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The architecture of learning: Teaching places to inspire


Alex Riddle takes a look at some of the more exciting learning spaces in modern higher education.

The library and lecture theatre have long been the battlegrounds within which students grapple with Fermat’s Last Theorem, or go to war with a towering pile of Shakespeare and a 9am deadline. But education is an evolving beast, moving from the blackboards of yesteryear into a gleaming smartboard-fuelled future. With today’s generation raised on a diet of social media and Instant Messenger, the classroom has begun to change to reflect modern life. Embracing digital certainly, but also acknowledging that the constant sharing of ideas that we see online ought now to be replicated in the design of the teaching spaces themselves.

Classrooms are shaking off the hierarchical teacher-lectures-and-students-listen structure, and are becoming places of play. They are becoming areas of collaborative, cross-disciplinary exchange: Immersive, heavily involved, learning is key. With the building work now completed on the innovative Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of Sussex, we’re looking at inspiring learning spaces – be they old or new - as educators and architects ask themselves how they can help students get the very best out of their days.

Some schools, universities, and institutions come already blessed with the type of buildings that make prospective students swoon. Gadget-free and traditional they may generally be, but there can’t be many who haven’t entered a good library and suddenly thought dedicating months on end to a dissertation doesn’t sound all so bad. Dublin’s Trinity College’s Long Room is one of the very finest examples – a monument to quiet learning - while the architecture of a number of Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges makes for picture-postcard places of study. The Bodleian Library, St. John’s College, and Wren Library will each leave bookworms salivating on their hallowed floors, and The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Library should have you booking the first train to Glasgow.

Wandering off-campus, many Londoners will have carted their texts and energy drinks to The Reading Room at The British Museum, hoping the collective spirit of past-occupants such as Gandhi, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde will help conjure up a blockbuster conclusion to their essays. Meanwhile over the pond, we’re seeing the community library brought into the 21st Century with the Salt Lake City Public Library and the airy Seattle Public Library both offering particularly good examples of excellent places to catch a coffee, do your research, and admire some startling modern architecture.

The lucrative nature of the American University system has institutions falling over themselves to offer prospective students anything their young minds can dream of. While The University of Chicago and The University of Pennsylvania, among others, have world-class old libraries of their own, we’ve seen universityies offer everything from zip lines (Missouri State University) to ‘Lazy Rivers’ (Texas Tech) in recent years. Yet Claude Moore, The University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, is an example of money well spent on both design and purpose. They’ve established a rotund glass structure five stories tall, complete with purpose-built learning studios and clinical skills centre. But its piece de resistance is undoubtedly the medical simulation centre that dominates the ground floor. Complete with procedure rooms, a mock ER, ICU, and labour and delivery unit. Students can don their scrubs and imagine they are on the set of Holby City, all whilst picking up vital skills as they do so.

The University of Sussex’s Attenborough Centre is set to attract an altogether different crowd. But it is another example of an institution committed to designing an inspiring, aesthetically-pleasing space, and equipping it for the most modern teaching methods, and the realities of today’s collaborative experiential leaning. Redeveloping a unique Grade II*-listed building that had previously welcomed performances from the likes of Jack Dee and Lee Evans, and turning it into a vast, cross-disciplinary study and performance space – enthused with the creative spirit of its former occupants, and of course, the man after whom it is named: Lord Attenborough.

The space will include a 350-seater auditorium, display areas for art and moving installations, and break-out creative zones in which students can explore new ways of learning. An open door policy means it’s expected to form a creative hub for the wider community – as local artists offer inspiration to the next generation at study.

Indeed, the arts world – as can be expected – is pushing the boat out in all approaches to teaching spaces, with many rejecting traditional classroom structures in favour of something more inclusive. The esteemed Central Saint Martins moved into fresh quarters in King’s Cross a couple of years back, and the new building is every bit as vibrant as you’d expect from the base of our country’s future Hirsts, McQueens and Emins. Taking on an old granary, the open spaces within the heart of the cavernous brick building have been transformed to resemble a ramshackle, thriving, market-place within the day, as students exhibit their wares, with paintings hanging from the walls and installations round every corner.

Open School East, one of a rising new breed of art schools, is also making intelligent use of its space. A run-down former East London library has been transformed into a pioneering shared workspace, as its organisers encourage collaboration between projects, and positive interactions within the wider community. Like The Attenborough Centre, it makes the arts space a leading player within the community – hosting workshops, lessons, and ‘dance parties’ for older citizens. You’ll struggle to find a better muse than a jiving octogenarian.

Alex Riddle is a staff writer for University of Sussex's Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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