Designing a campus for students and their wellbeing. Part 1 – The Lecture Theatre

brainybirdz are sometimes commissioned to write articles and blogs for other organisations. This is a re-post of a blog written for Milliken earlier this month, where we argue for a different approach towards campus design.

A university campus is not just a workplace for academic and professional services staff, but also the daily ‘workplace’ for thousands of students. How university buildings are designed has a major impact on how spaces are used, and this in turn can affect the wellbeing, sense of belonging and learning success of students. In this short series of two blog posts, we want to elaborate on the importance of design on student wellbeing, but also look at common spatial settings – the lecture theatre and communal spaces – and ask how those can be designed differently. In this first post we will explore the lecture theatre and reflect on issues of spatial flexibility.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the physical design of university campuses into sharp focus, but many aspects that seem relevant now have already played a role before the pandemic and are thus likely relevant in the long-term future. One such aspect is the role of space in shaping our behaviours and affecting our wellbeing. For a long time now, we have known that space is not neutral. At the simplest level, an open space allows us to see and be seen; a wall limits visibility and channels movement; a door invites passing through; a glass panel enables us to see but not go. The late Bill Hillier, a well-known scholar in architecture has argued that “human behaviour does not simply happen in space. It has its own spatial forms. Encountering, congregating, avoiding, interacting, dwelling, teaching, eating, conferring are not just activities that happen in space. In themselves they constitute spatial patterns.” During the pandemic, deprived of all social contact and limited in our usual patterns of inhabiting buildings, we realise how much we miss the everyday encounters, the togetherness with others and the opportunities physical co-presence brings.

Throughout Britain central and devolved governments have insisted on keeping university campuses open throughout the pandemic. To stay open universities have had to make some radical changes to the way teaching is delivered and most have followed the same model. Weekly lectures to full cohorts of students have typically been replaced by pre-recorded lectures that can be accessed online followed by small group seminars that are offered on campus and online. These arrangements were partly necessary because of the physical constraints imposed by the Covid crisis. It was no longer possible to cram hundreds of students into a lecture theatre because of the need for social distancing.

The approach of pre-recording lectures is nothing new, however, and has been known in education as a flipped classroom for years. It has several advantages to students – allowing them to view the material at a time convenient to them and crucially at a pace that suits their learning. The ability to pause recordings to cross reference the lecture to the text book or rewind and play again a part of the lecture that did not sink in first time round, allows a pace of learning that is far more inclusive than the one size fits all inherent in large face-to-face classes. The small group seminars that follow the pre-recorded lectures can then be dedicated to ensuring that the material has been understood and the small size of these seminars increase the chances that individuals will be heard.

These developments in teaching – accelerated but not induced by Covid – have implications for the spatial design of lecture theatres. Let’s take a programme of 150 students as an example. In place of the set piece lecture that requires a single, large purpose-built lecture theatre, for the seminars we now need 10 rooms capable of accommodating small spaced groups of 15 students. Instead of all facing forward to a screen displaying PowerPoint slides, we now need a room where students can interact with each other as well as the tutor. The problem universities face is that they just don’t have that many small seminar style rooms and the lecture theatres have not been designed with the flexibility to sub-divide them. The result is that universities are physically unable to adapt to these changes in pedagogy and teaching delivery easily.

Flexibility in architecture does not just apply to university buildings; in fact, it is a much aspired to quality, but hard to achieve in practice. Successful examples of flexibility from other settings might help to inspire the discussion on campus design. The Dutch architecture practice XML for example have designed a collective space called ‘Settings’ for an arts centre in Amsterdam, whereby a collection of moveable white seats can be configured in four different ways to form a lecturing space, a debating area, an exhibition space or a space for a masterclass. Like on a sports field, the placement of the seats is marked on the floor in different colours to invite changes to the setup and remind of past, future and other possible usages. In a design competition entry for Letchworth Town Hall, Henley Halebrown architects suggested an assembly chamber in a simple yet organic, curvy form with four apses that can be used for different possible seating configurations, for example hosting a council meeting, a smaller cabinet meeting (left image), a wedding (right image), but also musical concerts or lectures.

(c) Drawings by Henley Halebrown

These examples show how spaces can be designed with flexibility of usage in mind. The typical fixed seated university lecture theatre could be reimagined as a changing configuration, hosting different sized groupings to match evolving pedagogies and forms of teaching delivery.

Continue reading part 2 of this series on communal spaces.

One thought on “Designing a campus for students and their wellbeing. Part 1 – The Lecture Theatre

  1. Pingback: Designing a Campus for Students and their Wellbeing. Part 2 – Communal Spaces | brainybirdz

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