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Rethinking the traditional university building

Detail of bronze staircase with protective rain screen Image Hufton and Crow_

Heatherwick Studio’s 21st century education centre at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore is a learning hub providing spaces for creating and sharing information.

April 2015

Designing the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technical University (NTU) in Singapore, one of Asia’s best known educational institutions, provided a dual challenge for architect Thomas Heatherwick and his associates. It was the group’s first commission in Asia and, as Heatherwick himself says, “an extraordinary opportunity to rethink the traditional university building.”

Rather than the usual miles of corridors linking rows of lecture rooms, the university asked for a unique design better suited to contemporary ways of learning. Heatherwick embraced the concept. “In the information age the most important commodity on a campus is social space to meet and bump into and learn from each other,” he explained. “The Learning Hub is a collection of handmade concrete towers surrounding a central space that brings everyone together, interspersed with nooks, balconies and gardens for informal collaborative learning.”

The Learning Hub is part of NTU’s redevelopment of the campus. It is a multi-purpose building for use by the university’s 33,000 students. “We are honoured to have had the chance to work with this forward-thinking and ambitious academic institution to realise such an unusual project,” said Heatherwick who collaborated with CPG Consultants to execute the Learning Hub. It was completed in March 2015.

The Learning Hub is a structure that interweaves social and learning spaces to create a dynamic environment conducive to casual and incidental interaction between students and professors and students with their peers. Twelve towers, each a stack of rounded tutorial rooms, taper inwards at their base around a generous public central atrium to provide 56 tutorial rooms without corners or obvious fronts or backs.

The latest-generation smart classrooms were conceived by NTU to support new learning pedagogies that promote interactive small group teaching and active learning. The flexible format of the rooms allows professors to configure them to better engage their students, and for students to more easily collaborate.

The rooms open onto the shared circulation walks around the atrium, interspersed with informal garden terraces, allowing students to be visually connected while lingering, thinking, and pausing.

NTU Professor Kam Chan Hin, approves. “The new Learning Hub provides an exciting mix of learning, community and recreational spaces for NTU students, professors and researchers from various disciplines to gather and interact. By bringing people and their ideas together, NTU can spark future innovations and new knowledge that increasingly happen at the intersection of disciplines.”

Project lead Vivien Leong of CPG Consultants says, “The most exciting aspect of this project is to see such an inspired design develop into a uniquely contextual and functional building through a highly collaborative process. Managing this project was no mean feat as we had to ensure that our work complied with Singapore’s rigorous building regulations and that it achieved the highest standards of sustainability, while working hard to retain the integrity of the original design and vision of NTU. The opportunity to challenge convention by introducing several first-of-its-kind environmentally friendly features and innovative solutions that embody the spirit of modern day learning has been a truly rewarding experience for us.”

The design challenge

The combination of local building codes and high environmental aspirations meant that concrete construction was necessary. The primary design challenge was how to make this humble material feel beautiful.

The concrete stair and elevator cores are embedded with 700 specially- commissioned drawings from illustrator Sara Fanelli, three-dimensionally cast into the concrete, referencing everything from science to art and literature. Overlapping images are deliberately ambiguous thought triggers, designed
to leave space for the imagination.

The 61 angled concrete columns have a distinctive undulating texture developed specially for the project. The curved facade panels are cast with a unique horizontal pattern, made
by 10 cost-efficient adjustable silicone moulds, to create a complex three-dimensional texture.

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