In November we blogged about the Workshop on Learning Spaces in Transition and talked about how Croatian architecture and design students came up with new ideas about how to improve classrooms in schools in their home country. This story reflects on the workshop from two professors’ point of view.

On 12 December 2013, an exhibition on Learning Spaces in Transition was conducted in UNICEF NYHQ to showcase concepts and design solutions, developed by student participants in the hands-on workshop held earlier in Zagreb. Working along UNICEF expertise and led by faculty mentors, MA students of architecture and industrial design from the University of Zagreb, worked to improve learning environments and develop tools to solve site-specific problems in Croatia – a transitional and post-war country. Carlos Vasquez, Architect in UNICEF Education, moderated and introduced the presenters, Ivana Fabrio and Mia Roth-Cerina, who are professors from the School of Design and Faculty of Architecture, respectively. Ivana and Mia both acted as mentors during the workshop. They share their reflections and discoveries in this article.

Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Ivana and Mia video presentation from Croatia. Photo credit: Tin Cop
Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Ivana and Mia video presentation from Croatia. Photo credit: Tin Cop

ZAGREB – The workshop on Learning Spaces in Transition, held in Croatia on 24-27 October, was a collaboration between UNICEF NYHQ, the Faculty of Architecture and the School of Design in Zagreb. Carlos Vasquez (Education Section, UNICEF) supervised the workshop, while two professors from the Faculty of Architecture, Vanja Rister and Mia Roth-Cerina, and two professors from the School of Design, Ivana Fabrio and Zlatko Kapetanovic, led as mentors. A diverse group of students explored solutions to provide better learning environments in rural parts of Croatia, mostly affected by the recent war and subsequent depopulation.

The primary goal of the workshop was to identify spatial and strategic solutions, in order to, not only improve the learning environments, but also find ways to transform schools into a social space for the rural communities, and use them as vehicles to reinstitute a sense of local identity and cohesion. To do this, the workshop aimed to develop social tools that foster collaboration and lifelong education of communities.

Room 429, the venue for the workshop, became a nest of ideas and creative forces for the interdisciplinary student groups, who worked on finding innovative solutions for the five rural schools.

Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Workshop room (429). Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ
Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Workshop room (429). Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ

Research prior to the workshop included feedback from the School of Public Health and a research field trip, where we travelled to the Pozesko-Slavonska region in September 2013. The aim of the trip was to collect qualitative data on existing education systems and the way of life in the villages, namely Trestanovci, Tekic, Toranj, Trapari and Skenderovci. We conducted interviews with the school teachers, principals, and students (grades 1-4), observed children’s activities and lectures, documented their surroundings, and absorbed the atmosphere of local culture. The shortcomings of the five schools fell into three groups, and all of them were addressed in the projects: 1) substandard facilities and unhealthy spaces, 2) outdated or missing learning equipment, and 3) rapid decrease in the number of children, accompanied by very low community engagement toward activities in the school. Thus, the students were asked to form their proposals in these three levels and indicate the speed of action:

First, suggest the necessary improvements of infrastructure and building quality. Second, suggest new uses of space that adapted to the number of students and desire to provide a social space, as well as design new tools and methods to facilitate the improvement. Third, devise a long-term strategy, incorporating local traditions and crafts to bring the school and community together and provide a means of income.

Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Students working during the workshop. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ
Zagreb, Croatia, 2013. Students working during the workshop. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ

Aside from providing better learning conditions for students, we concluded as equally important was to bring a part of their lifestyle to the urban areas and children, particularly to provide healthier relationships and communication between the rural and urban children. This is why many project proposals suggested exchange programs between students from the area or even the whole of Croatia. Besides providing safe and healthy learning environments, the projects focused on improving the learning conditions and creating stronger visions on the benefits of education.

The presentation held in New York on 12 December communicated the findings of the research and the solutions of students through narratives and photographs that vividly illustrated the school environments. Ivana and Mia held the Skype lecture from the Faculty of Architecture, while Carlos moderated the event at the UNICEF House in New York. After the lecture, the audience asked questions on mediating solutions with the end-users, methods of cooperation with people involved in using some of the school facilities for other purposes, and the potential of proposed strategies using local know-how, which sparked a continued discussion.

New York, The US, 2013. Students' work presented at Unicef HQ. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ
New York, The US, 2013. Students’ work presented at Unicef HQ. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez, UNICEF Education, NYHQ

The workshop has been a great learning vehicle in many directions and levels, beginning with the institutions involved. Even though the Schools of Design and Architecture belong to the same Faculty for 25 years, this project was the first real interdisciplinary cooperation; therefore, the workshop also served as a platform for exchange within the University. Both Architecture and Design have gained the benefit to learn different methodologies, scales and approaches to problem-solving, which provided the added value that was certainly visible in the end result of each group. The lectures and guidelines presented by Carlos Vasquez, were inspiring to both students and mentors, enabling us to remember the most important issues in dealing with social and educational challenges. When the workshop ended after three intense working days, we all walked away with a clear conclusion: that this would be the first workshop in a long-lasting collaboration between Carlos and the Croatian team. We look forward to our next meeting at room 429.

Written by Ivana Fabrio and Mia Roth-Cerina, University of Zagreb

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