Designed for Engagement (Part Two): The Architecture of Creativity and Transformation
As noted in Part I of this post, I believe that some of the most promising experiments in re-imagining architectural spaces to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and transformative learning are currently happening outside of the academy. In this post I’ll describe the formation and design of one such space – the headquarters of LA based creative studio – the Great Company.
In 2013 I participated in a two-day gathering of creative-types hosted at the headquarters of The Great Company in the Arts District of downtown LA. This “treehouse for creators” is the brainchild of Carl Choi, founder of the Great Company – an up-and-coming creative agency. Carl took 7,000 sq. feet of space in a formerly abandoned toy warehouse and, with the skills of some amazing old-school craftsmen, transformed the space into a 1920s-esque, “future meets the past” themed stage for artistic and community engagement (see photos at the end of the post).
The Great Company, whose motto is “Great ideas happen in great company,” started out as an artist management company. One of Carl’s early insights, however, was that his talent needed something more complex than just a recording studio – they needed a more holistic space that would allow for coaching, time with peers, and co-creating – a kind of safe-haven and oasis in LA’s urban desert.
The spatial design of the HQ flowed out of this attention to quality of life. The first space Carl designed was actually a gourmet kitchen, born out of the conviction that shared meals would form the foundation for community. The stage, around the corner from the kitchen in a gathering area called “the communion” was also key, a space for impromptu performances where ideas could be put to the test. The recording studio, rather than being set up as a sterile lab, has the feel of a living room – embodying Carl’s conviction that there should be a flow between parties, play, and the creative process. The HQ also features a “culture lab” – a flexible co-working space, an art-gallery-like lounge, and an office area called “the bridge.”
So, how is this space different? I’ve probably attended some forty academic conferences over the past twenty years – but apart from a couple dramatic speeches that bucked the norm and a few hallway conversations that turned into long-term friendships, I’d be hard pressed to come up with much of anything memorable or transformative that occurred in those passive, conference-hall-based gatherings. That’s at least four precious months of my life I’ll never get back...
My experience as part of an experiential-learning gathering at the Great Company HQ, however, was something fundamentally different. Our activities flowed organically between shared meals, small-group discussions, walks in the city, and one-on-one conversations in a way that could only happen in a space designed to foster creative collaboration and deep engagement.
A number of the ideas I’m writing about in this blog, in fact, were birthed out of those two days. That intersectional space easily supported a process of “flow” - an experience of deep creative engagement where I was completely absorbed in what I was doing, losing track of time and activity. (To be fair, there was also something of a Medici Effect based on the group I was with and the broad intersection of disciplines and cultures represented, but that is a post for another time).
In the Great Company Carl has created a space for what Tim Brown of IDEO calls “serious play” – “the connection between the activities we all participated in as children and the characteristics of innovation and creativity.” It is a space that designed for prototyping ideas – both physical and abstract. You’ll find this kind of design emerging in co-working spaces, incubators, and creative companies. But where you won’t find "serious play" is in the university – except in isolated “maker spaces," or a few cutting-edge innovation centers like the d-School at Stanford. In the university we like to cleanly separate academic learning from things like service, physical activity, meditation, and play - resulting in a structure completely out of step with how the brain functions best and emerging best-practices for fostering creativity.
Carl had intuitively figured out that his artists needed “a wide variety of experiences” to pump up their creative process. That conviction lines up with emerging brain science which finds that movement between a wider variety of activities seems to “enhance brain function, specifically in areas like problem solving, creativity, attention, and memory” (See Ludvik's Neuroscience of Learning and Development, p. 227). I’m a big believer in alternative learning models like the flipped classroom, but what the neuroscience research is suggesting with the “integration of the whole body with the whole mind” is something far more radical. For educators I think we are just on the edge of beginning to unpack what this research could mean for new education models.
Alain de Botton, in his discussion of bad architecture and design gone wrong, describes architects who “forget to pay homage to the quirks of the human mind…who allow themselves to be seduced by a simplistic version of what might be, rather than attending to the labyrinthine reality of who we are” (The Architecture of Happiness, p.248). In other words, the ineffectiveness of our learning spaces is not as much a failure of architectural design, as it is a failure to take into consideration the complicated nature of human learning and transformation.
We who work in education have been seduced by simplistic ideas like human learning as knowledge transfer and a belief that character formation can happen through mere head knowledge of abstract ideas. The reality, however, is that we are not mere human "thinkers" or human "doers," but we are human "beings" – something far more interesting and complicated. In buying into simplistic models of education, like the one-hour lecture class, we have failed to take into account the complexity of the brain and more importantly of the human condition.
“It's who we are, it's messy and uncomfortable and complicated. But so is a star, parenting, childbirth, love, and us, and us.” (Spoken word from Propaganda's I Am Becoming).
As humans we are designed for engagement. To that end, the spaces where we shape the hearts, heads, and hands of the next generation, need to of necessity allow for flow between deep and complicated layers of engagement - engagement with the great ideas of the past, as well as engagement in community, engagement with work, engagement with society, engagement with the spiritual, and engagement with the complications of one's own self.
De Botton notes, “We don’t generally experience chronic pain when the fine-grained features of design have been ignored; we are simply forced to work harder to overcome confusion and eddies of unease.” My hope is that we in higher ed will not just work harder to keep existing systems functioning, but rather that we would have the courage to confront impotent models of human transformation and imagine new, more human, models of teaching, learning, and creating.