What Motivates and Inspires PROOFFs Ben van Berkel?

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    What Motivates and Inspires PROOFFs Ben van Berkel?

    Furniture actually needs to be designed with the same aims as the buildings: to facilitate learning, collaboration and co-creation.

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    News - 19.10.2018

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

    2) As more and more pressure is placed on universities and schools – increased enrolment numbers, smaller available real estate stock etc – what kinds of new theoretical approaches for architecture and design are emerging in this sector? 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. 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. 

    3) And what kinds of impacts are technological advances making in this space? 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 has been investigating recently is one of decentralisation; the potential for the establishment of ‘micro campuses’: 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 respatalised modes of learning and working.

    4) 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 thus - 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. 

    5) What is the role of furniture within this? 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. 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.

    6) And where do you see the future of design in the education space heading? I foresee the users, the students, having a greater say in the spaces that are designed for them, but (as I mentioned above, in Q3,) 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) which enable people to reappropriate education themselves and in a sense despatialise 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.”

    7) What other sectors and influences (beyond the remit of the education sector) are impacting this space? Work spaces 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.

    8) From your personal perspective, what do you find particularly interesting about design in the education space?  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!

    9) What recent universities/schools/institutions in the education sector do you believe have approached the design of their 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 to them. 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. 

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