Do we still need physical space for learning? This question, at first glance, addresses the necessity to situate our bodies in a classroom. Since at least a decade we have access to technologies that enable us to remotely perform the majority of tasks related to learning. Instead of crowding in a lecture hall, we can watch videos of lectures and instructions in the comfort of our home, at the time we find convenient. We can examine and grade students through interactive web forms, without ever having to render ourselves at the campus or confront a pile of paper. At the same time, the classroom and the home afford an increasing variety of assistive technologies: from the internet connection and networked devices, interactive boards, virtual and augmented reality, to robots. Instructors and lecturers experiment with the use of these technologies in education, so that students could visit distant places, experience another person’s or another species’ worldview, collaboratively work on tasks, automate operations (drawing, spinning, moving). Can we observe a categorical change coming out of this on convergence of technology and the classroom? How is technology changing the way relationship between the classroom and learning?

Technics have always been important for architectonic thinking, which is especially visible in the context of building intended for the public, such as the church or the school. In a chronological gesture, I will review three points of convergence between buildings and technics, starting from the way architecture is constructed, through systematisation of its infrastructures, to the transformation of architecture into digital information. Even when they are available, technics alone are not sufficient to replace architecture. I will discuss what architecture as an art of organizing space, can do in the context of education and beyond.

Challenging the Ceiling: Building as a Structure

Buildings are solutions to the problem of having to be somewhere. They also shelter us from rain, wind and temperature. A building is an enclosure, spanning an area determined on the one hand by organisational requirements of what the building is going to be used as: a home, a court room, a faire hall. On the other hand, the size and shape are determined by available construction techniques. The first convergence of buildings and technology relevant for our discussion is therefore in the development of the construction skills.

We can observe colossal improvements in our capacity to span distances with arches and vaults, on the account of advances in construction techniques. From the corbel vault, with extremely limited spanning capacity, today we can cover more than 300 m with uninterrupted roof space.

Mayan corbel vault is a beautiful piece of architecture. Stability is achieved by embedding a weight-carrying stone deep into the walls, so that the pressure on its embedded portion counteracts any tendency to overturn. Each row of stones in the ceiling is placed a little bit in front of the row below, meeting a peak and creating an inverted staircase-looking structure, strong enough to support weight from above. A lot of material is needed. Walls are thick, the space between the walls is narrow. With the corbel vault, widely used in Babylonian, Ancient Greek as well as Mayan architecture, we see construction limitation at work.

The invention of the true arch enabled spanning and enclosing larger spaces by means of structural supports held together by the keystone embedded in the centre of the structure. Keystone is the final piece placed during construction that locks all the stones into position, allowing the arch or vault to bear weight. With this technique, we arrive at arches typical for medieval constructions. The Girona Cathedral in Spain completed in 15th century is known for its wide nave, the widest in a gothic cathedral, spanning 22 meters.

Moving away from pieces of rock or brick towards a composite, cast material – concrete, happened in two phases. Concrete enabled the Romans to build multiple storey buildings, as well as the Pantheon dome with a diameter of 43 meters – the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Forgotten and taken up again in the 18th century, concrete is a powerful building material that can be laid in an easily moulded into any shape. It has the advantage of continuous weight carrying of a rigid mass, as opposed to the many internal thrusts and strains inherent to stone or brick structures. When internally reinforced with steel bars, concrete offers itself to even stronger weight forces. Reinforced concrete technique was invented by the end of 19th century, making use of concrete’s resistance to pressure and the tensile strength of steel. Such constructions, typical for the post WWII period, could easily span over hundred meters.

Since then, we have invented a number of other ways to work with mechanical force of gravity to achieve stable standing structures. Today’s impressive record is measured in hundreds of meters. The Singapore National stadium can receive an audience of 55000 people under its retracting roof.

Challenging the Window: Building as a System

Besides the focus on construction challenges, building technology has also been concerned with bringing light and air into buildings. Starting with this challenge, the second convergence of buildings and technology is in the integration of different infrastructures into their walls, floors and ceilings.

Availability of daylight was a great concern for interior organization of both public and private spaces. Room size and the size and placing of the openings were courted to the tasks and lighting required in the inside. Classroom design was particularly subjected to the necessity of delivering daylight to the students desks.

Then, around 1880, electrical lightbulb was introduced to the market. Artificial lighting industry revolutionised the building industry. Windows not being the only source of light, interior organisation became less dependent on daylight, which allowed for more experimental setups and extended teaching times.

Electricity that is provided throughout buildings was initially needed for lighting. Then, standard electrical installations started including sockets into which anything can be plugged in. For those sockets, we started buying lamps, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners and A/C systems. Bringing sufficient illumination to conduct visual tasks is a trivial challenge for artificial lighting techniques today. Modern classroom design followed the view on windows as distraction[1] to be placed higher than in other building types, so that there would be more light while the outside view would not distract students.

Availability of electrical energy gradually became a more important concern than having a sufficient level of natural light. The quality of indoor lighting is still interesting to researchers, who are working on approaches to evaluate compositional impacts of daylight and contrast in architecture[2].The sun is, therefore, only one of the possible illumination sources, and it is increasingly considered in terms of solar powered energy production that can power all these appliances, including light bulbs or LEDs.

Challenging the Wall: Buildings as Information

Architecture critique and author of the The Architecture of the Well Tempered Environment, Reyner Banham articulated two approaches to buildings. Suppose a tribe encounters an abundance of tree logs, he wrote. There are two possible outcomes: either they will use it to construct a shelter – he calls this ‘the structural solution’; or they will use it to build a fire – he calls this ‘the power-operated solution’. Banham observed that the approach to architecture in Western culture was at the tipping point between the former, structural solution: spanning and enclosing space with construction materials, and the latter, power-operated solution dependent on the abundance of electricity, water supply and artificial air-conditioning. He was interested in the extent to which such proliferation of energy-dependent solutions could achieve indoor comfort, replacing or at least reducing the importance of walls, or structure.

Banham was fascinated by work of Archigram, their fantastical publications and investigations into the potential for technology to drive architecture’s future. In Banham’s view, they were able to subvert the establishment and the habitual modes of production of architecture. Their paper-based projects proposed movable cities, reconfiguring environments, a disappearing fixity. This idea of disappearing design was also prominent in the work of Superstudio. Although they might have not accurately visualised our current technology (our networks of cell towers, underground and undersea cables, wifi access points and smartphones) they articulated the centrality of ubiquitous infrastructure for a modern life. “Continuous Monument” is an abstract network that facilitates flow of information and energy.[3]

Another trend in dismissal of architecture’s fixity was to imagine and design nomadic, portable environments which could be reconfigured for different situations and needs, having no one single fixed form. For example, Toyo Ito’s project for a nomad woman in Tokyo explores home as a furniture constellation. Furniture and devices are the structure and the infrastructure for a nomad girl’s daily routine.

These interests articulate a tendency to reduce that which is fixed to the minimum, focusing on bodily experience more than the physical appearance.

With popularisation of telecommunication technologies in the 1990s (particularly the internet), it became popular to think about distances and space through globalisation theory. Edward Soja and Manuel Castels argued that these new technologies compressed space and rendered distances less important[4]. They recognised virtual as some kind of real, a mediated experience just as all reality that is always perceived through simbols[5]. This gave rise to the interest in net locality, a concept to think about locational awareness based on mobile technologies[6]. Crossing local engagement with the virtual experience (both in dealing with community problems on online platforms and in playing persuasive games), Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva theorised net locality on the level of the city, emphasising ways in which location continues to matter in a globalised and networked culture. Powered by connected, location aware devices (e.g. smartphones) this new phenomenon brought virtual reality to the street. In the opposite direction, during the past decade, augmented and virtual reality hardware shrank from CAVEs[7] and cumbersome head-mounted displays to headsets that can be worn almost as comfortably as a pair of glasses[8]. Virtual and Augmented Reality technology promise to be able to displace us and to facilitate experiences of complex sets of information about space anywhere, at any time.

Why Go to School?

Students are grouped together in spaces of learning since antiquity. Educational establishments are found scattered around territories of ancient Greece and ancient China. Obligatory school attendance became common in parts of Europe during the 18th century. Purpose-built structures evolved to house a systematic way of teaching and spreading knowledge. Many of the earlier public schools consisted of one room only, with a single teacher attending to the education of children of various ages. Since the beginning of 19th century, one-room schools were consolidated into multiple classroom facilities.

Telecommunication and telepresence technologies clearly do not make for the entire experience of learning. If it were for availability of technology alone, Guttenberg press would suffice to transform schooling into an organisation for distributing books and collecting test results. Teachers could simply go around the village in September every year, hand in free, community owned copies, and come back in July the following year to check what was learned in their absence. If it were for availability of technology alone, we would have also stopped traveling to places. Since the appearance of globe browsing applications (e.g. Google Earth), we are able to virtually visit any place on Earth and beyond. But we now travel more than ever[9]. Without wanting to go into a debate about technical capabilities to transmit human presence or energy, I would simply like to stress that, contrary to the 1990s promises articulated by prominent tech entrepreneurs and sociologists interested in communication, we are more mobile than ever and we also buy more books.

Attention management – what a teacher does in a classroom – cannot be done the same way in an online course. There is something of importance in the social contract between the teacher and the students, who form bonds in physical space. The fact that the teacher is recognized as a witness of one’s knowledge, and that students learn to more or less successfully manage their relationship with them is an important skill to acquire.

Next to the human encounter facilitated by physical space, good design of learning environments can promote concentration on learning through different kinds of visual stimulation. Numerous studies of classroom design correlate certain room features with success in learning. For example, a Salford University study of elementary schools lists some key factors for classroom design, such as naturalness (light, temperature and air quality), individualisation (ownership and flexibility), stimulation (complexity and colour)[10]. If there is a positive effect of a spatial configuration on pupils’ success, then physical space itself can be beneficial for learning – as a frame, as a tangible organisation of things, as a fixity.

In his book Ambient Commons, architecture and interaction design theorist Malcolm McCullough observes how information in the environment can be consumed in a calm, passive manner[11]. Architecture’s greatest asset, McCullough affirms, is its persistent ‘high resolution’ with low attention demands – ability to transmit a richness in information at the periphery of attention, such as the passage of time in a shadow crossing a wall. It is fixity that distinguishes architecture from other environmental factors, all competing for our attention. He argues against trying to overcome architecture by communication technologies, kinematic installations and ephemeral effects. He proposes to focus instead on its capacity to ground and incorporate information. Architecture is form that informs.

Keeping the Classroom

The ideas that challenge the necessity for built architecture, demonstrate that these two ways of thinking – about enclosing space and disclosing its operation – have long been intertwined in attempts to think the wall as a way of organizing space. We could call these exo- and endo- approaches to architecture, or structural and power-operated, as Banham did: his observation about the importance of one for the other holds still today. Projects that propose to remove the building from the picture for the sake of pure infrastructure, Banham’s ‘power operated solution’, should be understood as a way for architects to think about infrastructures – a way to remove the building from their attention – rather than from the picture completely. These experiments did not help us to create buildings that will have no walls and ceilings, but to work out networks and information flows that coincide with them.

The first convergence between architecture and technology I described – manifested in a variety of construction techniques – brought about an increase in the capacity and flexibility of the building interior. Large structures without carrying elements (columns, walls) can be more easily organized for different purposes. The second convergence – fitting buildings with different types of infrastructures (electricity, air conditioning, telecommunications) – brought about changes in the way buildings are used in time: longer hours, comfort in hot and cold weather, communication with distant places. Finally, thinking about buildings as experience brought about the potentiality to encode physical space into digital information (models, simulations) that can be experienced anywhere, at any time.

Many schools are now engaging with so called Massive Open Online Courses, offering video material and a variety of interactive tools to advance student’s knowledge and skills in a variety of areas, from computer science to urban studies. Education startups develop working on a platform for using virtual reality in the classroom. VR in classroom gives access to places that are far away or simply inexperienceable – such as the deep ocean. Researchers believe it can even promote empathy – experiencing things from another one person’s or thing’s perspective.

More recently, robots of all kinds started replacing appliances once attached to power outlets. We are all familiar with housekeeping robots, such as the Roomba. In educational context, the programmable Thymio robot[12] that can navigate a path or follow directions, enters the elementary school curriculum. A small humanoid robot named NAO, is used as a teaching tool for the special education classroom[13]. All these technics did not, however, reduce the pertinence of the physical room to learn in.

The discussion on the three points of convergence of buildings and technics applies equally well to schools and other public buildings as it does to office buildings, factories and, to some extent, to the home. Still, the consequences are more important in some contexts than in others. A home can be organized by one’s own liking. A classroom, on the other hand, is a place everyone passes through, the design of which is publicly important. The school is part of the public infrastructure, an institution that is of significance to society as a whole. When confronted with the dilemma about the necessity of physical space to learn in, we can affirm the importance of both walls and digital information. Instead of focusing only on the novelties brought about by new telecommunication and virtualisation technologies, we should think about how to meaningfully embed them within the complex experience of spending time in a classroom.

[1]     Since the second part of 20th century, windows were increasingly seen as an energy liability and a distraction for children. Windowless classrooms are used to reduce outside distractions. For a comparison of student performance and wellbeing in classrooms with a view of nature or of a concrete wall, see Jacob A. Benfield et al., ‘Classrooms With Nature Views: Evidence of Differing Student Perceptions and Behaviors’, Environment and Behavior 47, no. 2 (February 2015): 140–57, https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916513499583.

[2]     Siobhan Francois Rockcastle et al., ‘The Dynamics of Shadow: Architecture of Natural Light in Extreme Latitudes’, 2015, http://infoscience.epfl.ch/record/207928.

[3]     Peter Lang and William Menking, Superstudio: Life Without Objects, 1. ed (Milano: Skira, 2003).

[4]     Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies (Verso, 1989).

[5]     Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: Information Age, Economy, Society and Culture (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996).

[6]     Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, Net Locality (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

[7]     CAVE stands for: cave automatic virtual environment, a recursive acronym that describes a room with projections on walls and floors simulating an immersive environment for one or more viewers. See more on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_automatic_virtual_environment

[8]     A typical VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift is slightly wider than a smartphone and weights only about 500 grams. For more details see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oculus_Rift

[9]     According to United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of tourist arrivals for destinations across the world has increased almost 50 times since 1950. For more details on tourism statistics, see https://ourworldindata.org/tourism

[10]   A pilot study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates looks into the impact of classroom design on the academic performance of primary school students. The report can be downloaded here: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/18471/

[11]   Malcolm McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013).

[12]   https://www.thymio.org/en:thymioschoolprojects

[13]   https://asknao.aldebaran.com/