CEFPI WA Chapter's third biennial Symposium a great success

Published: Monday 24 March 2014

A large crowd of interested architects, educators, students and learners gathered on a sunny Friday afternoon for the third biennial CEFPI WA Symposium. This year's topic aimed to bring light to the advantages and challenges of inner-city education and lifelong learning opportunities within the city. As delegates we were asked to contemplate future theories of the city, in particular in reference to Richard Weller's Boomtown 2050: Scenarios for a Rapidly Growing City (2009) with a rise in city density leading to new requirements for inner-city areas. As residential growth increases in this area, we were encouraged to wonder 'what can a school contribute to the city?' Currently in Perth there are no inner-city public high schools, but with changing city demographics this is set to become an area for future growth. With this is mind we endeavoured to investigate the most effective ways that education and inner-city areas cannot just co-exist, but enrich each other.

Lara Mackintosh of Viridis Architecture / Curtin University set the scene with visions of Perth juxtaposed with Hong Kong, New York, Sydney, Melbourne and Paris. Although Perth may be small in comparison, many of the themes are universal in that children are often curious to learn and play from a young age and then we tend to lose our desire for learning new things as we age. However, if we turn this concept on its head and use all the elements of the city to continue out learning journey, we can start to wonder about the nature of learning – who is the Learner and who is the Expert? Where do you learn and how? And what is a school anyway? There are so many opportunities for incidental and play-based learning within most cities that we never need to 'grow up' and stop learning.

An engaging Peter Lippman of EIW Architects discussed his experiences of inner-city education in his previous hometown New York City, where the concepts of inner-city are quite different from our Perth-based concepts. As a 24-hour active city, NYC provides many more opportunities around the clock than Perth does, which leads to both a diversity of activity and a social attitude of public surveillance. A sensible gridded urban planning strategy has led to a city that is often explored easily on foot, creating an intimate understanding of the ground plane of space. There are numerous sights, sounds and adventures on every corner which leads to an understanding that education is just part of daily life. I liked Peter's example of late-night opening hours for museums as an example of priorities shifting from commercial to socio-cultural pursuits.

Alec Coles, the CEO of the Western Australian Museum presented his vision for how a cultural discovery centre can contribute to the creativity of the city, and how the Museum currently engages patrons on a journey of discovery through studying living culture, past, present and future. As he is currently embarking on a quest for a new Museum in the city (which piqued the interest of most architects in the room), Alec rendered a vision of a museum providing opportunity for all, open to the whole community with a focus on celebrating Western Australia and revealing the research behind the organisation. This link between research and presentation of information could become a metaphor for inner-city education also, showing the connection between where the education happens and how that gets shared with the wider community.

Kerri Dickfos and Lisa Young from the Art Gallery of Western Australia discussed current trends relevant to young learners, and how these are developed in a cultural institution. They took guidance from the CSIRO: Global Megatrends documents, looking at the megatrends that will shape the future for all of us. Students are now more used to the social experience of consuming content, with not just the increase in online information, but also the way it is disseminated, discussed and shared. An increase in interpretive materials through the Art Gallery, and also a requirement to get more materials on-line in a creative, collaborative way, is leading the change to the very nature of educational delivery for the gallery. The Art Gallery knows it needs to provide unique programmes to get visitors through the doors, and is working with other organisations to achieve this, for example the National Trust.

Patrick Kosky form Kerry Hill Architects presented their fascinating interpretation of the new City of Perth library, with a focus on urban design principles. The new building plays on the context of its site, opening up vistas to the adjacent long-hidden Treasury Building façade, and creating an open air plaza as a community space. Within the design of the building was the understanding that libraries need to be more than repositories for books, as community involvement in their place is essential, once (if!) books start to disappear from the shelves in preference to online sources. Cheryl Parrott of the City of Perth Library backed up this view, declaring that libraries are about people, and not just books. To this end, the new library will have a heavy use of technology, but is also created for other activities to engage people in lifelong learning, such as learning spaces and areas for exhibitions or public presentations.

Moving on to the more traditional educational environments, we first heard from Sheena Barber of Mercedes College, Perth's most inner-city high school. Mercedes College uses the city as an extension of their campus, which has numerous benefits for both the school and the community. The College has the opportunity to partner and connect with local businesses and other educational providers such as Polytech West, and has access to all the city's facilities including the Concert Hall, theatres, the Law Courts and Town Hall. This enables students to learn within a contemporary environment, and to learn a level of connectedness and sophistication of a diverse city setting. The local community also benefits from the increase in population and students having an understanding of their place in the city, and the world. From an economic point of view, this also means the school, which is quite land-locked, does not need to duplicate spaces such as theatres, as they are al l on their doorstep.

Our final main speaker of the day was Kathryn Netherwood of the Lance Holt School in Fremantle. This schools' learning philosophy of "learning through seeing and doing" is embodied in its space, within the west end of the city of Fremantle. The school sits within a converted warehouse on a very small 500 sqm site. Flexible spaces, furniture and playground equipment are required for the efficient running of the school, and the whole effect of the design was one where students are valued and encouraged to grow. As the students extend their learning from their school space to the outside world of Fremantle, they not only expand their knowledge but also ensure they are acknowledged as an integral part of the community. This was demonstrated in 2009 when Year 6 students were invited to be part of the City of Fremantle's city visioning project. Within the community, students use the library, theatres, museums, art gallery, parks, beach, tennis centre and TAF E. They also have a collaborative relationship with neighbour Notre Dame University where students of both learn from each other. Students at the school are taught to bring their thoughts, opinions and experiences to the greater city around them, and are enriched by their inclusion in city life.

A final panel discussion of all presenters brought up commonalities and themes within all environments. The benefits all parties perceived with inner-city education is the access to a greater range of facilities and opportunities (eg international guest speakers, conferences) and creating relationships between the schools and the facilities/businesses of the city. Additionally, great benefits were described for the students – the ability for them to feel comfortable within the city, to understand public transport and feel safe navigating areas within their community. It was also beneficial that they were considered valued members of the community and could contemplate and understand their place within the world, in context of their place within the city. The Museum and Art Gallery both appreciated activities like FringeWorld which extended the hours of activity in the Cultural Centre and created the feeling of open access and permeability of use. Most presenters describ ed their main problematic issue revolving around public transport – while the Museum and Art Gallery are close to public transport, often the schools that are visiting them are not, which can lead to difficult access. And while students of both Mercedes College and Lance Holt School are close to public transport so can easily visit other places, permissions and safety can present difficult (though definitely not insurmountable) challenges.

Lara indicated at the beginning of the session that we may leave with more questions than were answered. And this proved true in a way, as all the presenters provided fascinating food for thought, at least for me. It was a great broad mix of speakers and I really enjoyed the diverse views on the concepts discussed. Although it was a long, jam-packed afternoon with many speakers, I felt the differing outlooks and concepts discussed led to an exciting atmosphere. Well done to the organisers and all involved in running this great afternoon, and showcasing so many examples of Perth and Fremantle's inner-city educational wonders.