Architecture for Learning

  source : Rosan Bosch

source : Rosan Bosch

Director Jo Aitken has been working on Award winning education projects since 2003, with her first project she conceptualised winning the Asia Pacific Public Service Award and New Zealand Gold Medal for Architecture. Most recently, Atelier Aitken are finalists in the 2017 and 2018 SXSW School of the Future Competition held in USA. While there is a lot of progressive development starting to happen in other developed countries, we are concerned that New Zealand is lagging behind.  We would love to not only catch up with the rest of the developed world, but become front runners in growing our next generation.

A key research project for our studio is exploring the future of learning environments and how this may look with an integrated approach between design, technology and pedagogical developments. Please get in touch if you are interested in working together with us on a project , big or small!



  Jo Aitken worked on this project as an architect in Paris for MDS.

Jo Aitken worked on this project as an architect in Paris for MDS.

Our proposed educational projects help to address a number of key issues that we are facing as a society including:

1.     Health Issues created from increasingly sedentary lifestyles

2.     Social Issues: Inequality. Capitalism has had far reaching negative impacts globally. Once known for being a leader in equality and social standards, shamefully, approximately 30% of our children in New Zealand live below the poverty line. We need to remove any barriers possible to allow all children the chance to be well educated by providing a barrier free and accessible learning environment.

3.     Social issues: Ignorance resulting in increasing selfishness and lack of tolerance and empathy in society. Threat of nuclear war and terrorism are serious threats to world peace.

4.     Social issue: Isolation and loneliness – In partnership with local rest homes and elderly networks, the learning park offers opportunities for elders to come along and participate in activities with younger generations such as storytelling (fictional and historical), learning games and cultural activities.

5.     Social Issue: Attention deficit disorders and short attention spans. We want to provide an opportunity for learning in a way that is engaging, fun and sparks curiosity and therefore a desire to learn.

6.     Social issue: Lack of demographic and socio-economic diversity at higher levels in social sector institutions, influencing educational content

7.     Environmental Issues – Global warming and pollution are two of our biggest issues, globally. This project would of course demonstrate full sustainable principals, including the repurposing of existing infrastructure.

8.     Educational sustainability and Continuing Professional Development(CPD) – The rate of change, accelerated through recent technological advances, means that we need to provide dynamic and accessible learning to all ages to enable people to learn and upgrade their skills to stay relevant.


Current Educational Projects

Adaptive re-use and creating a new learning space typology

(Finalist at 2018 South by South West (SXSW) Educational Design Awards in  Austin, Texas)

atelier aitken urban park library - carpark reuse.jpg
Atelier Aitken Architecture Urban Library Park -Carpark Reuse.jpg
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Atelier Aitken Architecture Urban Library Park Plans
atelier aitken urban library park sustainability
atelier aitken urban library park accessibility
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17SXE Experiential diagram.jpg



EAT, PLAY, LEARN - A new typology for schools 

These schemes all incorporate an outdoor space for schools or homes that provides shaded area for play, learning, socializing and dining.

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Progressive Education / Experiential Learning:

-          “Progressive schools place high value on teaching children to think for themselves through a process of discovery”


-          progressive education is a blend of, and encourages and allows, different learning styles, whether students are visual, kinetic, or auditory learners

-          sensory input and stimulation is important in the retention of information

-          experiential learning acts as a base skill training for many real world contexts, yet is not limited to such an apprenticeship. It also offers critical thinking about such                    practices and how to improve upon them

-          the excitement about tasks which are engaging encourage fuller participation and result in a greater self-assessment and reflection, later resulting in new actions taken

             based in experience



-          learning is a cycle

We remember:

-          10% of what we read

-          20% of what we hear

-          30% of what we see

-          40% of what we see & hear

-          70% of what we say

-          90% of what we say & do

Games used for learning:

-          rewards are crucial for motivation – mastery is a rewards; ‘players’ are driven to repeatedly practice in a game until mastery is achieved

-          random elements added to rewards increases motivation

-          games engage the entire brain and allow you to learn ‘effortlessly’

-          storyline games are more emerging and engaging

-          play teaches survival skills, coordination, and social interaction skills at a young age

“The subject-matter of education consists of bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to a new generation.”

Cost should not be a Barrier to creating enjoyable learning and play spaces

Atelier Aitken Architecture - New Plymouth Maori School.jpg

The Environmental Playscape - A new model for the School of the Future

(Finalist at 2017 South by South West (SXSW) Educational Design Awards in  Austin, Texas)

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Atelier Aitken School of the Future SXSW Finalist AR.jpg


Examples of Past Experience

Jo Aitken Experience - Wilson School
Jo Aitken Experience - MDS Studio - School in Paris - France
Atelier Aitken Architecture - Mt Albert Primary School 2010

Our Education Philosophy

In education curriculum, we are seeing a trend towards more collaborative and topic focused learning and less focus on individual subjects. There are many changes in teaching and learning technologies and methodologies that are yet to be addressed as a physical and spatial concept. While the world continues to evolve at an accelerating rate, the majority of schools still have classrooms based on the convectional ideal of an enclosed box with one teacher and rows of students – a system that is generations old. 

While institutional spatial design is slowly changing, including the integration of open space learning and technology, we believe that educational facilities need to start addressing these changes more holistically and explore what their role may be in the future. The traditional school model may become out of date soon, particularly for older children. A possible scenario for older children is that they may become increasingly mobile, with a mixture of online learning and in-situ learning. The introduction of self-driving vehicles may become a game changer for them, where they may have a mobile classroom space (bus) that takes them to various places for ‘insitu’ learning depending on what they are learning, such as a robotics factory and so on. The mobile classroom becomes their main space for social interaction with classmates and concentrated time with their teacher. 

As for younger children, we still see the importance of having a ‘physical’ centre of learning, with the attentive care of teachers, to address areas that are difficult to be developed through technology and at home such as social development, physical development, cultural development and the learning of basic skills. Some students of course will continue to learn better with more traditional methods of teaching and learning, which should still be offered. 

Nowadays, with the accessibility of technologies such as Google, Evernote and Siri, conventional ideas of what teachers value and test for need to change: critical-thinking and problem-solving skills will be prioritised over fact retention. For example, Maths will be taught as a tool for puzzles and problem-solving, in English a student will be asked what a story means to them, and creative projects will be undertaken more than tests. The teacher will guide the students in areas where they require more innovation.


Bringing together School and Learning Space Philosophy

Architecture is a facilitator for education and has historically been an allegorical codex of how knowledge is transferred in each society. It is therefore the responsibility of architecture to accommodate for todays changes and also instigate a way for new knowledge of education to be manifested in a physical form. When we look at the state of the world and where people end up at their end of their educational pathway, we need to carefully examine how they got there in the first place.

Primarily we see the physical concept of a school as having a civic responsibility to both fulfil our human needs and create a leading example for its community, both physically and mentally.

At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy is physiological needs of which, without fulfilling this primary need, we cannot survive. Maslow's hierachy, explained further in our film below,  we see schools of the future as environmentally sustainable hubs where children can experience, learn and develop innovative ideas about what truly sustains them. Every school will be linked regionally, nationally and globally and their Environmental ranking can lead them to winning the annual Environmental Olympics, which would be the most coveted prize for Schools. 

Another important element for our proposed model for a future learning environment is to counteract sedentary lifestyles, anti-social behavior and short attention spans through making the learning environment more interactive and more physical. We imagine educational playscapes, created with physical, mixed reality + virtual reality (for less mobile students). Aristotle stated “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” 

Future proofing the design through lessons learnt from designing contemporary art galleries and installation is paramount to keeping up with this unprecedented rate of change. As architects, we are seeing a trend for the design brief for public projects to become increasingly similar, regardless of the type of public institution, albeit an art gallery, a museum, a library, a school and so on. It is possible that to some extent, many of these institutions will blend together as one. In Europe, we are already seeing the grouping of public facilities together to create economical and environmental efficiencies and to reflect their increasingly shared aims. Some institutions will become obsolete and others will need to renew their purpose and role in our future society. We see this proposal as a flexible model that can be used to modify existing schools and also to create new ones, whether they be temporary or permanent. 

In regards to the idea that our world could become fully digitised and heavily reliant on virtual technologies, we believe that humans will continue to be nostalgic for the past. In the future, they will still, at times, want to write with an actual pen on paper and read an actual paperback book under a tree. Through design exercises at architecture school, where students continually cross backwards and forwards between digital technologies and analogue methodologies, we can still see validity in both approaches, which develop different skills and create different outcomes. We believe that the same will continue to apply to learning in general. We don’t believe that we will ever live in a world where people are completely immersed in new technology, in so-called ‘futuristic’ spaces that are digitised and created fully out of synthetic materials. Humans need face to face interaction with one another of which neuroscientists have studied this need extensively. They need to be in spaces that make them feel good with fresh air, natural light and comfortable temperatures. 

One difficulty that we see with trying to implement innovation in the institutional sector is that too often the brief is too rigid and doesn’t allow enough room for experimentation within the built form. The main issue however is that there needs to be a much closer relationship between designers and the educators in charge of the education curriculum so that the two can work in synergy together in leading us to the future. 

Architecture could be the leader in this movement. Educational spaces of the future should be designed in a way that seamlessly accommodates technology, play and nature. Constructions should become an altruistic means to educate our children through the formation of spaces that are adapting to the nature of our current and future epochs. We must therefore speculate what these spaces may look like, and understand that these new pedagogical environments are already possible.