We met for dinner in downtown Helsinki on a Sunday night, our first night. We walked from our hotel through snowy streets to the restaurant, where many of us took the when-in-Rome option and chose reindeer from the menu. It was the first time we’d all been together as a group. By Thursday the group was laughing with incredulity that we had only known each other for a few short days.
When I first planned this tour I was hopeful to have about eight people, and overwhelmed when I cut off registrations at 15. From 24 January until 5 February we went from Helsinki, Copenhagen with a side trip to Sweden, Amsterdam and then a handful went onto Geneva. The vision for the tour was to visit places and spaces for learning and to meet the people who use it, which fits my DNA. I love exploring interesting spaces and seeing how it works for people.
In education, as in many fields, there can be the showpiece architecture that is not practical for people, or there is the beautifully designed and functional space where, over time, an ineffective culture minimises the potential of the possibilities.
On these tours we experience this range of responses. The first school we visited Viherkallio School in Espoo, outside Helsinki, was a wonderful example of strong leadership growing the desired culture. The school was built in the 1960s and hadn’t had a significant structural refit, but it worked well and was responsive to the needs of the community.
The last place we visited on the tour, Rolex Learning Centre at Lausanne University was a purist piece of architecture, that seemed too sophisticated in design to achieve the desired function, and needed modifications and retro-fitted elements to make it work.
We visited the Aalto Design Factory, born from a research project focused on creating an ideal physical and mental working environment for product developers and researchers at Aalto University.
In Copenhagen and Amsterdam we took part in architecture-hosted walking tours. The Orestad urban project on the island of Amager, out of Copenhagen, was intended to create a new urban hub, yet to date has yet to live up to expectations. There has been significant infrastructure projects over nearly 10 years, with the expectation that 20,000 people would live in Ørestad, 20,000 would study there and 80,000 would be employed, this has yet to be realised. Perhaps the “if you build it” philosophy doesn’t always play out.
The Amsterdam architect-led tour around the developing Oosterdok harbour revealed the thinking and planning that is connecting this city in a new way. A constant ferry links the Overhoeks district across the Ij River and the new orientation of the transport hub of Amsterdam Centraal facing the river, is ensuring that the area known for the landmark Shell building becomes a new vibrant hub, with the Eye Film Institute taking centre stage.
A “Learning Spaces” tour needs to visit more than just schools. We need to explore the places where active and unscripted learning occurs, understand where people live and work in the 21st century and allow time and space for the group to process and download their thinking.