Dr. Michael Riendeau, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs
Creating the Adjacent Possible
Design Vision for the PJM STEM Center and Academic Complex
For many years, at Eagle Hill School we have offered a consistent refrain about campus building projects: beautiful new buildings are nice, but teachers, students, and ideas make a school. In working with Architectural Resources Cambridge (ARC) and A.T. Leonard & Associates (ATL) on a new STEM center and a simultaneous revitalization project for our core academic spaces, we have learned a great deal about how important thoughtful, pedagogically-oriented architectural design can be to learning.
When ARC and ATL asked about our pedagogical approach and institutional principles, we talked a lot about what we call “learning diversity,” an approach to learning that privileges individuation, emergence, and adhocracy. In practice, learning diversity means beginning with and returning frequently to the aspirations, talents, and challenges of each learner and prioritizing those elements in the development of learning experiences. It means jettisoning predetermined curriculum and methodology and replacing them with a willingness to live in the less comfortable but more exciting space of the adjacent possible. Picking up on a term coined in evolutionary biology and complexity theory by Stuart Kauffman, Steven Johnson explores the idea of the adjacent possible as a way to understand creativity. To understand Kauffman’s idea, imagine the primordial soup about four billion years ago. In it, the theory goes, were the basic elements necessary for life. The “adjacent possible” is the sum total of first-order combinations of those elements that begins to open up the possibility of life. As new compounds are made, the horizon of the adjacent possible expands. Adapting Kauffman’s idea to his study of creativity, Johnson suggests that the “adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself”. 1 As educators in a learning diversity space, “reinventing” oneself is precisely how we see learning, and developing an environment hospitable to that ongoing reinvention is one of the most important jobs of a teacher. As David Perkins, founder of Project Zero, suggests, in their work with students “teachers, as designers, handle paradoxical clay: the design that designs itself”.2
Classrooms as Silos
When we said to ARC and ATL that we wanted a physical space that could help us capitalize on the fecundity of the adjacent possible, they immediately began to imagine ways that the architecture of our new and renovated spaces could make that happen. The first principle that ARC brought to us was transparency. They pointed out what we all know—that schools, both conceptually and architecturally, have long been designed as collections of silos: subject matter silos, classrooms silos, age and grade silos. Many schools adopt the architecture of the medieval castle: concrete block walls punctuated by heavy doors with little more than an archer’s arrowslit facing the enemy. For decades, most teachers have endured—or, unfortunately, enjoyed—an oddly solitary existence in their classrooms.
To create the adjacent possible, to take what is merely adjacent and open up possibility, we have to permit and encourage interesting converse with the idea next door or down the hall. We have be able to see what’s happening in other places and be seen by others. ARC introduced transparency between and among academic spaces by strategically locating glass walls in our classrooms, labs, maker spaces, and offices. The strategy here was not simply to incorporate a viewing space from the corridor. I’ve seen this approach taken in schools, and it can leave students and teachers feeling like exhibits on display for visitors. Unlike many of the open school plans of the 1970s, each space designed by ARC retains its own character and practical features such as sound attenuation. ARC carefully designed interior vistas that are as interesting and engaging for people on both sides of each wall. In some cases, from a single vantage point, the activities of as many as eight individual spaces can all be experienced simultaneously. This level of transparency provides for the sort of cross pollination that leads to insights in the adjacent possible. One of our students, for example, observed that conjugating Latin verbs is a sort of algebraic process.
Transparency between Spaces
To help us make the most of the visual transparency between spaces, ARC incorporated desire lines into the flooring design. These lines, made of contrasting accent colors, lead the eye—and the mind—through multiple spaces in an intentional way, sometimes even taking our gaze beyond the boundaries of the building altogether. To complete the idea, display niches, tack board, and writable wall surfaces are strategically integrated throughout the entire academic complex to provide a sort of hothouse environment for nurturing connections made in the adjacent possible.
Even the siting of new STEM center was informed by our commitment to flexible and emergent pedagogy. As part of their campus master planning consultation, ATL developed an “on the way” concept that guided the placement of the new construction—ultimately to the geographic center and heart of the campus. Rather than create a standalone building that might contribute to the divisions between school subjects, ATL recommended siting the new construction along an established path of routine. Working with ARC, the final concept makes the new construction, adjacent to an existing complex, the most desirable path to any academic space on campus. In that way, it is literally “on the way” to wherever you are going and passively, but intentionally, multiplies opportunities for bumping into new ideas.
As the design matured, ARC and ATL strongly recommended that we incorporate our library into the new space. There were workaday reasons that this made sense for our project, but more important than those was the notion that we could take a library that had become a quiet backwater and make it the vibrant center of our academic life. By introducing a café in the library commons, a sprawling space designed around and framed by books, we created a contemporary analog to the coffeehouses of England in the 17th century. In those early coffeehouses, ideas, attitudes, and entire domains of knowledge collided in unpredictable and stunningly productive ways. Walking into a coffeehouse was, as Markman Ellis describes it in his cultural history of the coffeehouse, “like walking into the Internet."3 And, in the unlikely event that coffee wasn’t enough to draw the faculty into the café commons, ARC put the faculty mailboxes next door. No space could possibly be more “on the way” than this.
1 Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation. New York:
Riverhead Books, 2010. Print.
2 Perkins, David N. Knowledge as Design. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986. Print.
3 Ellis, Markman. The Coffee-House: a Cultural History. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005. Print.