddle in small groups.”

Highlights of projects

The importance of light cannot be emphasised enough, Kadri says, “Absolute highlight of our schools are quality of light and spaces to interact. Also the artwork that we incorporate in the project has a purpose to serve.”

The concept of the learning centre is still evolving, usually blending with other previously distinct spaces to absorb more of their functions. On the same lines, Ar. Concessao says, “We also emphasise on well-designed social spaces for students which are likely to increase students’ motivation and may even have an impact on their ability to learn. High-quality space for informal learning will also enhance the profile of the institution with its target groups. For these reasons, social spaces are given a high priority in our new designs, but this cannot happen at the expense of increasing the overall dimensions of the building.”

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The Deutsche Schule Bombay (DSB) by EDA is a fine example of cohesive learning spaces, where learning happens in pods, which can be combined to form larger zones. ‘Cave spaces’ for focused activities are created in nooks or by means of furniture elements. Semi-covered ‘learning terraces’ are planned for activities such as arts and sculpture. Large glazed areas of the exterior walls enable a visual dialogue between the inside and outside.

In Safa Community School, Dubai the external decks ensure that all teaching spaces have good connections to the outdoors. The strategic location of the Global Learning Centre with all the co-curricular activities, indoor sports, theatre, cafeteria, Media Resource Centre enables the accessibility for students, teachers and parents alike. The orientation and relationship of the massing and open spaces has been carefully considered to maximize the effect of daylight and cross ventilation.

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Conclusion

Based on the inputs given by experts, it can be concluded that designing a cohesive learning space is more than just good structure. The architecture must not only encourage knowledge sharing but it should also participate in the process with its design. The building must be built keeping in mind the context, culture and climate so that the users should also learn to respect and adapt to the environment and local culture.


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