Scale-free schools

Thursday 31 Mar 2011

Architecture 00:/ investigate new learning architecture for the 21st century

Architecture 00:/ are a London-based design practice and think-tank, whose work includes award-winning architecture, research, policy and strategic design. The office aggregates a wide-range of expertise and thinking, and tries to apply a collaborative way of working on projects which reach beyond the traditional remit of architecture.

Often systemically innovative, but always relentlessly pragmatic, their work interprets the social shifts, ecological constraints, new economics, disruptive technologies, industrial processes and politics that will shape the 21st century, and looks for new possibilities. Previous projects have included new civic institutions, enterprise hubs, economic development masterplans, new service-delivery infrastructures for healthcare and a number of ultra-low energy private houses.

Scale-free schools is a proposal for a new infrastructure of learning, initiated by the office in 2010 and since developed with Architecture & Design Scotland. What do the changing roles of educators, new ideas for learning, emerging technologies and constrained resources mean for the infrastructure of learning? To a surprising extent, the educational architecture we have inherited today still reflects the Victorian, industrial-age mindset which conceived it.

Although we no longer think about education in that way, we still design schools as institutional factories for mass-education: purpose-built, expensive, one-size fits all campuses. One of the problems with this model is that it requires a large up-front investment of capital, both in terms of cash and carbon. Yet once completed, this physical asset is often heavily underused.

Factoring evenings, night-times and school holidays, a typical school can sit empty for 85% of the year. At the same time, many spaces in city and town centres are underused or unused for many hours a day: religious and historic buildings, music venues, public parks... What if we were to unlock this spare resource? We would not think of a school as a single building but as a distributed topology of learning: a responsive civic network. No longer constrained by a fixed capacity, the model rejects the hegemony of the selective 'postcode lottery' – it simply expands or contracts according to demand.

It is not so much 'planned-out' as 'choreographed'. It would result not just in a lean infrastructure, but also the emergence of 'learning towns', where daily culture and identity are shaped by the way learning is integrated into everyday life.

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