Making the building sing

An interview with the former Principal of the school revealed that the construction of the new Senior School building coincided with the Building the Education Revolution (BER) funding of 2009. With the BER money taking care of the Junior School extensions that had been planned, the school leadership decided to rethink the Senior School renovation. We are a country school, said the principal, but we need to think like a city school.  In his opinion and that of the College Board, there was growing discomfort with the late 1980s style of classrooms which were no longer suitable for 21st Century learning. The contrast with the new modern and functional Junior School (built in 2008) with its light and airy learning spaces was considerable, thus providing the impetus for reconceiving the design of the Senior School. The principal wanted an industrial feel, a warehouse type barn, in a building that would have a light touch down the hill on which it was to be situated. He envisaged the Junior School (JS), a beacon of innovation on one side of the school, and the Senior School (SS) physically bookending the College. We had the cash, he said, and he intended to change the game a bit, to supercharge the the concept of senior school. He wanted the building to make a statement, high on the hill, looking outwards not inwards. It also was set on the highest point of the school, the last point before the students leave secondary schooling.

The Business Manager and the Principal visited shopping centres, Adelaide University’s Hub Central, UTS, UC, and the Microsoft offices in Sydney, as well as school and public libraries in Australia and New Zealand. Some were particularly informative for structural design, some for the fitout. The principal said he wanted the new SS to relate formal learning and study time, so the creation of a learning commons was central to the concept of the building. In his view, our city is a particularly inward-looking community (he used the term “to courtyard” in describing our cultural outlook), so this drove the thinking of an outward-looking construction, with mezzanines and open spaces. He wanted a redefinition of learning, a fundamental change in the metaphor for learning at the College, with open collaborative spaces. Students should learn to manage the transition from school to university style of learning, and he was aiming for a building and spaces that would help students to become more self-managing. He wanted to call the building “Viewpoint” for that reason, so that the learning that occurred within the building reflected the expression of ideas.

Changes in senior school leadership meant some of the more traditional offices in the building were designed with a different purpose in mind. Some of the school leaders at the beginning of the project were of the view that nothing needed changing, that you don’t change a successful model.The principal recognised there had to be compromises to get certain aspects of the design over the line and subsequent personnel changes were advantageous. The new Head of the senior school held similar views to the principal, and was able to drive the project with more enthusiasm than his predecessor. Their view was that the building made it necessary to have a different pedagogy, one that made the building sing, so the teaching and learning would do the same.


Creative coffee morning…and evening.

I really wanted to resist the urge to have a creative coffee morning amongst colleagues. I tried. Given, however, the exhortation to get people together who don’t usually collaborate on anything creative, I thought that was enough reason to push on.

There were representatives from several different faculties at the school (Art, Design, History, the Director of Studies, English, Science, Music, Media Studies, RE) most of whom would rarely spend time together, let alone in a discussion based around creating learning spaces. Secondary schools are notorious for retaining a silo mentality but without an underlying thread tying us together, apart from the overarching assessment culture, I would say there is often more that divides than unites us.

What was surprising was the enthusiasm in the discussion about learning spaces. Everyone wanted to talk about the Library, as we had just sent out a survey about Library usage to canvas views of what will happen with the introduction of the BYOD program next year. Steering ideas into other spaces around the school eventually came back to the Library! Our school is spread out, mostly single level with little outside covered space. In a climate like Canberra’s, any space that is warm in winter and cool in summer is bound to be well-used. Some felt the communal space of the Library had so much potential. Others were very happy with the current layout. (!) Several people commented though, how there had never been any invitation to talk about the actual space before. It was a revelation. The new architecturally designed senior school building (up for public architecture awards this year) has beautiful new spaces, but some teachers are less than positive about its potential to enhance learning. They expressed the view that they had not been asked to have any input. Decisions were made that didn’t include all stakeholders, although I do know many teachers were not prepared to get on board with some of the more interesting design ideas that have been introduced. Ultimately the process is the product – it’s not so much the outcome but the opportunity to actually get together and talk about what we have in common. Perhaps there may have been more uptake in the new spaces if teachers felt included.

CCMLibrary classroom layout

Note the prescriptive layout of the Library classroom as per attachment to door. The creative coffee morning created a pretext for people to get together though, and was worth it, even if we did move the furniture.

The evening event was a small gathering – a sculptor,  an artist, several teachers. This time we were in the beautiful new foyer and restaurant space of Hotel Hotel, edgy and modern.

Monsters Monsters2

The concept of creativity was the focus. You can be creative with what you have, said the sculptor – you don’t have to knock everything over and start again. Creativity and innovation appear to be obvious allies but adaptation rather than innovation also gives scope for creativity. The creativity lies as much in what you do with what you have, as it does in knocking everything down and starting again. This way of thinking resonates with me as I have begun to see space differently. Unfortunately the noise level of the hotel precluded recording what people had to say! Shades of Julian Treasure and the ability of architects to listen.


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