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Italian educator and philosopher, Loris Malaguzzi pioneered the Reggio Emilia Approach, – a student-centred educational philosophy.

One of the principles he believed in was that the teaching environment is the third teacher (the first and second being adults and other children) in a child’s life. Malaguzzi advocated for designing the educational environment with purpose and intent because a child’s creativity and natural desire to explore the world is what leads them on a path of discovery and learning.

Landseer Collen, director and principal at BPAS Architects, believes that this principle can apply not only in school environments, but in tertiary education, and even in adult working and recreation spaces.

“The idea of the environment being the third teacher is about the fact that where you are can be a catalyst for learning,” says Collen. “Your environment can affect all the senses – sight, touch, smell, hearing and even taste. And engaging our senses is how we learn. But instead of focusing on those things, our modern education system tends to put children in rows, between four walls, with narrow passages leading between these classrooms.”

urban needs

Collen says the idea of the third teacher has also needed revision in a post-Covid age of digitalisation. “I think we have to acknowledge technology as a fourth teacher and cater for that in our architecture,” he says. “One of the ways we can cater for all the teachers – the classroom teacher, the peers, the environment and even technology – is to create ways for users of the space to have more control over it; to create flexibility.”

Collen references Alain de Botton’s book:

The Architecture of Happiness, which focuses on the joy of our spaces, which is a concept BPAS tries to implement in its work. One of the ways to achieve this, he says, is about opening up buildings to have a deeper vision of them. At the same time, it’s important to combine this with functionality.

“For example, we can look at educational spaces, which started with people sitting under the canopy of a tree,” he says. “Why? Because trees provided shade and protection from the elements. Buildings do the same. Within buildings, we can use various tools to improve the environment. We can use colour, natural light (and orientation), volume and even landscaping. Architectural elements can promote learning as well as happiness.”

This can be as simple as including grassed areas in schools in impoverished communities where greenery is a rarity and a luxury, a rooftop garden in a corporate working space, or a comfortable reading nook in an educational institution.”

All of these elements encourage learning, sensory input, and joy.

“A corridor between classrooms can become a green avenue,” says Collen. “Linkages between spaces are important and often an overlooked aspect of architecture that can affect learning, people’s headspace and their emotions. I truly believe that the beauty of architecture is that it’s so much more than buildings – it’s about life.”

“Architecture affects how we experience life.”

Collen believes that even restaurants, bars and coffee shops have the potential to be places of learning, where the environment acts as a third teacher. “People come together in these spaces to exchange and share information, whether it’s to have an informal business meeting, watch a sports match, discuss family decisions, or go on a blind date,” he says. “These places become an informal educational forum – a third teacher.”

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