How To Promote Lifelong Learning, Productivity, And Meaningfulness In Architecture

With the aim of generating an architecture that incubates the wellbeing, self-realization, and fulfillment of its inhabitants to become the best version of themselves, CEBRA has launched an ambitious Research and Development Program (R&D) called WISE (Work, Innovation, Space and Education).

As explained by its creators, the purpose of WISE is "to bridge the ongoing and rapid change in the sectors of workspace and education to inform the design of buildings that stimulate learning and innovation. We are connecting ideas of the foremost thinkers of education and entrepreneurship, research and studies in sensory stimuli, cognitive psychology, and behaviorism with architecture."

We spoke with Carsten Primdahl, founding partner of CEBRA, and Klaudio Muca, R&D Architect at CEBRA, to better understand the approach and expected results of the program.

HF & VUC Fyn Complex / CEBRA. Image © Mikkel Frost

Based on your experience in the development of WISE, why do you think that architects are returning their focus to human beings and their real needs?

We see it as a natural reaction towards the digitalization of many processes in our everyday lives. It is not architecture but society as a whole that is turning to humans and architects are just responding to it.

At the office, we always had humans at the center of our design and despite the growing interest in this field, there is still one aspect where a limited number of professionals are investigating in. That is understanding how architecture can stimulate our complete sensory apparatus in regard to better learning, productivity, and happiness. This is the mission of WISE – an architecture to be lived and absorbed, not watched. 

To us, architects have repeatedly attempted to support humans, but maybe the crucial question here is what are our real needs and how have they evolved throughout time?

One could consider the origin of architecture as a response to one of the most elemental human demands: shelter. Afterwards, for a considerable period of time, architects responded to the need for salvation producing some of the most magnificent sacred architectures ever built.  Moreover, other needs as esteem, status, and recognition, contributed to remarkable constructions like palaces and castles. Modernism likewise advocated the requirements for efficiency, health, and hygiene. 

It seems like after years of human sociological progression, in the western world, we reached the end station of the hierarchy of needs. The focus on wellbeing, self-realization, and fulfillment, is inevitably bringing architects to investigate new ways of endorsing humans in becoming the best version of themselves.

Moreover, the rise of social entrepreneurship has made making money and developing solutions for a good cause a new paradigm, a Zeitgeist. New initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN, are driving the business world into a more noble direction focusing on human wellbeing, sustainability, and other communal issues. 

We could argue that the contemporary challenge for architects is that of designing the cathedrals of lifelong learning, productivity, and meaningfulness, not to save ourselves for the afterlife any longer – but for the flourishing of the future generations. 

The era of personalization is automatically bringing the attention to human beings in almost every discipline. From health gadgets like shoes that adjust to your feet and track your posture to devices that reproduce songs that better match with your taste and mood. It is now time also for architecture to understand and adapt to its users.

Certainly, technology plays a big role in making it affordable to focus on humans and investigate behavior at a much more complex level of understanding. Additionally, the rapid development of AI and machine learning are contributing into defining better what makes us humane by isolating those qualities that machines cannot replicate (at least for now). On the other hand, the epoch of virtual reality is producing a detachment and a sensorial distance from our everyday experiences giving rise to a strong need for those spatial qualities that make us feel comfortable, secure and inspired. A need for materiality, tactility and definitely – a need for being in the present moment. 

Skovbakke School / CEBRA. Image © Mikkel Frost

CEBRA has decades of experience in educational and work environments, and surely its designs are based on a wide range of studies and research. Why did you launch WISE? What new contributions will it make?

With WISE we are not looking backward to what we have done but forward to what we can do. We have acquired a lot of experience that we can base our work on, but we are now committing ourselves to research what will be the most apt way to design sustainable buildings for the future - with long-lasting effects. We want to get a clearer understanding of where we're heading.

Besides that, the communication and involvement of a network makes it possible to share our findings with a large group of people who can profit from our experiences. 

Skovbakke School / CEBRA. Image © Adam Mørk

Another reason is that we are not afraid of being wrong. We want to create a platform for discussions to incrementally align what we are doing with what is happening. Collective intelligence is an additional approach of keeping the research updated and the motivation behind our Medium account. 

The new contributions will mainly consist of a deeper investigation into higher-education as well as workspace. In many ways, education and innovation are inextricably linked. We no longer perceive learning as a limited period during which school prepares us for working life: lifelong learning is a necessity. This blurs the boundaries between education and work. Schools are becoming working environments and vice versa as workplaces are transforming into learning organisations. We are keen to investigate and understand where this leads us in terms of designing the physical frameworks for these changing environments. 

For example, the design of the adult education center HF & VUC was an important step for CEBRA as we had to deal with an entirely new condition given by the diversity of the users. The architecture creates a multifaceted spatial setting that takes into account individual user needs as well as the school’s different functions: an arena for teaching and learning, a workplace and a social meeting place for a diverse group of students.

Architectural means and qualities affect our senses to such a degree that they have a great impact on our behaviour. WISE connects architecture with research and studies in sensory stimuli, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

How can we make the best use of vacant spaces in the city when it comes to lifelong learning? Which are those empty places able to host and support grownups in their educational path? Can we create a network of educational environments with the use of double programming and spatial management and utilization?

Skovbakke School / CEBRA. Image © Adam Mørk

Multidisciplinary work is increasingly considered in architectural design, as an essential aspect to generate good designs. What other experts will contribute to the development of WISE and how will this collaborative work be carried out?

First, it is important to clarify that we consider this initial launch of WISE as the framework for the research and an open call for everyone who would be interested in collaborating with us in the development of this exciting topic. 

A surprising amount of people and institutions have already reached out to us in this initial phase of the program launch. Different national actors like Aarhus University, DTU, Søren Jensen, New Nordic Engineering and several others from various parts of the world including Canada, Australia, Portugal, USA, and Colombia.

We want to cross the borders of architecture and get in touch with people who are either practicing or researching in these areas such as the Indian educational reformer Kiran Bir Sethi, founder of the Riverside School and Design for Change, or the British professor Peter Barrett, head of the research team behind Clever Classrooms. But also, Colin Ellard, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, John Zeisel, author of Inquiry by Design, Jacqueline Vischer, an expert on workspace psychology from the University of Montréal and many others.

We want to connect with individuals from different educational sectors ranging from public schools to the university level but also startup communities, where the culture of entrepreneurship is predominant, and established companies that deal with innovation on a daily basis and consider the working environment as a fundamental asset. 

There are undoubtedly several methods to carry out these collaborations. 

Interviews are one of our main tools to interconnect with the foremost thinkers and entrepreneurs in education and workspace. Moreover, we are now developing an application for an industrial Ph.D. that will focus on a specific part of the research program. Other different collaborative models will regard co-creational projects, workshops and additional related activities. 

Experimentarium / CEBRA. Image © Mikkel Frost

Do you think that the 'environmental quality' of spaces (and its relationship with learning or productivity) was a topic that architects have always been interested in? Or, is the topic just gaining attention now?

Environmental quality was always in the architect´s mind, even at a subconscious level. The difference to now is that learning and productivity were not our main focus. They have started to get attention only in the last 100 years, with the establishment of the knowledge society.

Nevertheless, several professionals have had an understanding of it, perhaps even before architects. The importance of the environment can be seen everywhere throughout history. From the philosopher´s walks to the Garden School of Epicurus, people have valued the environment and denoted it as “the dress of the soul” and “the 3rd teacher”.

Similarly, regarding the workplace, the two-factor theory of motivation, as well as the famous Hawthorne experiment, demonstrated how changes in the physical space can enhance productivity and motivation. Also, the shifting between cubicles and open plan office shows that there was a big interest from architects regarding workplace environments during the ´60s - ´70s. 

Despite these examples, architects and other professions have had a very narrow view when considering environmental qualities. Numerous studies have been carried out investigating the correlation between learning and productivity by focusing on easily measurable parameters like CO2 levels, daylight, temperature, noise, and humidity. But that is only half of the story. 

According to the research of the HEAD project, lead by professor Peter Barrett, 51% of the environmental factors that influence learning in a classroom, are related to the more intangible, elusive qualities of space like flexibility, ownership, complexity, and color. We hope to see a real shift into the investigation of these spatial attributes and meanwhile, we are committing ourselves to heading in this direction. 

For us, an aesthetic discussion about architecture is as important as functionality and cost.

Experimentarium / CEBRA. Image © Adam Mørk

What role will people (and possible users) fulfill in the studies you will carry out? How do you plan to 'connect' with them to observe and analyze their behaviors, needs, and reactions to different types of architectural spaces?

Observation is the greatest tool when it comes to behavior. Maria Montessori, almost 100 years ago, conceived one of the most revolutionary educational systems, simply by observing the children. Nowadays, with technology by our side, observation is made even more simple, powerful and affordable. 

We are currently developing a technology that collects and correlates data regarding behavior and physical parameters of buildings. It is one of the products of WISE and its goal is that of generating spaces that automatically adapt to the user´s needs and actions. The driver for this product is our strong conviction that we need to spend more time with the users after the architecture is built. 

Therefore, users play a crucial role in the development of WISE and in our designs. 

Whenever possible, we see the design of new projects as a co-creation process. Future users are involved from the beginning through workshops and discussions about every aspect of the building. For example, in the Skovbakke School, the spatial organization and interdependencies, as well as the clusters and classrooms were developed together with the students, teachers and school leaders. Connecting our practice with communities of educators and experts has proved to be a valuable resolution that deeply influenced the final performance of our buildings.

At the Experimentarium science center in Copenhagen, employees and users work and explore side by side thanks to the visual connections between the exhibition areas and the workspaces. Moreover, the whole design and appearance of the building spurs curiosity to learn while engaging with it in a particular way. We call it learning through architecture. Right away, fluid dynamics façade pattern and the DNA staircase create a tangible connection between the building’s architecture and its content, letting visitors know that they have entered a world of science. 

Experimentarium / CEBRA. Image © Adam Mørk

What aspects of Peter Barret's vision will be developed into WISE?

The interview with Peter Barrett was an important step for us to better understand the implications of converting research into the physical spaces of a school. Apart from the remarkable results of Clever Classrooms, it was interesting to find out where the group behind the HEAD project encountered difficulties, and where do the opportunities for future investigations lie.

Certainly, one of the aspects of the research that WISE will take into account are the more intangiblequalities of space. For the first time, a study correlated qualities related to sensory stimulation like complexity, color but also flexibility and ownership with learning progress – as Barrett mentions in his interview with us: 

'One of the really interesting things to come out of the HEAD project is that everything is important. Pretty much all of the factors. And the things that people had been measuring up to then, heat, light, sound, and air quality, the easily measurable things, account for half the impact. But the things that we introduced, because of this wide consideration of how you experience the space, meaning the individualization and the level of stimulation, they together account for the other half.'

It was noteworthy to discover that the same team applied for funding to carry out a similar research for the spaces in-between the classrooms. 

"We thought that social spaces between the classrooms would be massively important, and we hope to study that, but we haven't been able to do it. We got fantastic ratings for the bid, and then a panel decided not to fund it. So, it was very frustrating because we think there were significant differences there," explains the emeritus professor.

At CEBRA, we are convinced that, especially with regards to secondary and tertiary education, an investigation on the qualities of those social environments where unprogrammed types of informal learning take place, would be a crucial step to the better understanding of the whole school dynamics. 

About this author
Cite: José Tomás Franco. "How To Promote Lifelong Learning, Productivity, And Meaningfulness In Architecture" 31 Mar 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

HF & VUC Fyn Complex / CEBRA. Image © Mikkel Frost


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