The question posed before me as an architect is, “Can architectural space influence the learning process in a positive way?” or, “Can architectural space contribute to the personal growth of a child with joy, freedom, compassion and awareness?” From my experience in designing and studying a number of educational institutions from primary schools to postgraduate research institutions, and from various postoccupational surveys, my answer to the above questions is a resounding “Yes!”

Architecture is not divorced from life and its values. True architecture is not the superficial façade, decoration or beautification as it is sometimes thought to be. It is something that works upon the quality of a very important component of our life—space. The quality of this space plays an important role in our lives both consciously and subconsciously. For us as architects, space is our most important medium, where form is given to something formless.

When one goes deeper into this concept of space, one realizes that there are broadly two types of space. One is the outer physical space, and then there is inner psychological space, or the space within our consciousness. The outer space of a person or society becomes an expression of the inner space. Moreover, the outer space in its own way influences the inner space of the user. This being so, it naturally becomes necessary for me to design such architectural spaces that respond to my concerns in life.

Here we shall take a look at how architecture could respond to one’s educational concerns.

In today’s scenario, where the spirit of consumerism is driving the environmental balance to the brink, and where man is going further and further away from nature, good educational architecture in my opinion would mean an architecture that helps in developing an integral, symbiotic relationship between man and Nature. It would contribute to creating a loving bond between people and their natural environment. It was, for instance, heartening to learn that most of the children studying and living in my newly designed primary school complex, wrote in their essays about how the old Ficus tree (retained in their courtyard) was one of their best friends. Now these children, when they grow up, will remember this rapport that was established between them and the tree in their formative years. One hopes that they would find it difficult to cut down a tree in future!

Some of my guiding questions as an architect:

  • can our building designs not include Nature as an intrinsic part of the built environment? Why cannot a classroom extend onto an open-air class under a tree?
  • Could the measurable parts of our buildings establish a rapport with the immeasurable quality of Nature?
  • Can our buildings not take in the hills, the sky beyond, the clouds and the setting sun as an integral part of the architectural vocabulary?
  • Can the trees found near our buildings become members of our extended family that are greeted every time we enter our houses or schools?

Some of my further concerns are born from a response to the short-sighted, isolating, fragmented nature of today’s education. I ask myself, can our school design not extend itself to include the surroundings and thereby integrate better with the environment? Could our architecture not express the unified interrelatedness of Life by addressing salient environmental concerns? These are some other questions I pose for myself:

  • Should we not try to save on resource utilization by creating spaces that are multifunctional, or by the recycled use of existing spaces? Multiple use of a building element would also help e.g. a floor could raise itself to become a seat, or a bed. It could become a playing area, a planter and so on.
  • Could we not simplify our lifestyles and reduce the strain on resources by not giving in to overindulgence? For instance, use of resources that are already locally available would obviously cut down on transportation costs and energy use.
  • Could we not use the same resource a number of times for different purposes? For example water from the bath could irrigate some plants, or sewage effluent filtered through upflow filters can be used for gardening. Weeds, fallen leaves, twigs etc. are not waste but a valuable resource, as they can be put in pits around the trees as manure.
  • Can our energy consumption not be minimized by creating a climate of responsive design—well lit and well ventilated? The use of renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, water, methane gas, waste wood etc. would also help.

Living and working in such multiple use, simple, natural, non-ostentatious space would indirectly influence the minds of the students as well as teachers.

‘Learning is manifold doings’

One needs to also understand how a child learns and then design spaces that are conducive to his learning process. In most schools, the volatile energy with which the child bubbles is controlled and regimented. This tends to smother the child’s creativity and expression. Spaces can be so designed that they allow freedom of expression to the child. This may be done with:

  • additional writing and drawing surfaces, display surfaces.
  • provision of lightweight components which the child can rearrange to create her own space.
  • a greater freedom of seating arrangements.
  • spaces which could be painted on, dirtied with clay, sand, paper, wood and so on.
  • fewer compartmentalized, closed in, claustrophobic spaces.

In a fast-paced world, we tend to take things, people and events for granted, thus missing out on the joy of experiencing wonderful moments. Can architecture help celebrate these moments? For instance, by capturing the early morning rays or the hues of the setting sun? Wouldn’t this help in increasing awareness in students? In our hurry to do things and to get through events our sensitivity is numbed. Children are generally more sensitive to space and nature. I remember an incident which took place at my friend’s. We were sitting in the hall. Through the doorway, I could see my friend’s 3 year old daughter swaying gracefully on the terrace. I was curious. I went to her and asked her what she was doing. She said “Don’t you feel this breeze blowing here? I am swaying with it—just like the branches and leaves of that tree.” Now, isn’t that a wonderful way of being with nature?

Architecture can facilitate interaction

An aspect that needs to be looked into while designing spaces for education is the possibility of spaces enhancing interaction between people (students, teachers, staff, visitors). Today, we see people moving further away from each other into compartmentalized, non-communicative spaces. However, space could be so organized as to generate spontaneous interactions, chance meetings and gettogethers. These aleatory or coincidental spaces play an important role in design. I have created such spaces with seating arrangements; with landscaped areas near toilets where students gather and interact. This can be done by means of widened passage nodes on interconnecting bridges; with inverted beams acting as seats in landscaped courtyards; terraces, stair landings and verandahs; through cutouts in slabs which visually connect two or three different floors; through interactive transparency between spaces, passages and so on.

Incorporating sanctity into our buildings

Consumerism and commercialization have made everything into a buyable and saleable commodity. This has changed our attitude of relating to things as well as people. Even a drop of water was earlier seen as a gift from God, something sacred, to be revered and thus stored and used, not only appropriately, but in a joyous, aesthetic manner. Today it is just a commodity, bought, stored shoddily, without any feeling, wasted and polluted with a consumer’s arrogance.

It is possible for spaces to convey a sense of the sanctity of life. This could be done by:

  • respecting the land, the soil that we build on—harmonizing with it rather than bulldozing and leveling it down.
  • recognizing and respecting a tree.
  • creating special places for water, sky, clouds and so on.
  • making designs that express one’s concern, care and also a sense of belonging on the Earth.
  • not creating artificially decked up, decorated and glitzy facades in a world where the wrapping has come to mean more than the content, but by creating simple, qualitative, evocative, communicative spaces that may help unclutter our inner spaces.

Kahlil Gibran gives us a beautiful description on how a house should shelter its inmates—‘not like a glistening bandage film that covers a wound but like our eyelid that shelters and covers the eye’. This suggests that a building can be conceived as a live process, with flexibility, manoeuverability and absorption.

For true learning to happen, an overhauling, cleansing operation is necessary to unclutter, clarify and enliven our psychological inner space. Only then can we awaken our ‘spirit’ to relate and belong to this wonderful totality of life. Once we purify and liberate our inner space, our creativeness in outer space will naturally reflect this spirituality. Our designs would then delightfully affirm life, by becoming an integrated part of the whole of existence. They would contribute to the enrichment of the human spirit by bringing joy and beauty into our lives.

In a reciprocal manner, our integrated designs in their own small way would further contribute to bringing about a much needed positive transformation in our inner psychological space. It is my hope that good, sensitive architecture, while enriching and celebrating life, will also contribute positively to the learning process.