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Contextualizing the Modern Agora of Knowledge

Part 2 Project 2002
Chan Ee Mun
Andrew O'donnell
National University of Singapore, Singapore
This thesis seeks to explore the resultant programmatic and architectural consequence of a paradigm shift in pedagogy that reflects the new knowledge era. Such a shift in pedagogical emphasis is adopted by the University Scholar's Programme (USP) as the stalwart faculty of the National University of Singapore (NUS) in formulating experimental educational initiatives for university-wide implementation that charts the university's engagement with the challenges presented by the knowledge economy. The context for this exploration is to envisage the proposed USP faculty building within NUS campus as both an institutional entity as well as a socially charged environment for knowledge and skills acquisition.

The program of the new USP faculty addresses the fluid and dynamic nature of knowledge processes that can no longer be contained within classrooms per se. Recognition is given to individuals as well as the collective community as a form of dynamic 'knowledge' resource beyond traditional tomes or even modern day internet. As such, emphasis is placed on the expansion of learning environments to encompass the social realm of interaction and engagement that facilitates knowledge exchange, proliferation and diversification.

The strategy to add a social dimension to educational activities suggests the cultivation of a vibrant student hub for interaction and exchange. Expression of this new dynamic and fertile ground for the creative exchange of skills and knowledge between all members of the campus community, scholars and non-scholar alike, lie in the interface of programs from the social realm and that of USP.

The resultant social programs are broadly organized around two circulatory zones; namely, USP?s ?Interaction Spine? and the campus 'Interactive Continuum', both of which are highly connected visually and physically. These zones are vitalizing components that are activated by constant activity and users throughout the day and allow the building to be read as a network of social spaces that work against programmatic polarization. Running parallel along the site, it forms the conduit for constant people flow across the proposal, where movement forms the basis for the proliferation of interaction opportunities. Slow spaces of interaction, coupled with alternative learning environments are plugged into this network where visual and phenomenological linkages are established.

Varied learning spaces conforming to different pedagogical methodology is provided above the interaction spine of USP. The most striking feature of USP is its interactive seminar pods, which is suspended above the campus community Interactive Continuum. The pods rotate and merge along different axis with its resultant dynamic forms influencing its immediate environment, both internally and externally. These pods are mostly transparent with its activity exposed. While the option of screens is available, the classes conducted within are generally encouraged to remain open to views from onlookers. This perpetuates a culture of visual engagement that engenders the space with the programmatic stamp of an educational institution.

The proposed social component of the program also help alleviate a common criticism levied against USP; that of an 'elitist' institution. This thesis posits that scholars and the general campus community are better served by mitigating USP institutional exclusivity; promoting interaction and coexistence within a vibrant, engaging environment through shared communal space, activity and program.

The faculty is thus a vehicle for expressing a new type of campus planning, one which can facilitate the creative exchange of skills and knowledge between the campus community. It taps and record from the community as a whole, knowledge, practical skills and ideas so as to broaden the spectrum of information flow from increased avenues. The notion of a modern agora where ideas, skills and knowledge are traded succinctly depict the conditions to facilitate a culture of learning predicated on participatory exchange that serves as a catalyst and conduit for innovation and creativity, catchphrases for the new knowledge based economy.

Chan Ee Mun
Andrew O'donnell

The thesis project addresses the current need to interpret new campus environments in the light of developments in educational technology and in the Singapore context, where the National University (of seven faculties and 9000 students) is to transform into a research university (of 35,000 students in the year 2011 with 170 academic departments). Specific to the project is a proposal for the University’s Scholar’s Program, a 4 year honors course for the cream of the student population. It focuses on cross-disciplinary learning in tandem with the development of core competencies in individual disciplines.

NUS was planned in the 70s amidst the Berkeley riots in US, and the Singapore government was cautious in planning campus spaces which could become convenient for rioting and spontaneous assemblies of large groups. Faculties were physically isolated and the ridge topography helped in creating an idyllic campus outside the city. The University Scholar’s Program (USP) epitomizes an operational model opposite to the built version. The thesis student, Chan, envisions a “hot-bed of ideas and activity” in a “modern agora of ideas and knowledge”. Student interaction is encouraged outside formal educational activity in a streetscape environment which mixes learning with “play” and the use of a larger proportion of sheltered outdoor spaces for learning. Only lecture rooms remain opaque because of acoustic and ACMV requirements, but Chan has designed seminar pods transparent to the streetscape where glimpses of the seminar content and interactive discussions are possible.

At street level, student amenities, cafes bookstores generate the vibrancy even after hours in the proposed USP which has no residential content. Sited on a sloping site, the “main” street is in the valley with the seminar pods, “plugged” into the streetscape which also facilitates hotdesking. The strategy of suppressing the opaque form of the lecture rooms and contrasting the seminar pods as transparent elements visible from the learning landscape and the “street” is well executed in conceptual, spatial and constructional terms. It is a plausible alternative version to existing types of campus environments and fulfills the contextual challenges posed in the Singapore site.

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