A Design for Learning

By Kenn Taylor

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection
Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

The architecture of learning spaces within cultural institutions has followed a similar trajectory to learning as a whole within them. Even ten or fifteen years ago, education was frequently viewed as something marginal and add-on, to be fitted in wherever space was available, as long as it wasn’t intrusive and didn’t affect the ‘core’ work of the organisation. Inevitably, this meant that the spaces provided for education were equally marginal. If any dedicated facilities were available at all, it was often in unwanted rooms hidden far away from main areas and usually fitted out in an ad hoc way. Places unloved except perhaps by those who used them as participants or practitioners.

This really began to shift with the plethora of new cultural institutions that opened in the New Labour era. One of my previous employers, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) has a renowned education and engagement programme. Yet when it opened its brand-new permanent site in Liverpool in 2003, arguably the first in the UK to have given deep consideration in its design for displaying media art, dedicated spaces for learning programmes were not envisaged. Consequently learning activity had to be creatively undertaken in whatever space was available, be it computer labs, reception areas or within gallery and foyer space. While this to an extent prevented the ‘ghettoisation’ of education, having to use such spaces around wider programming and commercial imperatives inevitably reduced the flexibility and scale of what could be achieved.

While FACT didn’t have a dedicated education area when it was built, it did however contain a flat for visiting international artists – since removed for office space. This highlights perhaps the shifting perception of what the priorities of a cultural institution should be in the relatively short period of the 2000s. As more and more arts centres of various forms opened during this time in more diverse and deprived areas, increasingly they had to prove their worth beyond narrow circles of existing interest and any potential impact from creating a new ‘signature’ building.

Now in an era of harsher scrutiny, there has been a shift in focus from supporting artists and their work to that of engaging the public with art. Today it would be largely unthinkable to open a new publicly-funded cultural facility without providing a learning programme and space allocated for it. In the current climate for funding, this space may be small and learning staff may have several other functions, but in most cases education and engagement is now part of the core mission statement the majority of public cultural institutions.

As this has occurred, so the space allocated to learning within the architectural fabric of institutions has shifted. A clear example of this is the Design Museum, currently in the process of leaving its home since its founding in the 1980s in Shad Thames and moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the heart of West London. The overall footprint of the museum is being expanded, but of particular note will be an increase in the space allocated to education from 90m sq to some 600m sq, including a dedicated design studio.1 This is a clear example of how far museum education has come in a short time in terms of the recognition of its importance and need for space.

There has been a change though not only in the amount of floor space given over to education, but in the design of learning spaces within the wider architecture of institutions. Education rooms have come a long way from the often-windowless magnolia spaces of old. Funders who are backing an institution at least in part on the basis of education want due attention paid to it in the buildings that they finance, and this has been reflected in many recent new builds and refurbishments. For example, BALTIC in Gateshead, which opened in 2002, has since added the Quay Learning Space, which hosts a range of activities and showcases work by schools and communities, at the heart of the gallery in full view of visitors. This was of course though, a post-opening retrofit.2

Now it is typical for heavily-designed, prestigious earning spaces to occupy some of the best spots within a cultural venue, elevating the status of education within the architectural hierarchy of institutions. For example, the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, is the largest new build museum in the UK since the V&A opened in 1909. The Museum of Liverpool has several education spaces, but its largest, Education Area 3, occupies one of the most dramatic locations in the building. Constructed out of almost floor-to-ceiling glass, it places learning activity in view of visitors on the inside and outside of the building as well as giving those taking part stunning views across the ever-changing skies and river of the Mersey estuary, with sun and distractions easily blocked when required by electric blinds. These changes in design also reflect the shifting uses of education spaces to a degree. Once, learning in cultural institutions was largely about formal sessions for school children, along with perhaps the odd lecture. Now, learning facilities can find themselves being used for everything from youth panels to family craft workshops,reminiscence sessions with older people and evening talks in British Sign Language.

This has seen an increase in the creation of dedicated spaces aimed at specific audiences in some organisations. For example, when the Wellcome Collection in London first opened its new public venue in 2007 the only learning space provided was a general performance and events area. Now, as part of a large expansion programme, they are developing a dedicated youth events studio. The new studio will be an activity space for people aged 14 to 19 to engage with the Wellcome Collection and produce work that contributes to the organisation’s programme. Consultation with both staff and young people who would use the space was carried out by external facilitators, with the young people visiting learning and youth spaces across London. The main outcome of these consultations was a set of reports which were used by architects involved in creating the space to refer back to at the design stage.3

This is wise. Despite this improving design, location and space allocation, not all new education spaces function as well as they might and so often this stems from a lack of serious consultation with end users – be they education staff or participants. In some cases it seems also that the prestige of spaces has started to become a little removed from the reality of a learning facility – inevitably a changeable, messy, ‘live’ space.

From my experience of cultural education facilities in numerous venues as a staff member, freelancer and participant, I have developed a few ideas around what goes into making a great learning space. The key concept for me is that of flexibility. Learning spaces will inevitably be used for a myriad of activities, often for things that they were never envisaged for, as priorities, programmes, technologies and audiences change. Designing a space for a specific audience or activity can be great, but care should be taken to future-proof things. How quickly has a suite of Macs come to seem a little antiquated in the face of tablet computers?

Sizeable open plan spaces are great and flexible. However, cavernous spaces can sometimes be overwhelming and distracting, so if a space is large, the ability to break it up, with sliding doors or moveable partitions, is invaluable. In this respect Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini had it right when they created the Pompidou Centre in Paris back in 1977.

Quay Space in Baltic
Quay Space in Baltic

Lighting is another vital and often over-looked component. Natural light wherever possible is desirable, especially if, for conservation or display purposes, other areas of an institution are dark most of the time. However, views outside windows and people peering in can also be distracting and unnerving for participants. Windows can also detract from showing videos, slides etc, so suitable and reliable blinds are a must. Strong lighting is also vital when working with disabled audiences, for example partially sighted people or visitors who lip-read or use sign language who rely on clear sightlines. When artificial lighting is used, the ability to raise and dim and split lighting into sections is easily achieved and really increases flexibility. Similarly the easy availability of points for power and data cables throughout a space is simple and vital but too often overlooked.

Soundproofing is another issue. I have witnessed in several venues the distracting sound bleed from audio-visual exhibits into education spaces, while the inability to cut off areas from public address systems can also be hugely undermining to activities. This is a wider issue in galleries in general, but has a particular effect on learning provision. It also highlights the wider challenges exhibition designers and architects face when trying to create new displays simultaneously as a building is being constructed or renovated.

The fittings and furniture of an education space are also important to its success. Flexible storage solutions and durable, lightweight, collapsible or stackable furniture is a must. While we have come a long way from piles of uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs, unfortunately what has replaced them is too often fragile, easily marked, heavy and awkward. A piece of furniture may look great, but if it needs two people to move it, is impossible to get paint off and difficult to store when not needed, it is of little use in education spaces. A kitchen space with running water is also a big plus. A dishwasher and a dedicated separate sink for washing paint pots is great, but somewhere to at least fill a water jug and wash out a cup might not be glamorous but it is very useful.

A great learning space should also have some capacity to display things. Even something as simple as magnetic paint or a display board can be preferable to heavy cabinets and inflexible hanging systems, though these also have their uses if space and budget is available. Retractable screens and integrated projection units can also be good, similarly interactive whiteboards. However the flexibility of a white wall with hard-wearing paint should not be underestimated.

This leads us into interior decoration. While magnolia walls can be un-stimulating, too much going on in a design can be distracting from whatever activity happens to be taking place. A blank canvas to a degree allows creative activities to fill the space in their own way and for a future project to start the process all over again. Walls don’t have to be bare, but again, flexibility is the key to success, and the design of such spaces should respond to the overall design context, be that a radically shaped piece of ‘starchitecture’ or a refurbished older building. That said, the tendency for architects and those commissioning them to place education spaces into the ‘awkward corners’ of a building’s footprint once the ‘core spaces’ have been allocated has sadly not disappeared completely.

As learning within cultural institutions has moved towards the core, we have seen education and engagement programmes increasingly influencing or in some cases even becoming the ‘mainstream’ offer in certain sections of institutions or for dedicated periods of time. For example, the young people in Tate Collective and Student Ambassadors from University of the Arts London are involved in programming the June editions of the popular Late at Tate events for other Tate visitors to consume. Late at Tate has recently been moved into the overall Young People’s Programme and there are plans for Tate Collective to be involved in all such future events though to a lesser degree than the June sessions.4 It has become a norm for engagement teams and participants to influence or even create content for core exhibition and programmes, and displaying community produced work or curated objects in main galleries is now rarely questioned. As a phenomenon, this is to be welcomed, as it helps to validate the contribution made by those taking part as well as demonstrating their perspectives to other audiences and staff within an institution.

The recognition afforded by becoming part of the ‘core’ is undoubtedly valuable. However, such integration should not be at the expense of having dedicated space that is always for learning and engagement. Space away from public observation, precious objects and carefully laid-out displays is vital. Somewhere there can be a degree of freedom to experiment, where mess can be made and ideas, and lunch, can happen. Somewhere also that anyone who might be nervous about being in a cultural venue can have respite from often busy and stimulating galleries. Without this, the ability for learning and engagement projects to generate interesting new perspectives and new work will be reduced and what is contributed to the core will inevitably be diminished.

Even in institutions which now have plenty of well-designed, functional learning space, a potential new undermining of their use has emerged. Flexibility in such facilities may be the key to their success, but it can also be their undoing. In small institutions it can be vital that such spaces have uses beyond education, for everything from meetings to packing leaflets or temporarily storing objects. However education now often has to fight for space with revenue generating activity. This is to an extent inevitable in a time of reduced public funding and while a happy medium can be found, it could represent difficulties on the horizon. Larger institutions may have the luxury of dedicated spaces, but how long will such fine, purpose-built learning facilities keep education as their core function during the ever-increasing need to host commercial events, which themselves demand suitably ‘prestige’ spaces within institutions? We have come a long way in the architecture of spaces for learning within cultural institutions, but it is important that education programmes and the space they are afforded don’t slip back during these times. When it comes to allocating, designing and fitting out facilities for learning, it is crucial that education professionals are part of the conversation at the beginning. That way they can advocate at the highest level for the needs of both audiences and professionals and make sure that spaces are suitable, stimulating and practical. Active involvement of educationists is also perhaps the best way to ensure that once such facilities are created, they can continue to be used for their intended purpose and enable participants to continue to make interesting contributions and generate new perspectives in the organisations they are learning in.

This piece was published in engage journal 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture in summer 2014.
1. Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design
Museum, email interview, 3 February 2014
2. Wheeldon, I. (2012), ‘The Culture of Staff in &
the Contemporary Arts Centre’ in Thomas, E. (ed)
BALTIC Learning on the Frontline. Gateshead:
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, p.67
3. Clare Carlin, Youth Programme Manager: Public
Programmes, The Wellcome Trust, telephone
interview 11 February 2014
4. Laura Turner, Assistant Curator: Young People’s
Programmes, Tate Britain and Tate Modern