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Selling the idea of learning From Peckham's new library to 'IDEA stores' in Tower Hamlets, design for places of learning is taking a retail cue

Alsop & Stormer's dramatic Peckham Library building, now nearing completion in south London, is one of the most visible manifestations of a new approach to making buildings concerned with learning more accessible. A new public square is integral to the conception of the library, and is bounded on the other side by the Pulse, a new health and fitness centre. The square is designed to be accessible to all, a genuinely popular public place, a meeting place away from the high street, a tranquil common area with seating, street theatre, cultural displays etc.

Far from being just the manifestation of a desire for a piece of signature architecture, this Single Regeneration Budget-supported building is a response to a widely perceived problem. Southwark has made a bold stand with Peckham Library, which will delight architectural enthusiasts and the local population alike.

Tower Hamlets has taken a different approach to the problem of its under- used and dilapidated library stock. After a considerable period of local consultation, it has decided to replace its existing libraries with seven new cultural centres, known as idea stores. While these will be designed as landmark buildings on high streets (either as new-build or as refurbished existing buildings), part of the strategy to make them popular depends on introducing other elements within the centres in addition to libraries - in particular, retail, cafes, adult-education and exhibition space.

Design consultant and architect Bisset Adams was instrumental in developing the concept of the idea stores. It used design strategies from its background in retail (in particular with automotive clients) to create an accessible and welcoming environment. The cafe forms the 'heart' of the buildings, and may well double as the book check-out counter. The retail element will be complementary (music shops, for example, or it) and many of the sites will be anchored by a large supermarket chain with a shared car park. Outside, message boards will raise the profile of the centres, and could be used to display details of local courses, world-wide news, local issues etc.

Roger Adams of Bisset Adams comments: 'Tower Hamlets is talking about 'lifelong learning' and we wanted to make sure that people of all ages were going to use the stores - our experience in retail design was invaluable, making the centres welcoming and with clearly defined functions. People will visit them on their way to the superstore, will come for the cafe, to take a class, as well as to use the library.'

In Edinburgh, the new Wester Hailes library (built 18 months ago) was designed to draw in local users from an area with traditionally high unemployment, poor housing and lack of facilities; design criteria were carefully selected to maximise the library's impact on the local population. The striking design of the building makes an initial statement about confidence and looking forward. There are generous it provisions, with free Internet access; Wester Hailes also houses Edinburgh's first Youth Library, with a separate entrance and a relaxed welcoming style far from many teenagers' image of the silent forbidding traditional library. Comfortable seats, magazines, listening points, board games and pcs (free bookable internet access) complement books, audio novels, music cds and cassettes. There is a sound system, and if requested, music can be played - anything from All Saints to Bonkers 3. A lively programme of events and visits by authors and actors is proving attractive.

Designers of schools and colleges are talking the same language, particularly in further education, where colleges are having to 'sell' their offer to potential students. Borders bookshop is a commonly used example - how the consumer agenda of buying books, browsing and drinking coffee, can be used to encourage learning. Professor Michael Thorne of Napier University was instrumental in setting up Learning World, a college in the Gateshead Metro Shopping Centre; he believes that educational institutions will have to become more engaging to attract students. 'Learning environments should be more like retail environments, using non-institutional colours like yellow, blue and peach. More open-plan, less cellular spaces. We've got to try to

create the softer, welcoming feel of retail spaces.'

Learning World (lw) has not been without its problems. Jointly funded by Sunderland University and Gateshead College of Further Education, some of the money was not forthcoming; so the idea to franchise Learning World globally has not taken off. The original idea, according to Anne Simonsen, former head of marketing of lw, was to provide flexible education for professional people, but initially it attracted mainly unemployed people signing on for free courses: 'Now they're marketing it more at the professional end of the market, which is obviously more lucrative. The problem is, you can't be all things to all people; you have to have a target market.'

Sally Coady, head of lw, also identifies problems in the public identifying what the college is about: 'Local businesses, which we hoped would use Learning World for training courses, have been slow to come forward. They see the flags, they see the name, and they're not sure what we are. It's a matter of re-education.'

If higher and further education establishments are trying to mimic the retail sector in selling themselves to their potential students, statutory education is often faced with a similar problem in addressing the problem of failing schools and underachieving students. The idea of 'selling' learning in the high street has been picked up by some of the more innovative movers in secondary education.

John Baumber, head of Rivington and Blackrod High School in Bolton, believes the way to get children to learn is to turn their parents onto learning. In his previous school in Northumberland, he opened a drop-in adult learning centre on the high street: 'People were positive about joining. It wasn't seen as a school. There was a strong it element, as this is the mainstay of adult education, and we'd run courses depending on who needed them. There were a lot of young mothers and single mothers, so what started as a creche and coffee drop-in ended up as an educational course.'

Roy Blatchford, head of the new Walton High in Milton Keynes due to open in September, welcomes the chance to be part of the design process. He also believes that schools should shed their traditional institutional image - Walton High is to be known as a Learning Centre rather than a school, opening to secondary- age students and all ages from the community as well, from 'eight till late'. Blatchford believes education must break down the traditional hierarchies: 'Must we have a staff-room? Does this create an 'us and them' mentality? If you herd large numbers of adolescents together, you must expect football-terrace behaviour.'

Ros Hudson will also be head of a new school opening in September, in Alexandra Palace, North London. She believes environment is all-important: 'I want the school to look like Sydney harbour! I want to incorporate lots of wonderful ideas I've seen around the world, like a water feature, and a shaded area outdoors with a huge port sail which they have in Australian schools, to create shade and also to get away from the typical Brutalist playground. So the children don't feel, 'Oh my God, I hate it here, isn't it awful, it makes me feel angry and violent.''

Pat Clark, head of Avondale Park Primary School near Holland Park, London, would agree. A high percentage of Avondale Park's intake comes from backgrounds of poverty and temporary accommodation, and Clark has tried to create a pleasant environment at school which the children will respect: 'I can bring in beautiful things from home, and they don't get broken or vandalised.'

Clark's office, separated from the main corridor by a flight of stairs, is like a living room, with carpet and sofa, and her desk against the wall, rather than forming a barrier between herself and visitors. 'It's all social and educational engineering - angry parents calm down by the time they've arrived and sat down, and children love coming into my office, and looking at all the things I have in here.'

Clark believes that the design and layout of the school are essential to its success - adjacencies are all-important. In her previous school, a large first-floor hall area was made into a huge resource area, with an information section (reference, materials etc.); a story section (books, objects, fabrics); a science section; and a maths section, with teaching rooms leading off: 'We could run projects here which incorporated all elements of the curriculum, it was fantastic.'

Funding is always the bottleneck, particularly in the public sector - Peckham Library's failure to win lottery cash has meant that some of the original plans to include other activities within the building were curtailed. In cash-strapped schools, this can prove beneficial: design strategies can be encouraged to come from within the school itself, leading to a sense of empowerment and belonging within the school community.

Roy Holland of De Montfort University has researched design strategies coming from within and implemented by schools themselves, in a joint project with the Design Council. Students and staff researched, designed and produced various initiatives including: a new school prospectus; an upgraded playground; a school radio station; and a newly defined and welcoming entrance to the school. The basic proposition was that 'just as leading companies make flexible use of design thinking throughout their organisations, so schools could with advantage do the same.' The success of the projects led to a generic model to tackle design problems, including steps for consultation, generation and evaluation of a range of new ideas, establishing criteria for success, arranging funding and implementation.

The Architecture Foundation is working on a project entitled 'School Works', which will test an alternative approach to school design and maintenance in practice, with the full participation of pupils, staff, parents and the wider community. By equipping students with recording instruments, cameras, clipboards, drawing materials, thermometers, lux meters, noise meters etc., it encourages them to carry out an 'audit' of the school, and to come up with ideas to improve its design. As a result, Kingsdale School in Southwark is to undergo a £5 million redesign, with the school and community working in conjunction with architects and designers. The process of involving the local community (whether a school community or wider residential area) in the design process should ensure its unique local character isn't lost.

Sarah Godowski is a researcher with Bisset Adams

'We also mean by a lifelong learning centre that there is a place you can go to learn no matter how clever you are there is always something you haven't read.'

student at Tring School

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