This article is by Dr Saima Rana, who is CEO and Principal of Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at the Varkey Foundation.
Living in Dubai it’s hard not to be aware of our surroundings – the multifariously evolving architectural forms that are constantly coming into being from the collision of political, economic, functional, logistical, cultural, structural, environmental, aesthetic and social interests.
All societies have a terrific conflux of conflicting forces flowing through them, without any one of them dominating for any length of time, without any single trigger bringing things to life, but nevertheless continually working to change how we live and what we think and feel.
In Dubai what we notice at first is this ‘urbanism’, the growth of the overall city. And then we notice individual buildings and their architecture within the urbanism.
Dubai, like many iconic cities around the world, gives us an example of the fragile and interesting relationship between urbanism and architecture, and how they can be integrated. We can see examples of the wild ideas of the avant-garde, on the one hand, and the high standard, high rise boxes of organized corporate consultants on the other.
But, interestingly, we can also see places where these overlap, where you don’t have to choose between these extremes but rather have them in fertile interplay. I think most people need to live between eccentricity and conventionality, and that our buildings and our education needs to provide for this.
I’m a school leader and so am fascinated by the built environment of schools, I believe there’s much to be learned from how schools organize their physical environments. A school’s built environment is complex and can help or harm the school. To ignore it is to ignore a crucial element of a school, for it is a vast resource that with imagination and creativity can be used to further the excellence of any school.
Buildings transform the realities of education, can speak back and transfigure everything within its walls, can become another explanatory tool expressing the values, processes, hierarchies and practices the school holds dear. The size and shape of spaces, the use of light, colour, textures, messaging, materials, landscaping, furniture and fixtures are all crucial to a school’s identity and success.
When I worked in London on its Building Schools for the Future project, a multi-billion-pound government initiative to improve the built environment of all schools in the UK initiated by the last Labour government, it became clear how removing poor buildings housing cramped classrooms, narrow corridors, tight staircases and dour, tatty and dismal furniture and fittings actually changed the performance of the learners and teachers.
Each time a school was rebuilt or refreshed, where care was taken to open up spaces, bring in light, renew furniture and fittings, where landscapes were populated with vistas and greenery and wonder so that everything spoke to a confidence, hope and delight in learning and the future, the teachers and learners all responded positively and achievements rose. This came as no surprise to me.
A school is both a building and a community and needs to be able to perform as both simultaneously. But just as a thriving city such as Dubai, like any place of innovation and success, is a place that exudes confidence and aspiration, glimmers with fearlessness, hope and an appetite for wonder and speaks to the endless possibilities of a good life and an unquenchable desire to plunge on into the unknown future and make good things happen, so too must a school be similarly inspirational, confident, fearless, smart and oriented towards creating future lives of worth and spiritual, intellectual, material and ethical richness.
So I see schools – and their buildings – as working to produce equally inspirational hubs for developing the spirits of all their students. A school – and indeed any great educational institution – exhorts everyone in its community to be similarly passionate and confident.
A school must express confidence in education itself, of course, but must also believe in the people it serves, its students, its teachers, its wider whole school community of stakeholders so that it grapples with the world and the future with resolute and unshakeable confidence and style and it’s built environment is a great resource for doing this that we overlook at our peril.
Modern education and modern architecture have values that marry up and complement each other, and this probably explains why I love to look at buildings and wonder about what specific mix of ingredients shaped it, alongside the resistance and obstacles it had to cope with along the way.
Modern education is about preparing young people to be citizens in an uncertain future, to be powerful, imaginative, intelligent, fearless, ethical and bold in a world that refuses to sit still and be easily understood and controlled. The current pandemic, global warming and the millions still living in abject poverty show us just how hard this reality is and what challenges it presents to us.
A phrase I like that captures this is ‘the friction of reality’. To build anything (a building, a city, a person, a business), and to learn anything, is to rub up against a reality that often seems to stubbornly resist the best ideas, the best ways, the things that used to work. The educator and the architect have to pivot from that ‘friction’, from that resistance and from that make breakthroughs and protect themselves from redundancy by being quick-witted, improvisory and imaginative.
A school’s building has to find ways of reflecting, expressing, creating and promoting the excitement, creativity, inclusivity, intelligence, values and dynamism of the modern, twenty-first century education that it houses.
In this it is an approach captured in a quotation from the famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow:
‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ and adaptability means everyone must be more than one thing, and be prepared to change.
This is what we have learned, that no building, no city and no child can be just a single thing. It has to be something that can change, can be agile when it needs to be, and steadfast when required also. Each building, like each child, must become capable of holding multitudes, and accept difference. Mutation and crossbreeding of ideas are crucial, and as our lives change as circumstances change then our buildings and our cities must change – and so must our school buildings as education itself changes.
We are living lives which have multiple interests, with seemingly endlessly conflicting ideas and ways, and yet we continue to work to develop the principles and attitudes, the spirit and the knowledge, that will allow us to live with these differences. What we do in our schools, and how we build them, is to respond to the way our lives are today.
To design and build a school building has, just like the education of that school, to be shaped by all these multiple interests, and in doing so we become midwives of the continuous birth of the continual stream of these multiple interests. We sift through the past and what is still valuable we retain, but as with other aspects of our lives, we discard outdated and useless leftovers and begin working up new solutions and new opportunities.
We have to, because a life worth living is to understand our predicament and feed off it. To live well now is to incorporate and integrate differences not by compromise or choosing sides but by tying the conflicts together into a new composition of new ideas.
That is what I think modern education is all about. So what a great school building should be doing, and what in fact every serious contemporary endeavor of any kind should be doing – is accepting change, conflict and difference and finding a new way of tying them together so we can all thrive.
What kind of architecture can do this? One of my favorite architects, Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG ApS, says it should be: ‘A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of a socially, economically and environmentally perfect place as a practical objective.’
Substitute ‘school’ for ‘architecture’ in that sentence, and you get what I’m saying about schools too, buildings included.