Creating Great Infrastructure to Enable Great People

November 24th, 2016

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Creating a world-class institution that inspires the next Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai and the African Bill Gates – enabling our mission of developing the next generation of African leaders. 


“Brutalism” was coined in the 1950s, describing a serious, imposing and monumental architectural style characterised by the use of roughly finished concrete formed and to the cynics, little imagination. Government buildings, hospitals, universities and schools built in this style convey deadly seriousness, with the interiors dull and secret-bunkerish (think cold strip lighting in maze-like rooms). It’s the stuff of nightmares. While there will always be concrete monolith devotees, luckily styles change.  Many institutional buildings now have natural light, plenty of glass, interconnected spaces, outdoor areas and stylish social hubs. And innovations abound: old school buses transformed into libraries and geography classes housed in tree houses in school yards. Which young child wouldn’t want to read more books if they can be picked from a funky, retro bus, and which scholar wouldn’t want to find out about intricate ecosystems and earth’s rotation while ensconced in an environment that brings the concepts ‘home’ to them?

Just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa, wedged between the Cradle of Humankind and one of Africa’s largest economic hubs, Sandton, a new architectural gem, reflecting more enlightened construction trends, is being built. What was once a printing factory will soon be the chief educational hub and campus buzz point for some of Africa’s brightest youth and even future presidents. Eager, inspired and excited students need spaces to propose and execute ideas for social and economic change in Africa. Design also needs to support experiential learning, leadership, staff’s professional development, innovation and lifelong learning. “We can’t underestimate architecture’s role in this,” says Unathi Ntuli, Project Manager for the the Pardee Learning Commons construction. Ultimately the hub will be an example of how a space facilitates optimum learning and collaboration.

Nelson Mandela Residence

All 4000 square metres of the Pardee Learning Commons is part of the African Leadership Academy’s ambitious Campus Master Plan – a 20-year vision of developing the entire nine hectare piece of land. The first phase of the Campus Master Plan has been completed, with the building of the Nelson Mandela Residence.  This accommodates students and faculty members.  It consists of student dormitories, faculty family homes, faculty apartments, shared lounges, basic medical facilities and beautiful courtyards.”We’ve doubled the number of people residing on campus and are proud of the strong community spirit here,” says Ntuli. Graca Machel officiated the opening of the Residence in June 2015.

What makes the Pardee Learning Commons construction, and indeed the Campus Master Plan, unique, is how everyone at ALA got a say in its design. “While we are inspired and influenced by contemporary building design, we wanted a campus that had our special mark on it,” says Ntuli.

Students, staff and the board of trustees came up with seven design principles. The first is honouring the needs of individuals in specialised environments. It’s easier to motivate a person to learn, engage and contribute when the environment is designed for it. Stuffy, dull classrooms with exam-like desk set-ups isn’t going to cut it. It’s all about user experience. The second is reinforcing the Academy’s values in the physical environment: cooperation, nurturing individualism and ensuring that fresh, entrepreneurial ideas are borne.

Showcasing the magnitude of the Academy’s mission and impact is the third principle. The institution wants to produce the next Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai and a homegrown Bill Gates. It may seem far-fetched to suggest a building can produce the planet’s most revered leaders, but a progressive school in China has developed a student body capable of advanced critical and social skills based on the layout of its classrooms: light, elegant finishings, sufficient airflow, u-shaped desk set-ups and plenty of techno spots to excite learners.

Fourth, the campus must “unlock moments of perspective through solitude.” While teamwork is crucial to resolving the world’s enormous problems, so individual reflection and a ‘turning inwards’. Meditative places are not lacking on the campus. Lush scenery abounds away from the hustle and bustle of the big city a stone’s throw away. The fifth design principle is letting students take ownership and responsibility for designated spaces. Gone are the days of teacher-led classrooms and other top-down educational approaches. Rather, students are respected and trusted to take personal responsibility for their education. (Of course it’s easier when the environment excites them.)

Fostering open dialogue and reciprocal learning is the sixth design principle.  Not only is team-work important, but also peer-to-peer learning: research demonstrates that the best way to learn is to teach. Students are therefore coaches and mentors to each other.  The Learning Commons opens to a central meeting place and this quad-like area is meant for both play and work.

The seventh is accelerating experiential learning outside the classroom, spurring on innovation. This could be something simple, like starting the day outside (the institution’s grounds are perfect for this). A school in Canada used their grounds for ‘storytelling improvisation’ to teach students about voice, pace and creative improvisation. The task was simple: select an object and create a short story about it.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology sees experiential learning outside its doors as critical to holistic education. Students, following the ‘learning as doing’ philosophy go on field trips, take internships and volunteer in local communities. This, MIT asserts “cultivates relational and collaborative abilities necessary for effective leadership.”

Thuli Nkosi, creator of the Campus Design Journal, aimed to provide African Leadership Academy’s global community with construction updates and a broader understanding of the 20-year Campus Master Plan. As many know, the building process can be frustrating, with delays and unforeseen challenges. Nkosi wants to manage expectations while remaining excited about the Academy’s building ambitions to host as many of the continent’s extraordinary minds as possible. Pictures, a timeline and project descriptions can all be found in the Campus Design Journal.

The Pardee Learning Commons should be completed mid-2017.

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