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Are We Teaching Spatial Agency? The subliminal message of flexible furniture

February 10, 2015, 2:45 pm

Does space matter? Does the selection and arrangement of furniture and technology impact behavior? I think so. The tools around us impact what we can build. So if we follow this line of thought: can we design spaces that enable students to be more creative, more collaborative, or more innovative? Can we offer environments that encourage concentration, curiosity, or confidence?

I’ve been chasing these questions for the past ten years. It started at Georgia Tech where we experimented with atmospheric elements like sound, shape, and lighting. We could quickly recalibrate a room and completely change its mood and functionality. This is where I began thinking about the psychology of place.

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Georgia Tech Library, courtesy of Dottie Hunt

My thoughts were recently augmented by Frank Shushok, Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech. We often talk about unlocking human potential and how space impacts community. Last week I spoke with his graduate class (The College Student & the College Environment) about what we are building here in the library. I shared some of our goals and intentions and then we toured and observed the space in action. Afterwards we talked about what we saw and an idea emerged: are we teaching spatial agency?

Like many libraries our commons areas feature lots of flexible furniture. Tables, chairs, soft seating, whiteboards, partitions—all on wheels and meant to be moved around. Our staff often tests different arrangements and likewise, our students do too.

I view this as enabling students to shape the environment for the task at hand. The ideal space for brainstorming is different than one for composition or rehearsal. I’m interested in giving people the ability to try different configurations for various types of conversations, postures, tools, tasks, and emotional states.

The graduate students in Frank’s class pushed this even further. They suggested that the furniture might be teaching students a subliminal lesson. Beyond just changing the landscape of the library, students are changing the world around them. The library provides an opportunity to practice change-making and to develop a sense of agency that is transferable to other parts of one’s life. The message I walked away with: students are learning that they don’t have to accept situations as fixed, that they can edit the things around them.

This discussion had a profound effect on me. A week later it is still lingering in my imagination. It pushed me from how can I help people work better to how can I empower people to think more critically and to be active shapers of their universe. Thanks Frank.

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