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A&DO Seminar: Architecture and Design Learning


If you missed our A&DO Seminar: Architecture and Design Learning keynote by Fiona MacDonald and Matthew Springett held on Wednesday, 3 February, 2021, but would still like to learn about it, you can find a short summary of the keynote below. The presenters also answered questions from seminar participants. 

The seminar was part of the Architecture and Design Day 2021 programme. The keynote speakers, Fiona MacDonald and Matthew Springett, presented their latest views on architecture and design education in London. Fiona MacDonald talked about her work as Head of Learning at the Design Museum. Architect Matthew Springett gave insights into the work of MATT+FIONA, the award-winning collaborative venture between the two. MATT+FIONA works with young people, with the aim of empowering them to bring their visions to life. The two have completed projects of various scales over the last four years.

Keynote Part 1
Fiona MacDonald, Head of Learning, Design Museum, Co-Founder of MATT+FIONA

Fiona MacDonald, Head of Learning at the Design Museum in London, shared insights from one of the world’s leading design museums, which was European Museum of the Year 2018. Learning is at the heart of the Museum’s ambition to inspire the next generation of design thinkers capable of creating designs that promote wellbeing and health, and which tackle planetary-scale social challenges.

The museum has 500 m2 of space for learning! The Swarowski Foundation Centre for Learning has a creative workshop, common room, Bauhaus and Ulm rooms, and a Design Studio. Other spaces include the auditorium, library and archive, and the Kirby Laing Studio.

The museum welcomes participants of all ages to engage in a diverse range of activities, delivered across online, peripatetic and Design Campus based learning programmes. Its work involves continually creating and refreshing a range of formal and informal learning opportunities for schools, young people, further and higher education, adult learning and public programming, access and community groups, entrepreneurs via Designers in Residence, and policy makers through the upcoming Future Observatory.

Structuring learning to cope with the ‘new reality’ has been a challenge during the pandemic. The museum has created a new vision for 2021, including offering Pathways to Design for schools and young people. The impact of Covid-19 has pushed the museum beyond its walls. Many programmes are now offered online. Luckily for us, this makes it more accessible at international level.

Fiona MacDonald points out that the world woke up to learning in 2020. “Learning is the new cool!” She shared information on several programmes, including Design Ventura, an annual national design and enterprise challenge for students in years 9, 10 and 11 involving the design of a new product for the Design Museum Shop. The winning product will be made and sold.

Read more about the Design Museum at designmuseum.org and about Design Ventura at ventura.designmuseum.org.

Keynote Part 2
Matthew Springett, MSA and Co-Founder of MATT+FIONA &
Fiona MacDonald, Head of Learning, Design Museum, Co-Founder of MATT+FIONA

MATT+FIONA is a collaborative venture between architect Matthew Springett and educator Fiona MacDonald. They ask young people how their built environment could be improved and empower them to bring their visions to life. Each project has a clear pathway: briefing, design and build, with the children and young people at the centre of every stage.

In the four years they have been operating, they have accomplished projects of various scales. These include a permanent outdoor classroom with Oakfield School in Hull, which went on to win The People’s Choice Award in the AJ Small Projects Awards 2018, and was shortlisted for the 2018 inaugural international Dezeen Design Awards. 2019’s Mega Maker Lab, in partnership with The Institute of Imagination, brought together 100 primary school children to create London’s first family maker space. They are currently working with Brixton House (formerly Ovalhouse) and local 10-year-olds to create a performance space for young people by young people, which they are determined to complete once the lockdown is over.

Matthew Springett: “How many young people look around and feel that they have a say in what they see?” This is exactly the question MATT+FIONA is actively putting out there, by offering active hands in building projects to empower children and young people, or by targeting policy at the transformation of structures to increase children’s and young people’s participation in society and in creating our joint futures.

Read more about MATT&FIONA at mattandfiona.org.

6 questions for Fiona MacDonald and Matthew Springett

Fiona, it was lovely to hear your talk, thank you very much! Today, we are celebrating architecture AND design in Finland and @adoFinland examines these design fields as a single topic. Can you elaborate on this “professional division” — architects and designers — is there a difference from the learning perspective?

Fiona: I see it as very important that designers want to get involved in learning programmes, not just to inform the public and the people — the next generation — they are working with, but equally to reflect on their own practices and view them through someone else’s eyes.

The division between architecture and design is based on the learning perspective, I suppose. Here, in the UK, architecture is still a regulated profession. So, architects are supposed to fulfil a certain duty of care, which also seems to be at the heart of most designers’ practices, so the differential is not necessarily there in reality. Perhaps they exist in slightly different realms: I often come back to what I think are some of the most interesting developments on the edge of any discipline, the most interesting areas being the crossovers. I don’t see the difference between architects and designers in general. The picture is more nuanced than that.

Could you describe the role of museums in society. What museums are really for and why they are needed (in the context of learning)?

Fiona: Last year’s challenges due to COVID-19 have given us an amazing opportunity to rethink the role of museums in learning. We have schools, do we need them? I think the answer is yes, they have a crucial role to play. Learning within schools is quite regulated here, in the UK: young people have to pass a lot of exams, a series of stages in a curriculum subject to intensive testing. Teachers do amazing things, but they are very pressured. I think museums and other organisations have an opportunity to promote the enjoyment of learning for learning’s sake. That is absolutely crucial for young people, particularly those — perhaps — who don’t see themselves as so academic, but who still have so much to offer. It is a way to inspire them and show what is open for them in the future, and perhaps, hopefully, to help them discover their passions and what they are all about.

There is no hierarchical relationship between museum educators and their audiences as there is between pupils and teachers. We tend to put ourselves on an absolutely equal footing based on a more hand-in-hand exploration between the museum educator and young person or learning audience (rather than based on a hierarchy and expectation).

Can you tell us about a special occasion or activity that is significant for both of you:) ?

Matt: I remember a time when we were doing a really exciting project for a group of schoolchildren with autism in London. We had devised an education process where the whole school had an opportunity to contribute to design processes by making a model which represented their idea of a special or safe space. The idea brief for the project was to create a recognisable space in a new school they were moving to. The ideas of recognisability and safety were really critical to the brief. During the process, design development and scaling it up into something built, we had moments of doubt due to the challenges some of the young builders were facing, and reflected on whether the process, the construction process and the methods we were using really fulfilled the role of staying true to the initial ideas, and whether we genuinely understood the thing to be created in a way that kept it special for them.

I remember the first day, when everything was completed alongside the young people and we brought back the co-participants, the custodians who owned the designs from the very beginning to the end. They entered the new space having seen it completed collectively by a large number of people and saw it with their own eyes — it was absolutely clear that the ideas they had planted many months beforehand had been realised and were there in their true form. That gave us faith in the process and bore witness to the fact that the process of giving ownership is, from beginning to end, a critical part of the learning and understanding space. And I guess that this was a moment of reflection where I think we realised, perhaps for the first time, that the process was true and genuine.

What kind of impact have MATT+FIONA had on children/young people? Have the children liked it and has it been beneficial?

Matt: I always register the smiles at the end of the project. Without exception, we never completed a build without tears of happiness and laughter, all our projects have ended in this way. To me, this clearly reflects the social and emotional power of the projects, which I think is their principal driver. We are not trying to train little architects and engineers, it is about teaching young people to work collaboratively and thereby enable them to see that they can have a say and change their built environment if they want to, or can be empowered to talk about it in a way that enables them to change their built environment in the future.

Many thanks for the fantastic presentation — it was so inspiring! My question: why would an architect get involved in working with young people and education? Why did you choose this professional path?

I’m not sure if I chose it, or if I just stumbled into it. It partly happened by accident. Firstly, I think that not all architects are cut out to do what we do. We happen to be privileged enough to work with a lot of architects and architectural students. Architecture is sort of social mediator: you are there to make the world a better place, it is and should be a caring profession that takes account of the people it is designing for. And it should be engaging — I think the best architecture emerges from any form of collaboration with the people who are going to use the buildings you are designing. I think there is a natural transition that enables socially minded architects to venture into that area.

I guess that I, in particular, have always been interested in teaching or working with others. I’m increasingly interested in sharing knowledge rather than just sort of using my architectural skills to create spaces. I’ve been teaching ever since I graduated. This means that I’ve always been involved in architecture education. I wouldn’t necessarily be doing what I’m doing now if our paths hadn’t crossed and without Fiona’s desire to find young people, reach out to them and talk to them about their built environment.

Thank you for presenting such inspiring projects! How do you deal with cases where some of the children’s ideas or designs can’t be carried out due to shortage of time, financial restrictions or urban policies? How do you find solutions to such cases?

Matt: I think the answer is to be very clear about the constraints at the outset and to treat the young people we are working with as if they were mature, adult commissioners of the work. We collaborate with cultural institutions, museums, galleries, the kinds of philanthropic institutions that initiate the projects. We are very clear from the beginning that we speak to young people and say to them, okay, you’ve got a project which this collaborator wants to do. It might be a classroom, a space for learning, or a space for gathering, and there is this much money, and these are the constraints. Then we empower them with the right skills and tools in their workshops, to respond to that design with imagination. They do so not with fantasy and make-believe responses, but are extremely imaginative and pragmatic, and work within the ‘realms’ in question. It’s about being absolutely transparent with young people and empowering them to take responsibility regarding the known facts and information about how the project can be delivered and realised.

Do you have any comments for all seminar participants and those interested in architecture and design education?

Fiona: Thank you to everyone who tuned into the seminar. I can’t say how much it means during a lockdown to realise that there is a whole network of people in the world with similar values, and who are trying to make similar things happen. There is this whole network, not necessarily a huge network but one with a wide global reach, of people who are doing extremely fascinating work in giving the next generation a voice. Each country is quite different, but there are also many similarities between their overreaching aims and values. And it is incredibly heartening to know that this is happening.

Matt: It is a privilege to be invited increasingly often to speak and share our experiences with wider and wider audiences. This is ultimately a huge motivator for us and it is hopefully true to the process of sharing, in which we are fundamentally interested. You teach the people you teach because you understand the direct and indirect impact it has on them. Everyone remembers that cathartic moment when a teacher said something that brought about a step change in their life. This doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen with every teacher and I think that is why we teach.

The seminar was part of the  Architecture and Design Day 2021  programme and was held on Zoom in English.