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.


Putting STEAM into STEM: Design for Creativity

By John W. Clark AIA posted 09-12-2016 08:10 PM


In what has become the most popular TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson asks “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”  “My contention,” he says, “is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” All children are born artists, Robinson notes, but we get educated out of creativity as we grow up. Risk taking is important for creativity. Creative risk-takers can’t be overly concerned with being “wrong.” But contemporary education places too much focus on being “right." Robinson says practically all educational systems, whether in the United States, England, or elsewhere, have the same hierarchy of subjects, with art at the bottom.  These, he says, are based on a very limited nineteenth century education systems. Yet human intelligence, rather than being limited, static, and strictly defined, is diverse, abstract, and dynamic. We think and learn in different ways: abstractly, visually, and even physically. Creativity, Robinson feels, results from connecting different disciplines and different ways of seeing things. So it is important, he says, to educate the whole being.

During the first decade of the 21st Century there has been too much emphasis on standardized tests in American education. This emphasizes rote learning, memorization, basic math problem solving skills. In this environment, music, design, and art are regarded as educational luxuries. Recently in my own school district on Chicago’s North Shore, the local public school district threatened to cut art and music from the curriculum unless our community passed a referendum. (And replace it with what? I asked: More sitting in a desk listening to a teacher?) Arts programs are too often regarded as expendable in a K-12 program. They should not be. 

Architects as crafters of the educational environment are generally not responsible for the curricula taught in these environments. And yet we can be important advocates for a more creative education, because it is that same training that once helped us.  A STEM education, with its focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is often advocated as a great foundation for a career in architecture. And so it is. Yet it misses a key component important to architecture: Art. free hand drawing, and the visual thinking and creative flow that results from right-brain immersion in visual and spatial thinking, are important aspects of architecture, design, engineering, and many other disciplines, that too often have little if any emphasis in today’s education. Adding Art to STEM creates the STEAM curriculum: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. The introduction of Art to a STEM curriculum also allows different ways think about, visualize, explore, and interconnect STEM disciplines.

John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School / Cordogan Clark & Associates Architects

Drawing is a way of seeing, and learning to see. Architects know that when they draw a thing, they see it more intensely, and remember it better. It is also a very supple way of conveying mental images. The architect Stephen Holl has said that hand drawing better conveys your brain’s activity than a computer can. Architects, he feels, need to draw to realize the vital connection between hand and mind. Drawing with a computer program is often filtered through a verbal and/or mathematical software program, and so is very different from direct hand drawing. Computer drawing also facilitates copying, but since it may not require redrawing the thing copied, understanding the thing copied can be significantly reduced. Drawing by hand opens up a different way of thinking, with deeper seeing and learning.

Music training, in addition to being good in itself, has been positively correlated with enhanced memory, verbal, and math skills. Many architects have been inspired by music: Frank Lloyd Wright often referred to architecture “a kind of music.” It, too, opens a window into a different way of thinking and relating to the world.

Architects, with their education that unites science, math, engineering, technology, and art, are uniquely suited to be STEAM advocates: We should have special insight into the type of environment conducive to STEAM.

The architect Prakash Nair has been building educational environments inspired by the “primordial” learning environments, discussed in my previous blog, that David Thornburg defines metaphorically as the Campfire; the Watering Hole; the Cave; and Life. In his book, Blueprint for Tomorrow, Prakash Nair promotes alternative educational environments conducive to student centered learning. Especially relevant to the STEAM learning environment is his “Da Vinci Studio." He sees it as a metaphor for the 21st Century, where the hard lines that previously separated the arts and sciences are becoming blurred. “Instead of pigeonholing subject areas into right- or left-brain categories,” he writes, “schools need to make more opportunities for students to escape these restrictions and to blend different ways of thinking.” Da Vinci’s studio, Nair says, blends artist’s studio, science lab, and model-building shop. 

John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School / Cordogan Clark & Associates Architects

Prakash Nair notes that the recommended specifications for secondary Science Labs overlap with the requirements for an Art Studio. These requirements include:

  • Water- and chemical-resistant floors and work surfaces,
  • Access to water and cleanup facilities,
  • Project and prep storage, adequate ventilation,
  • Vented booths,
  • Natural lighting,
  • Good acoustics,

Furnishings and workspaces in this studio should also be versatile, to accommodate both 2-D projects such as planning, drawing, and painting, and 3- projects such as model making, sculpture, craft making, and other experiments; and to allow students to stand, lean, or sit as desired. The studio that unites these specifications transforms within minutes from a science classroom to an art studio, or can unite both simultaneously.

An alternative educational environment such as Nair describes could be included in a STEAM school, a science/art/children’s museum, or other learning environment. Of the primordial learning environments defined by Thornburg, Nair sees the Da Vinci Studio as belonging to “Life,” where students learn by experimenting, allowing them to use their creative skills, and to apply their knowledge. I especially like this dual-use concept because, in a time when educational dollars are tight and the benefits of STEM teaching are widely acknowledged, while those of teaching the arts are not, it allows the easy, seamless, and economical introduction of STEAM into a STEM environment.

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


John W. Clark, AIA Architecture for Alternative Education Subcommittee

September 2016

This is an ongoing blog for the AIA Alternative Educational Environment subcommittee. In it, my co-chairs Osleide Walker, Linda Nelson Keane, and I will 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, a place for community dialogue through the internet.