Committee on Architecture for Education

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The Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE) is a Knowledge Community of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). We are a large and active group of over 10,000 architects and allied professionals concerned with the quality and design of all types of educational, cultural, and recreational facilities that promote lifelong learning in safe, welcoming and equitable environments. The CAE’s mission is to foster innovative and collaborative design of educational facilities and to heighten public awareness on the importance of learning environments.


Campfires, Holodecks, and Schools: New Paradigms for 21st Century Learning Environments

By John W. Clark AIA posted 08-30-2016 05:22 PM


“Schools began,” according to the architect Louis Kahn, “with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realization with a few others who did not know they were students.” Kahn’s return to essentials provided a powerful stimulus for his architecture. Kahn’s return to the primordial clarifies the problem, strips it of peripheral associations. Kahn reverted to a primordial essence before leaping forward. This enabled him to bring new life to Modernist abstraction. I was reminded of this when reading David Thornburg’s recent book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments. In it, Thornburg defines what he feels are the essential, or “primordial”, learning environments, which he defines metaphorically as the Campfire, the Watering Hole, the Cave, and Life. 

Louis Kahn Teaching Under a TreeThornburg’s “Campfire” is similar to Kahn’s tree: a place where people gather to hear stories told by others, which has evolved into the classroom where a teacher imparts knowledge by telling stories, or lecturing. Today, the school prototype of a double loaded corridor of classrooms facing a lectern or desk and instructor is universal. That this has, since the mid-nineteenth century, become the too dominant form of educational environment, characterized as classroom “cells” with “bells” that alert students when to enter or leave, doesn’t lessen its validity as an important learning environment. Yet the basic school prototype of the cell with desks facing a lecturer is over a thousand years old. This itself should give us pause as we progress into the 21st century with radically new technologies, and new educational needs.

The “Campfire” is for Thornburg simply one of several educational prototypes, and not necessarily the most important one. The “Watering Hole” is Thornburg’s metaphor for a place of social learning among peers or communities. This is a place for conversation, not lectures. Social learning is a dominant form of learning in all societies. Yet all too frequently, it is designed out of the conventional “cells and bells” classroom building. Providing opportunities for informal learning is important. Thornburg cites the Illinois Math and Science Academy’s casual, carpeted stepped seating pits nestled between classrooms as examples of places conducive to casual conversation and peer-group learning.
Louis Kahn Architecture "Tree-Form"
Thornburg codifies the four important domains of education as Data, Information, Knowledge, and Understanding. It is education’s goal to move learnings from Data to Understanding. But this process is not necessarily direct. The “Cave” is Thornburg’s metaphor for a place of quiet contemplation, often but not necessarily solitary, leading to understanding. Understanding is a primarily personal act. In college my advisor Felix Candela, who pioneered a stunning architecture of hyperbolic paraboloids, told me that ironically he considered his worst teachers to be his best ones: Because of them, he learned that he would have to teach himself what he needed to know. There are, of course, many excellent and life-changing teachers. Yet it is still true that all education at some point involves self-education, as it progresses from knowledge to understanding. The Cave is a place where this can happen.

“Life,” Thornburg’s fourth educational environment, is where education is tested, where learners learn what they know and don't know, where education deepens, and where things learned are meaningfully applied.

Thornburg has been called a “premier futurist for educational technology”. He argues that students need to be prepared for their future, not for our past. He stresses that students learn best where they are constructors of their own knowledge, and in ways conducive to their own learning styles. It seems fitting that Thornburg, a brilliant left-handed scientist who in the 1970s had worked at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where he invented some user-interface tools that Steve Jobs embraced and that are used in computers today, and who has been responsible for a variety of interesting and diverse inventions and patents, be an introductory guide for a new type of 21st century educational environment. Yet the places that Thornburg defines in his book need new architectural form: The challenge remains how best to define them.

This is an inaugural blog for the Alternative Educational Environment subcommittee. In it, my co-chairs Osleide Walker, Linda Nelson Keane, and I want to explore alternative designs for education. We want to focus on useful, easily accessible thinking that can be applied by architects to their own work. In a sense, we see this as developing a sort of “Pattern Language” for alternative educational environments. The Blog format corresponds to Thornburg’s “Watering Hole”: Here, we are using the Internet as a place for community dialogue.

In future posts we will look further into Thornburg’s educational “holodeck” technology concepts. We will look at how other thinkers are defining 21st century needs, and how architects are meeting them. We will look at environments that prepare students in new ways for 21st century needs, including STEM (Science / Technology / Engineering / Math) and STEAM (Science / Technology / Engineering / Art / Math) schools. All of this is to look at current concerns in education, and to see how architects can help 21st century education through better design.

We are at the beginning of a new educational focus where new design prototypes are needed. For this, architects can provide real value.

Parable of Education by J W Clark

John W. Clark, AIA Co-Chair,

Subcommittee for Alternative Learning Environments

August 2016