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City of Learning

UIA/UNESCO 15th Annual Conference
“Learning in Public Spaces”
Porto, Portugal, September 2001

By Randall Fielding, AIA

Of the many themes discussed at the Union of International Architects conference in Porto, two attracted the most passionate debate:1) the notion that learning is not necessarily linked to school buildings and 2) the concept of learner-centered cities versus the typical retail-centered urban core. Guest speaker Professor Anton Schweighofer, professor of building design at the Technical University of Vienna, related a story about a city of learning, where education occurred in the street, rather than in school buildings:


“In the shadow of a tree in a marketplace, a young man listened to another man. That was the place to learn. The content of learning was connected with his life and interest. Imprinted by openness and self-determination, he took the information he wanted to have.
That was learning in ‘public spaces.’ But the content of learning changed. [Learning came to be instead in] ‘a building, a closed space, in the form of a monastery, or a military camp, and later a house called ’school,’ with classrooms.”

More than 80 urban planners, economists, architects and educators from 40 countries gathered to share ideas in the Medieval city of Porto — a city of two-million people north of Lisbon. Portugal served a three-dimensional text book, illustrating the conference themes; the 12th-century Porto Cathedral (above left) was the heart the city 800 years ago while today the Rua San Catarina, filled with shops (above right) functions as a more vital organ.

“The street is the most important place of learning. Our first contact with the city is through the street — this is also our first connection to communal life.”

According to architect and urban designer Manuel Correia Fernandes, the ’street’ is the most important place of learning. Our first contact with the city is through the street — this is also our first connection to communal life, and the the place where informal Porto Towerlearning occurs at three levels: 1) the house, formal and private, 2) the street, informal and public, and 3) the school, formal and private. However, the typical city street is no longer a part of our daily lives. Streets today, centered around cars, are mono-functional and repel more than they attract. The street has been discontinued but not replaced and no longer links the house to work or to the individual. Fernandes concludes by saying that learning does not exist without public space, and we might therefore conclude that the desolation of public spaces in the city is tied to a crisis in learning.

Another point of view comes from to Lisbon economist Pedro Grilo, who says that the Colombo Shopping Center, Lisbon (below left), the largest shopping mall in Europe, is a blight on the city, sucking resources from individual communities. Colombo violates Grilo’s philosophy of “developing economy from within.” Grilo’s thoughts resonate with tenants of the ‘new urbanism,’ which call for small scale developments that integrate living and working environments within strong individual neighborhoods. Unaware of the new urbanism, Lisbon residents are flocking to Colombo, happily shopping until midnight seven days a week.

city of learning

One of the images presented at the conference, (above right), has a similar feel to Colombo but this photo is of a school, the Peel Education and TAFE Campus in Mandurah, Australia, designed by Spowers Architects and presented by this author in an overview of the School Construction News and Design Share Awards 2001 program. The ‘learning street’ image could almost serve as a representation of a learner-centered city. The use of a central ‘learning street’ or central commons is a popular approach in school design today. While the expansion of this theme from educational facility to urban framework may be a dramatic leap, is it possible learning streets can inspired renewed cities the way the city streets of previous centuries inspired today’s educational learning streets?

American architect Bruce Jilk has been advocating learner-centered cities for years. He refers to his work planning new cities in Australia as examples of learner-centered rather than retail-centered cities. Bruce discoursed on learning communities and listed characteristics of the physical environment:

  1. The understanding that learning will happen in many places, not just a place called school.
  2. We need to dissolve borders among learning settings
  3. These various settings need a coherent network
  4. The settings need to adapt quickly
  5. The design shall provide a sense of identity
  6. The setting will enhance social connectivity in the community
  7. The environment responds to differences in learners
  8. Informal learning shall be enhanced
  9. Provision shall be made for both general and specialized study.

gargoyleAll of the above noted items suggest an urban, regional and global context, as opposed to a school on an individual site. The items also illustrate a unique and hopeful feature of the conference, wherein a connection was made between public spaces and learning environments; a theme that brought together educators, architects, urban planners and economists from around the globe and expanded the dialogue to the scale it needs to be to create both vital learning environments and vital cities.

The conference included more than 30 presentations, with subjects including low-cost prototype schools, school size, the history and evolution of tertiary learning and global learning centers for business in the 21st century. This article is intended as an introduction to both the UIA/UNESCO educational programs working group and to the promise of ‘The City of Learning.’

Links of Interest:

Union International Architects

Innovative Learning Environments Conference, Amsterdam

OECD Program on Educational Buildings

C/S Group -The global innovator in architectural specialty products.

April 6th, 2006

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