The Landscape of education

Jan 2007

“The Landscape of Education” was part of a dissertation that accompanied a semester 2 studio project that asked for a landscape proposal for M.S. University Baroda.

This piece is not meant to draw attention to the design solution. The solution itself is a matter of further debate. But the premise around which the proposal was developed, is pointedly non-site specific and makes for an interesting read.

This article is the premise and the accompanying analysis to substantiate this point of view. An additional section of derivation of expression is added on for fun.

“the real university is a state of mind; It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location…. The real university is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.” – Robert M. Pirsig

This design is an attack on current ethics of design concepts that go into the making of a university or any learning institution. It deals with the design expressions for a center of learning. These expressions include the experience of learning, the atmosphere and the ambiance or learning, which in turn dictate the form, look and feel- which are necessary to facilitate the proper quest for knowledge.

The portfolio shows particular attention to the design expression for the process and phenomenon of individual education and proposes an inquest into current ethics in the design of universities.

This is made on the following premise :

The general trend in most university design indicate a heavy inclination towards community development.

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However one may note that in vedic ages had absolutely no design expressions for gurukuls. In a time when architectural expressions for other structures, eg temples, homes and palaces, were bound by the strictest rules of the Mansara, Mayamat and the vastushastra, schools for the young were taking place in a secluded forest under a largish tree.

Surely, this is because “education and enlightenment was not, traditionally, linked to ambiance.”
But today, the education sector is a multi crore industry, in India, and growing, and the most important concern for educators is the image of their establishment i.e. their overall landscape which included their buildings.

Does the image and the prestige of an educational institution necessarily mean that education here will be guaranteed?
Not necessarily.
It does surely mean that a really good wealthy college may be able to afford the best faculty, the best facilities, state of the art class rooms and what not, which one may believe are a means to an end that is education. But these are just the appearance of things.

This is not really enlightenment itself. Nor do the most costliest spaces necessarily mean that the truth is at hand. What is actually lacking is an actual insight into an expression that actually fosters “learning”

The philosophy of architectural/landscape expressions for education should be re-examined.

It is generally seen today, that two of the main concepts that are prevalent today, that of image creation and that of community building.

To arrive at an independent design expression, following is an analysis of certain observations.

Critique of community formations in an institution
Pg 25 of the “Campus design in India” –co-authored by A. Kanvinde, states
“The university will serve as a cultural center …. (In) the spaces between buildings where students may gather informally between classes for discussion”.
This maxim is more or less a direct result of a thought whose original intention has been hijacked to pave a way for a design that is overtly literal.

The word community here has been misunderstood, and taken too literally. As a direct result of this misunderstanding, it sees the body of students as a family of brooding pigeons that need lots of space for their clucking and communication.

Further more the term university community further suggests a misunderstanding of the nature and scale of student interaction.

This is seen in the following demonstrator –
Imagine the studios of the CEPT University. Between lectures, everyone talks to the other. Mostly ideas, but sometimes small talk, and socializing too which is also important.

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They do this on stools, on tables, in between lectures, during lectures, sitting on desks, under desks, beside desks, in the smallish balconies, but usually with no regard for the pre-mediated nature of the spaces they are using.
In fact, most of the time, designed space is remodified, forcibly, to suit the act of ‘leisurely small talk’.

The point is that ‘community’ takes ‘place’, from anyplace to anywhere and generally at very small scales. Design generally fails to encapsulate, improvise, or designate social activity in every day life too –

Discussions happen, not at designated public plazas alone, but at sidewalks, on stairs, at canteens, on journeys, in resting areas, etc. as such they really need not be accounted for. Nor does one need plazas to create a platform for people to meet. Such provisions, in a university, seem shallow. Like an event of mathematical probability where gaseous molecules (students) are confined in a sealed container (plaza) and thus there are a 100% chances that all of them will collide with at least another.

The need for privacy and solitude

The author of “Campus Design in India” proposes some other, pretty incredible ideals. That education is not a private journey; it is in fact communal, like a church prayer or bhajans.

And that quietude and restfulness is only for idleness and not concentration and is thus separate from academic pursuit. (“The university should also provide quiet, private hostels where individuals may withdraw for meditation and relaxation”.)
In fact it should be the exact reverse.!!

The story of eklavya teaches us that actual education comes from great discipline that is developed to “look within”. And to do so, one of the most important facility, is to be able to meditate on what is being taught in class. This sometimes can only be achieved by seclusion. Thus de-priortising of community is primary to university landscapes.

Ekalavya copy

Regardless of its location or the surrounding politics or education, the landscape of a university should be centered on education and the pursuit of truth. A student spends his time in a class room, in a group. But it is out side the class, in between lectures, that he should begin to meditate on his instructions.

Sometimes the instructions are right, and sometimes wrong too (that happens). But what is important to realize is that the student requires his ‘solitary quietness’ to really think about what must be done next. Certain religions consider the path to enlightenment as a solitary and independent one, requiring great withdrawal and concentration. Does this not imply to education too?
The ‘anti-community’ ethos –may indicates the idea that a university is useless for education – that one may as well study from correspondence and over the internet. The following demonstrator dispels that notion. –

eco-intro-mapConsider the working of a library. A thousand books, individual seating spaces and the atmosphere of academia. A multitude of individuals pursuing knowledge. However if any group may end up having a prolonged discussion, they are roundly ticked off by the librarian and asked to leave the library, if they wish to continue. The group then leaves and goes in search of a suitable space to continue their discussion.

There is nothing more conducive to reading, than the atmosphere of a library. And yet a library is not a community. They are a group of students who work individually in each others company.

 

Case study of part plans
Part plans of central university of Illinois, Chicago

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The squares here in between structures make community life inescapable. Also seclusion spaces are almost nonexistent here and the landscaping is only along the buildings. Even the size of this community spaces is massive. Almost the same size as the small building.!! More like a mini – town center.! GBM meetings every day?

Artists impression of Walter Gropius’s university in Baghdad : central plaza area: (below)Does the a plaza really provide the perfect setting for learning??? : This could more easily likened to St. Marco’s piazza in venice, than an actual learning center. Images like these also seem to signify a leaning away from expressions for learning.

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Image
An institute that that is about a century old, tends to have a strong architectural presence and imagery. It seems today that architectural image becomes the most important aspect of the design, digressing completely from the crux of an educational landscape. One is almost surprised to see that so much effort and analysis goes into the form and fabric of the university.

Yet the classroom, where all this enlightenment and transformation into intellectual adults is supposed to take place, is still a white washed box with a couple of desks!

it has been this way from western antiquity. The entirety of university design has now been successfully reduced to corporate office design.

And if that is so, then the entire process of university design is faulted at the very first turn. It is fundamentally negligent towards education-learning-enlightenment phenomenon, and is yet to deduce an expression for this understanding.

 

Master objectives of the design

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Thus it is the view of this author that the values of a university landscape should symbolize that –
“the journeys of education, like the journeys of exploration, are fundamentally personal, intimate, individual and, most importantly, independent journeys.”
Thus priorities in the design for education need to be reassessed when it comes to the nature of spaces in a university campus. A university is not a platform for cultural interaction. The culture of home and society and community are platforms for cultural interaction.

The main objectives are –

1) image “de-building” – the design installation disregards the statutes of ‘architectural frontages’, ‘pre-stated geometric order’ and the created space/place images of the buildings in order to de-build the hitherto known image of the MSU university. This is done to highlight the ideal that image has as much to do for education as rap music does for classical english literature. The new image formed by the language of the landscape expression will be largely incomprehensible from the human scale, but the atmosphere of meditation will surely be palpable.

2) Community deconstruction – One of the primary aims of the concept is to de-construct the entire fabric of the university environment that currently serves as a crucible for so called much needed social exchange. The landscape shall act as a medium to create an atmosphere that is more conducive to education and the quest for enlightenment. The installation shall serve to create the much needed transitory spaces that actually create spaces and places of a more intimate nature thus, allowing each and every student to withdraw into the privacy of his own thoughts.

3) Fostering meditation and reflection within the university, by reducing the priority on community spaces, and creating spaces where one may find solitude more easily.

Derivation of expression

The expression of design is based on the following introduction of a new programme that comments on the “process of education. :

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At the end of the class, as every student steps outside, one must have the freedom to choose to be alone or to move around in a group. However it should be more easy to move into a secluded space than a “community area”.

While the recent lecture is still recent, the student may do well to be able to avoid a mob and spend his/her time by his or her self. Sometimes these ‘meditations’ happen in twos, but never, by general observation, in a group greater than four. Thus no sooner than the student steps out of his building, he is confronted by multiple choices of paths to go his own way. These pathways have a low visibility range, like a thick forest, where he may disappear more quickly. If at all he may wish to join a group or go to a more public place he must consciously make an attempt to do so. The larger congregation spaces shall be a little out of the way thus making it less incidental.

General planning of community oriented universities. The classes directly lead to plaza spaces while the seclusion spaces are at one corner. In the new programme – the building open up into a dispersing agent. The plaza spaces are further away.

the maze

maze concept

The main faculty of a maze is its ability to disorient. The availability of options serve to change directions many times, and in the end the user has no idea where he or she has ended up or where one has lost the way. Here on a renewed concentration is required to find what many people call “the way”. This analogy of the maze could also be connected to the deconstruction philosophy.
Here, the multitude of available options to choose many paths will serve to disconnect every individual from every other.

post script: this is more or less where the analysis ends and the design begins. the design itself went into another dimension and attempted concepts of deconstruction vs. heritage settings.

Its should be mentioned here that, among the many thing to be reckoned with, was the aspect of security, especially for women. this was however not touched upon in this portfolio .. academic licence could be explained as an excuse.
Maybe art is not a democratic endeavour.

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