“We are used to ignoring our body”: Rosan Bosch on designing a conscious learning environment

Rosan Bosch is the founder and creative director of the Danish architectural company Rosan Bosch Studio. Rosan has become famous for her approach to designing learning spaces, from schools to libraries, which she has been engaged in for more than 25 years. The architect starts from natural situations, primarily communicative ones that arise in the educational environment, and even created their typology. When planning the school environment, Bosch mixes art, design and architecture so that the space meets the needs of children and encourages them to study. She managed to implement her ideas in a variety of countries, from Sweden to Argentina, and worked with both national authorities and private schools.


“I continue to be an artist”

 

Rosan, I read that before you opened a design studio, you were an artist. Tell me, is it possible to remove the “status” of an artist from yourself?

That’s right, I was engaged in modern sculpture and installation. And I continue to be an artist, it’s part of my identity. But I would be lying to myself, claiming that nothing has changed since the studio opening. When it appeared, the essence of my activity changed very much. Now, first of all, I am the founder and head of a fairly large design company with a precise and clear focus on education.

How does previous experience affect your current projects?

What exactly did I bring from art to work? My answer is this: our studio turns meanings into objects. And in a certain respect, our schools are very close to what can be called an artistic object. In general, I think that art is not so far from school. Art as a process can be a part of school life and, in principle, adult education too, because it’s always about asking questions. This is an opportunity to ask the question “Why?” an infinite number of times, preserving the childlike spontaneity and curiosity. From this point of view, my inner artist is constantly involved in the work on the projects of our design studio. I call this approach to the design of the learning environment “human development”. We strive to openly broadcast that a man is a machine for learning and development. Learning is part of our DNA. And we need to build schools that do not interfere, but help these processes.

What kind of specialists does your team consist of?

I select employees very carefully and strive to find people who have some specific professional experience in the past… like me (laughs). Sociologists work in our studio, there are several architects with an artistic past. One of the employees worked his way from a policeman to a teacher, after which he went into business management and became part of our team. I feel like a collector when I read a portfolio. I think people with rich and diverse professional experience strengthen us as a team.


“We say: Campfire, we mean: “Group work”

 

Rosan designs an educational environment based on spatial metaphors describing informal, natural ways of learning, working and communicating in a school environment. A similar approach to the educational process was first formulated by the American writer and futurist David Thornburg, who has been working as an education consultant for the past few decades. He came up with the concept of space archetypes created around images of natural locations. There are four archetypes. The Campfire is a lecture space. The Watering Holes is a space for free communication between students. The Caves are secluded spaces for reflection. And the Life is the space of realizing the acquired knowledge. For an effective educational process, these archetypes must be in balance.

Is it possible to say that David Thornburg’s spatial metaphors have become a starting point for you in designing an educational environment?

Hmm. Yes and no. But probably yes. I got acquainted with David’s ideas even before Rosan Bosch Studio appeared. Then I had another company, with a partner in which we were doing our first school project. Then cooperation with the Vittra Telefonplan, the network of Swedish schools began, their director introduced me to David.

I found that his ideas were very in tune with what we were going to implement in our first school. His metaphors are very clear, capacious and understandable, but at the same time they have such an archaic, slightly primitive character. When he describes a campfire-type space, he almost directly imagines that young people are sitting around the campfire, who are listening to a wise old man. In our work, we have rethought these metaphors and offered our own interpretation.

But what we really took from David Thornburg is the method. The idea that a particular space can be associated with a certain type of communication and be metaphorically described.

Metaphors really help to convey our concepts to customers. We work in different countries with different cultures and need a tool so that people in China, Egypt or the Faroe Islands can understand what we are trying to offer them. And these metaphors, for which we have come up with visual symbols, are a kind of language. It helps to overcome the difference in cultural perception.

Metaphors based on examples of works by Rosan Bosch studio: “Campfire” – 1; “Mountain top” – 2;3 / “Cave” – 4;5 / “Watering hole” – 6;7 / “Hands-on” – 8 / “Movement” – 9;10. Photo: Kim Wendt

The Mountain Top is an educational environment in which an individual can comfortably turn to a group to share thoughts, views and information. The speaker takes a pronounced position opposite the audience.

The Cave is an educational environment for concentration, individual focused work and reflection. The “cave” is characterized by quiet space located at a distance from the active areas, while not necessarily completely isolated. “The “cave” has a small size, designed for one or two students.

The Campfire is an educational environment for group work, which offers a space for effective cooperation of small teams, focuses dialogue within the group and develops cooperation skills.

The Watering Hole, the environment of this type is an informal space with many different variables, where students encounter non-trivial ideas, gain new skills, unexpected knowledge that inspire and motivate.

The Hands-on is an important design principle, an additional non- verbal communicative dimension. It offers a connection between theory and practice, body and intellect, intuition and play.

Movement. The design integrates “movement” into all spaces as their natural component. Movement enhances cognitive skills and provides energy for the educational process.

Don’t you have a feeling that new types of communication have appeared over time? Or are these metaphors so universal that they can be used forever?

So, OK, it’s not a religion (laughs). Look, we say Campfire, we mean “group work”. Working in a group, one way or another, will always be part of the educational process. But its expression in space, the form in which it flows may change. The examples are around us: the coronavirus has already greatly influenced the formats of group work. The “Cave” will always be relevant, because it is a metaphor for concentration, without it effective work is impossible. But all these metaphors are a way to express the principle of building an environment. The design of the space itself, the shape, change. We generally believe that the interior relevance period is three years.


How to change the system

 

If you wanted to revolutionize education through architecture and school design, who would you start working with first of all: the state or active private initiatives?

I think it is necessary to use both channels. And often this is our practice. We work simultaneously with private and public customers. If we cannot influence the design standards at the state level, we start with private schools, which become something like “showrooms” that demonstrate the capabilities and atmosphere of our design. Changes begin with them.

At the same time, I would not put the question like this: private versus public. This is incorrect. The private sector is very diverse. For example, there are private schools in Denmark that are actively funded by the state. Parents pay only a small part of the full tuition fee. But at the same time, a private school remains private: with the opportunity to do those things that the state does not go to, with the opportunity to experiment.

The state is a system. To change public schools, we need to change the system, which is very slow. Private schools react much faster. If we are talking about a revolution, then they can be its flagships meant to inspire and pull.

Do you think schools, offices, libraries are getting closer to each other? Is there a convergence of spaces?

Of course, the tendency of convergence of different spaces is felt. But it seems to me that this question has nothing to do with space as such. This is a question of social changes, changes in our way of life. They lead to a revision of the functions that a particular space offers.

Can it happen that the school as a separate specific building will eventually dissolve into other spaces? And will we, for example, get some kind of hybrid of coworking and school?

The answer to this question depends on what will happen to the school as an institution, and whether it will be able to play a clear and understandable social role in society, for example, to really remove the teaching functions from the parent.

The school will also be able to maintain its authenticity if it is a specialized place, like a hairdressing saloon. This is a space with a clear function, where you go to get a haircut. Also, the school is a specialized place for learning. If there is no focus on specialization, then the functions of the school will be blurred, and this will affect the space.

The concept of awareness is important here. Schools should become centers for the development of awareness and knowledgeability: how we gain knowledge, how we can develop and strengthen it, what our emotions about learning mean. Now we are leaving schools that do not have the task of forming a community sensitive to education, which would treat it carefully and consciously. We receive education in a passive way. We are inert relative to the space in which we study.

As a result of many years of work, I know that it is possible to strengthen my educational potential. You can train your memory, develop thinking, and in the same way you can boost your awareness about space.

As a result of many years of work, I know that it is possible to strengthen my educational potential. You can train your memory, develop thinking, and in the same way you can boost your awareness about space. Many people think that the physical environment is a trifle, a pleasant moment. The cherry on the cake. But we react physically to the physical environment, by our body. Our body, as a matter of fact, is the link between the brain and the world around us. Although we are used to ignoring it.

Photo: Kim Wendt, St. Andrew’s Scots School, 2019, Buenos Aires, Argentina


The concept of “awareness”

 

What do you mean, talking about a conscious attitude to space?

Many people think that the physical environment is a trifle, a pleasant moment. The cherry on the cake. But we react physically to the physical environment, by our body. Our body, as a matter of fact, is the link between the brain and the world around us. Although we are used to ignoring it.

We are not sensitive and not aware of our body. We sit on chairs all day long. And we don’t even notice, although we most likely understand with our heads how unnatural this is for us. If we were taught to listen to our body, we would immediately feel monstrous discomfort and start moving more and more often.

But this is exactly what free movement is not so often welcomed in a traditional school…

The architecture of most schools is the architecture of control. Behind it, there is the desire to control students, to control their behavior, their movements, to impose physical restrictions. And you know, there is only one other place where people’s physical activity is controlled just as rigidly. This is a prison. Where is bullying as a phenomenon most common? In schools and prisons.

Any physical space has a message for you. For example: “I respect you. What do you like? How do you want to work? What will be right and comfortable for you?” And this is very different from the message: “I dictate what you want. I will tell you what to do and how to do it.” It kills curiosity and initiative.

How do I start practicing this conscious attitude?

For example, space can be better realized by using hearing. We have a very primitive idea of hearing. Meanwhile, hearing is not only about the fact that we hear each other and the sounds around us. Hearing also registers space, makes it voluminous: thanks to hearing, we are aware of its physical boundaries.

If we develop our bodily sensations, we begin to feel this world in a completely different way. As a person who has got a real nose for wine and feels the diversity of its tastes, when for another all varieties “sound” the same.

There is another simple example. If a person is in a space with the main upper light, which is just typical for classes, then, according to neurophysiological studies, the body receives a signal: “Get up!” because the environment with such lighting turns out to be very active, difficult to concentrate on. And, for example, a camera spot light like in a restaurant or at a home desk helps to focus on the objects that lie in front of us.

We teach children to ignore body signals from about the age of two, and by the age of 20 they no longer feel them, they don’t know anything about it.

I don’t want to go around the world and tell people what to do. We create schools that inspire students, that allow them to reflect on themselves, look at the learning process from a different angle and create their own unique rules for the environment in which they spend so much time.

Photo: Kim Wendt; Western Academy of Beijing 2019, Beijing, China  

By the way, about age. Probably, a popular question about your educational interiors sounds like this: “Is this suitable for older children?”

We work with all ages. And it is not always obvious which design will be good for a teenager and which will not. Once we had an experience when we brought children over the age of 12 into a ready-made space and said: “Look, this is what we designed for the younger ones. Now let’s come up with something cool for you together.” To which they replied: “There is no need to invent anything, we want everything exactly the same.”

But no kidding, understanding age physiology is very important. The feeling of comfort and security depends on the proportionality of the body to the space. With age, not only the size of the body changes, which is obvious, but, for example, the field of vision expands: from 110 to 180 degrees. And this affects cognitive abilities, the ability to accept and learn about the world. Knowing these nuances, we understand that for a kid with his field of vision, a playground that occupies a large area will seem intimidating.

It seems that you have reasonable recipes for any spatial situation.

No. I don’t want to go around the world and tell people what to do. We create schools that inspire students, that allow them to reflect on themselves, look at the learning process from a different angle and create their own unique rules for the environment in which they spend so much time.

 

 

 

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