Can Architecture Make Us More Creative? Part III: Academic Environments

  • 17 May 2013
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MIT Media Lab (via mit.edu)

August Kekulé discovered the structure of the benzene ring after having a daydream of the Ouroboros, a famous mythological snake depicted as biting its own tail. Francis Crick figured out the complimentary replication system of DNA when he remembered the process of replicating a sculpture by making an impression of it in plaster, and using it as a mold to make copies. Johannes Keppler attributes his laws of planetary motion to an inspiration from religion: the sun, the stars, and the dark space around them represent the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost respectively.

What’s the point? According to Arthur Koestler, “all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.” Great discoveries arise not from the isolated hermit working without interference, but from tireless work enlightened by unintentional collisions with an unfamiliar subject. For Kekulé, it was ancient mythology, for Crick, sculpture, and for Keppler, religion.

Creativity and innovation, then, thrive where disciplines collide. And this is true not only for science, but for all subjects. We all have something to learn from one another, and what better place to encourage this cross-fertilization than school?

Keep reading to find out more about how interdisciplinary architecture can foster creativity and collaboration in schools…

As I noted in Part I of this series, creativity is a truly social phenomenon: it thrives when people work close together and talk to each other. An architecture of creativity, then, brings people together and forces them to interact. For example, MIT’s Building 20, the location of some of the greatest inventions of its era, did just that. What was unique about Building 20 was that it was not just a science building where only physicists and chemists rubbed shoulders. Linguists, acousticians, computer scientists, etc. worked within feet of each other, sharing hallways, facilities, and even bathrooms. The result? One of the most creative places in recent history.

MIT’s Building 20 (via mit.edu)

Building 20 makes a convincing case that when you put people from different disciplines under one roof, unexpected things can happen. So what’s the best roof?

Buildings that house multiple disciplines are not an uncommon phenomenon. At many schools, science or humanities departments will share facilities within their division i.e. physics and math, or history and political science, will share a building. Yet, while these combinations can be logistically and bureaucratically effective, they do not seek to create anything novel in their mixture. Where this model finds its potential, then, is in the uncommon juncture of different disciplines.

What might happen, for example, if art and engineering were to share a building? Music and biology? Political science and environmental science? It’s not hard to imagine that the working proximity of these subjects might lead to novel collaborations between them.

Unfortunately, these rare combinations face bureaucratic obstacles, and hence rarely exist. They only come about when there is no other option, as was the case with Building 20.

Yet the absence of these combinatory facilities does not mean that schools aren’t interested in creative collaboration between the disciplines. They simply go about it differently.

Appropriately enough, MIT is one of those schools. While no one at MIT in the 50’s thought to put an eclectically interdisciplinary group of academics into one space so that they might interact, quite a few people are thinking that way now. That space is called the MIT Media Lab, a research oriented graduate program in media arts and sciences. By promoting what they call an antidisciplinary culture, “the MIT Media Lab goes beyond known boundaries and disciplines, encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.” Out of the Media Lab have come technologies like wearable computing and tangible interfaces.

MIT Media Lab (via mit.edu)

The Parsons New School MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, a project-based graduate program aimed at addressing real world problems through design, promotes a similar philosophy of interdisciplinary collaboration. Only three years old, the program has produced projects like MobileMark, a user driven mapping agent for informal settlements.

These programs bypass the logistical complications of joining departments by creating a department of their own. With their own space, each program can facilitate the interaction of the disciplines through its students who come from many academic backgrounds.

While the Media Lab and the Trandisciplinary Design programs act as autonomous and degree-granting institutions separate from their respective schools, Stanford’s d.school acts as an interdisciplinary within the Stanford graduate system. As all students who participate in the d.school must be enrolled in one of the seven graduate programs at Stanford, the design program acts as the meeting place of all disciplines. It is where doctors, engineers, lawyers, and business people come together to collaborate.

Stanford’s d.school (via d.school.stanford.edu)

Each of these programs attempts to break disciplinary boundaries by bringing students and researchers from all subjects into one space. They share a creative architecture driven by radical collaboration between people from all disciplines.

But why should it be radical? Why is it that programs of this kind exist only at the graduate level? Seldom is there an undergraduate facility dedicated to collaboration between the disciplines. Liberal Arts schools surely advocate an interdisciplinary education, but often that means only taking a wide range of classes, not working collaboratively across boundaries.

Some may argue that collaboration of this kind relies on specialization i.e. the participants must be highly educated (have a graduate degree) to contribute adequately. I disagree. Students begin collaborating the moment they start school. Kindergartners are notoriously the best collaborators among us. And they’re so good because they aren’t afraid of being wrong. It’s actually their lack of education that enables them.

Design Kindergarten in Denmark (via openbuildings.com)

As Barry Svigals puts it in his article on collaboration, “those most statistically successful collaborators – kindergartners – do not focus on failure at all. Their trials and errors are instead a seamless part of discovery (otherwise known as play). This works superbly for a short while until our parents, our educational system, and society at large indoctrinate us with definitions of right and wrong.” Once they are taught the fear of being wrong, they lose their spark for collaboration.

The learning spaces, too, might enable them. If we recall our kindergarten classrooms, they tend to be open and flexible. Students don’t have individual desks, nor are there spatial divisions. They can move furniture around, gather in nooks, or find each other in the middle. The room is meant to allow freedom to interact, with things and with others. Why does this go away as we get older? Although Foucault might have an answer, there’s no reason we can’t learn from those expert collaborators: our five-year old selves.

Google Office in Zurich (via home-designing.com)

Can students somehow get this spark back after twenty years of education? No. But they can get it from atmospheres that provide that youthful acceptance of experimentation, without the nagging obstacles of bureaucracy, from spaces that embrace working together.

And that’s the beauty of architecture. It can promote interaction and create the possibility for collaboration without getting administrative approval. Even though academic departments are often insular, both physically within their building and practically in their academics, students are still free to move about a campus after all.

All it requires are people. It needs to be built, of course. But after that, it must simply bring people together – it must be one space – and give them a unified direction – it must give them something on which they can collaborate.

I can imagine two types of these spaces. The first is a space where people of different disciplines do independent work in close proximity to one another, much like an undergraduate Building 20. Basically, put people in one space and let the proximity do the work. The second is a space much like the d.school, where students gather to work together on tasks inspired by the world, not by a discipline. One puts students together, the other one invites them.

Facebook’s New Campus (via bloomberg)

These spaces can learn from those that have spent years prioritizing creativity and collaboration, such as the offices from Part II or the classrooms of our kindergartens. They might be completely open spaces that can be manipulated into many different forms according to different needs. They might be partitioned spaces that facilitate visibility between different groups or people. They might be fun spaces that engage and involve. They might be all of these. But, ultimately, they must employ an architecture of creativity that makes people interact and lets them tinker.

At the end of the day, the hope of an interdisciplinary architecture is to give students a platform for creative collaboration.

Creativity thrives where people, disciplines, ideas collide. Their mixture creates novel combinations that we often know as innovation. That combination could be a person and an idea, three people and a problem, two ideas, etc. But it cannot be prescribed. All we know is that when we interact, there is a high chance something good happens.

If we imagine ideas, people, and disciplines as particles, architecture could be the particle accelerator. Maybe that’s what Jonah Lehrer meant when he said, “the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.” Crick, Kekulé, and Keppler, Building 20 and Google, show us what those sparks can look like.

If you missed Part I or Part II, find them here. 

Cite: C. Molloy, Jonathan. "Can Architecture Make Us More Creative? Part III: Academic Environments" 17 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=370486>

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