University architecture: from cloisters to tutorial pods

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Nanyang Technological University, Singapore / Heatherwick Studio
Photograph © Hufton & Crow

On a morning in March, Thomas Heatherwick gave a presentation to a packed classroom on the campus of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Two dozen academics and journalists had gathered in Learning Hub, the designer’s latest project, for its grand unveiling. As Heatherwick clicked through PowerPoint slides, televisions mounted on the room’s curved walls flashed with his celebrated projects: the London 2012 Olympic cauldron, the revamped London buses, the proposed Garden Bridge. The circular desks had inbuilt internet ports and plug sockets. There was not a white board in sight.

Learning Hub, designed by Heatherwick Studio and CPG Consultants, a Singaporean developer, seeks to reassert the “role of an educational building in the 21st century”, according to a press release. Since the first students gathered in the cloisters and quads of Oxford in the 11th century, our idea of what centres of higher learning should look like has not changed much (cloisters and quads are often still the ideal). Educational buildings have been designed to a particular function. Students have long needed lecture halls to hear lecturers speak.

But digital technology is bringing sweeping changes to education. University is more expensive and distance learning is flourishing. There are more than 500 Moocs — or massive open online courses — offered by 100 esteemed universities. They range from Poetry in America: Whitman, at Harvard University; to Peking University’s Fundamental Algorithms. Both can be accessed via edX for free. As educators scrabble to digitise teaching methods, architects are considering how buildings can better serve students’ interests. “Now we’ve all got our gadgets and you can stay in bed and get a PhD, what’s university for?” Heatherwick asks. []