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On a morning in March, Thomas Heatherwick gave a presentation to a packed classroom on the campus of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Two dozen academics and journalists had gathered in Learning Hub, the designer’s latest project, for its grand unveiling. As Heatherwick clicked through PowerPoint slides, televisions mounted on the room’s curved walls flashed with his celebrated projects: the London 2012 Olympic cauldron, the revamped London buses, the proposed Garden Bridge. The circular desks had inbuilt internet ports and plug sockets. There was not a white board in sight.

Learning Hub, designed by Heatherwick Studio and CPG Consultants, a Singaporean developer, seeks to reassert the “role of an educational building in the 21st century”, according to a press release. Since the first students gathered in the cloisters and quads of Oxford in the 11th century, our idea of what centres of higher learning should look like has not changed much (cloisters and quads are often still the ideal). Educational buildings have been designed to a particular function. Students have long needed lecture halls to hear lecturers speak.

But digital technology is bringing sweeping changes to education. University is more expensive and distance learning is flourishing. There are more than 500 Moocs — or massive open online courses — offered by 100 esteemed universities. They range from Poetry in America: Whitman, at Harvard University; to Peking University’s Fundamental Algorithms. Both can be accessed via edX for free. As educators scrabble to digitise teaching methods, architects are considering how buildings can better serve students’ interests. “Now we’ve all got our gadgets and you can stay in bed and get a PhD, what’s university for?” Heatherwick asks.

Heatherwick was invited to Singapore to design a university building that was better suited to contemporary education. If technology has meant that learning can take place almost anywhere, he thought, the purpose of university buildings is to bring people together. “So often people say they learn most from their fellow students,” he says.

“Whenever someone has a lesson, when you walk out of that lesson there’s normally a load of impressions. How are you going to process that? The most valuable discussion happens immediately after a lesson.”

Most university campuses, though, consist of buildings that discourage students from loitering too long. The archetype is an impenetrable, rectilinear warren of corridors with imposing lecture theatres and cramped tutorial rooms. These buildings almost seem designed to dampen creativity. My own English literature seminars at the University of Toronto, in 2008, may as well have been held in a bland office block.

Learning Hub, by contrast, is a prototype of an educational building suited to contemporary learning. Rather than a single building, it comprises 12 eight-storey stacks of 56 oval tutorial pods arranged around a central, glass-covered atrium — from the top it would resemble a childish outline of a cloud. Inside, undulating balconies connect the tutorial pods to form a walkway around the central atrium, so that if you lean over the mahogany and bronze handrail and look up you can see the sky. Each floor has garden terraces full of plants or other informal spaces. There are no corridors and no corners.

Restrictive building codes and budget constraints meant Learning Hub had to be built almost completely out of concrete. The columns are concrete. The floor, structural core, stairs and cladding are concrete too.

To make this material beautiful, the studio commissioned illustrator Sara Fanelli, whose 700 ink drawings have been three-dimensionally cast on to the concrete stairwells and elevator cores, creating textured carvings.

The cladding, meanwhile, was painstakingly cast from adjustable silicone moulds to form a horizontal striped pattern that gives the building a rough, almost handmade finish. Rather than the industry standard grey, the concrete of Learning Hub is a dusty salmon pink.

In the past decade or so it has become de rigueur for universities to commission ambitious architecture by big international names. Trophy buildings boost brands and attract students and faculty. At the London School of Economics, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, a startling collision of triangular, red brick façades in an area of London (near Holborn) with streets dating back to the medieval period, was nominated for the 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize.

Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge won this same prize in 2012. In the university’s working botanical garden, the laboratory is an elegant but functional limestone building with giant glazed windows connecting the garden to the labs. Stirling judge Joanna van Heyningen described it as “the lifting of a building type that could have been utilitarian into . . . a sublime piece of calm and beautiful architecture”.

The A$180m (£93m) Dr Chau Chak Wing at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) is the first building Frank Gehry, the LA-based architect, has done in Australia. Opened in February, the cartoonish brick façade — which has been likened to a squashed brown paper bag — looks as if the bricks were momentarily dislodged by a strong wind before setting. A sculptural, stainless steel staircase in the lobby could belong to an art college. Circular classrooms wrapped in stacks of two-tonne radiata pine beams more directly allude to the treehouse the building was ostensibly inspired by. Gehry describes it as a “growing learning organism with many branches of thought, some robust and some ephemeral and delicate”.

As with Learning Hub, the building strives to be more than a landmark, says Shirley Alexander, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-president (education and students) at UTS.

Alexander cites Donald Bligh’s 1971 book,What’s the Use of Lectures?, in which he argues that lectures are one of the least effective ways of transmitting factual information. In Chau Chak’s oval-shaped classrooms, up to 60 students form rings round the lecturer in a break from the traditional hegemony of the lectern at the front. “No one is more than two seats away from the person running the session,” Alexander says.

Gehry’s ebullient business school is in contrast to the elegant solemnity of Foster + Partners’ recent School of Management at Yale University, the Edward P Evans Hall. “There was big debate about it being a business school and, actually, being in its interior, it’s more like a business club,” explains Nigel Dancey, a senior executive partner at Foster + Partners. “It’s quite a serious environment for students — that was deliberate.”

The building’s façade is a row of slim white columns sheltering a five-storey glass atrium, flanked by two azure drums. Inside, in a neo-modernist spin on the classic Oxbridge quad, 16 “drum” classrooms are arranged around a central courtyard connected by an internal circulation “cloister”.

“I was fascinated by [the faculty’s] attempt to get students to think, to get them away from the chalk and talk,” Dancey says. “The spaces between the classrooms and around the courtyard became as important as the classrooms themselves in terms of where the students are going to engage and meet.”

The 16 classrooms support a number of learning styles, from lectures and team-based work to video conferencing. They are kitted out with a suite of high-tech teaching tools: simultaneous translation, filming, multimedia displays and enhanced acoustics to ensure every student can hear, as well as see.

I ask if virtual lessons will inevitably supersede the traditional classroom in a more digitally integrated future. “Flexibility is important for the future, and allowing for change because the technology will continue to change,” Dancey says. “As with many things in life at the moment, there’s an evolution in the way people are learning. But we’re humans, and people like to be together. The classroom isn’t going to go away.”

 

Link to The FT