RIBA targets young minds with learning centre that uses recycled materials

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Words:
Eleanor Young

Hayhurst and Co's design for Clore Learning Centre at the RIBA isn't for architects. It makes it easy for those not yet converted to architecture to get at the institute's expertise and collections

Could just a couple of rooms get you excited about architecture? Well yes, they could, if they are the Clore Learning Centre in the ­RIBA’s 66 Portland Place. 

But of course they are not aimed at architects, that would be preaching to the converted. These rooms, that officially launched this month along with a learning terrace and study room, have already seen dozens of adults and children through their doors. 

The design, compared to most public learning spaces, is remarkable. But before we get into that, the thing that really makes them stand out are the education programmes delivered here. Three dimensions, materials and spatial thinking, animate the space. The school-based learning, the National Schools Programme, is free to state schools – with the biggest take up from primary schools – and is delivered by trained educators and architects, many of them architectural ambassadors who are also in practice. This is also taken out to schools across the UK.

Then there are summer schools which have attracted frustrated engineers who want to explore architecture, and print and book makers or students looking to build up their portfolio. Study days and family takeover days of 66 also use the space, as do more theory based classes – currently a six week Bauhaus course running weekly sessions. Tapping into the expertise and collections of the RIBA is at the core of the programme. Marking the launch of the centre, the RIBA held a free Festival of Learning at the end of October

Before this, delivering education was a struggle here, working in small, dark rooms and carting materials round the building. Clore Duffield Foundation funding brought certainty to the new plans and four spaces were identified to make up the new centre: the studio with a showcase at the entrance, a repurposed terrace and study room. Also on the fourth floor are the easily accessed library and collection, and the council chamber which is borrowed for break out spaces. 

 

  • Oversized steps along one wall make an instant auditorium.
    Oversized steps along one wall make an instant auditorium. Credit: Rachel Manns
  • A large open space in the Clore Learning Centre’s studio can have tables and chairs for model making.
    A large open space in the Clore Learning Centre’s studio can have tables and chairs for model making. Credit: Andrew Hendry
  • ... or it can be cleared and closed up for a different sort of space.
    ... or it can be cleared and closed up for a different sort of space. Credit: Andrew Hendry
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An RIBA competition for the space led to 47 expressions of interest and five practices were paid an honorarium to work on designs. Hayhurst and Co won with an entry built on the idea of sensing space – to help people ‘understand that architecture is all around us even though we may not realise it … that architecture is not something that is only experienced in a great monument in the centre of the city but surrounds us every day, everywhere we go.’

The studio works well with the art deco of 66 Portland Place, keeping the material richness of its public spaces. But it catapults you into now with its warm bamboo floors and joinery, the brass frames for hanging displays or curtains and oversized steps so that classes arriving can drop bags into drawers beneath and sit comfortably before getting involved in activities at the table. In cabinets along the outside wall beautifully lit models glow with creativity. It is very different from the stripped back classrooms with display boards and plastic trays where most of our children are taught. It is a room where you feel the potential and a room for exploring the excitement of architecture. 

Little  niches in the joinery allow for display of earlier work.
Little niches in the joinery allow for display of earlier work. Credit: Andrew Hendry

Design by watching and learning

The collaboration between the RIBA and Clore Duffield Foundation really took off once the project moved into design specifics. An inclusive approach involved visits to observe spaces in use at other Clore learning centres, and RIBA learning sessions at the existing facilities. Hayhurst’s Jonathan Nicholls comments: 'It’s fascinating seeing different age groups – for younger school groups, you see them using the floor a lot to work around the space’s limitations, putting presentation materials on the floor and standing to see them. Observation is key to understanding the positives and negatives.'

By watching, learning, and exchanging years of knowledge and experience, the team was able to identify and address apparently simple but vital questions, such as: Where do we store bags and coats? Is there running water, and a sink that doesn’t splash? Can you reconfigure the space quickly from one session to the next? Where do you store chairs that aren’t in use? Do you even need chairs? What’s the best way to display work? 

The process yielded innovative and sometimes unexpected solutions, each designed to show learners the benefits that an architecturally imagined environment could provide.

Design features of the new Clore Learning Centre

Simple seating
When a class of excited schoolchildren arrives, the tiered bench seating means they can all sit quickly without needing to set up chairs and tables. The concealed storage also provides somewhere to stow bags and coats quickly so they’re out of the way during activities.

Multi-purpose fixtures

Showcase cabinets serve both as displays for work done and valuable storage. The white facings, made of recycled yogurt pots, provide acoustic damping and support shutters that provide the darkness needed for projection. When closed at night, the shutters drastically improve the thermal efficiency of the original single-glazed windows. 

Using light to shape the experience

Tuneable studio lighting offers a range of atmospheres to suit different activities. The learning team can change the colour temperature from a cool blue daylight, which promotes alertness and concentration during learning activities, to a warmer yellow light that’s more conducive to group creative thinking. Windows within the cabinetry also have shutters, involving users more tangibly in controlling natural light.

Ventilation for better learning

An air source heat pump takes warmth from the natural air outside and reduces levels of carbon dioxide inside the centre  — a proven way to enhance learning levels. An air handling unit maintains conditions in a crowded room while the shutters keep noise pollution out.

Playing with space

Areas can be partitioned quickly and easily, providing an elegant lesson in use of space. Ceiling-hung brass activity frames make it fast and simple to hang projects on display and can also be used to suspend models and examples. Anchor points enable larger display structures to be secured in place.

Celebrating materials

The space showcases materials that invite conversation — those that are unfamiliar, environmentally progressive or have some other resonance. Bamboo — which can be grown quickly and efficiently — is widely used. Recycled yogurt pot plastic panels tell a story in the flecks of paper and foil they display. Meanwhile brass fittings echo the bronze and brass used throughout the 1930s building.

The Big Sink

Clore Duffield Foundation’s guide to ideal learning spaces takes the name The Big Sink, making the point that the smallest details (down to the specification of sinks) need careful consideration. The design addresses such points, with splash-free stainless steel sinks that help contribute to an environment streamlined for learning.

Pete Cornes and Thomas Heath

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