The Harry Potter library at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm – Sweden’s leading biomedical teaching and research institution – is not, as you might perhaps have imagined, a facility in the paediatrics department to distract young patients with the complete works of J K Rowling. It is, in fact, an informal student learning space, kitted-out with faux bookcase wallpaper concealing a secret door, a cuckoo clock, and other Hogwarts paraphernalia.
Downstairs, another learning space resembles a billiard room, with a large rectangular table and billiards-style lighting over it. Next to it is the “New York nightclub”, dimly lit except for pools of light over small round tables. Leave that and you’re in a bright park, with wall and floor coverings in shades of green and park benches to sit on. Around the corner you find a street scene (“Should we have some graffiti?”) with chairs grouped around pavement café-style tables, with background traffic noise.
“What do you think?”, asked my hosts. “It’s completely mad!” I replied. “Exactly!”, they cried delightedly. (None of this cost very much, by the way: the main construction material is painted plywood, glued together with lots of imagination.)
This is about memorability: creating spaces that stay in people’s minds, and which students will want to return to work in. It is by no means a new idea in university design: some of the leading British architects of the day had similar aims in mind in planning the new universities of the 1960s – Basil Spence at Sussex, Andrew Derbyshire at York, William Holford at Kent, for example. The Karolinska also aims for a degree of privacy, coziness even, in its learning spaces – the dim, enclosed “nightclub” for instance, and elsewhere the use of light curtains that can be pulled around tables to create a sense of separateness. Small, semi-private spaces were also favoured by the 1960s architects: Spence at Sussex, for example, said that he wanted to create spaces where students would feel that “this was their little world”. But the Karolinska informal learning spaces show a degree of playfulness not usually found in university designs.
The Karolinska gives a high priority to collaborative student learning: it wants visitors to its two campuses to see students actually working in small groups – and you do. It considers this as part of its branding: saying something about the kind of place it is, what it considers to be important. (This is university branding in a real sense, not tinkering with the logo.) The main library building has a long row of small breakout rooms, each with a table and chairs for half-a-dozen people, with the walls that aren’t glass covered entirely with whiteboards. Students grab these rooms on a first come, first served, basis. I interrupted a group of three students, studying a wall-full of biochemical notations. When had they decided to work together? I asked. “On the bus to the University this morning,” I was told. They were working on a class assignment: how’s it going? I asked. “Three heads are better than one,” was the reply.
As I was leaving, an untenanted round table with a handful of chairs was pointed out to me. It was placed on one side of a bright, airy atrium – pleasant enough, but with no privacy or sense of being anywhere much. This was not, I was given to understand, what student learning spaces at the Karolinska were supposed to be like. Later, I realised that I wasn’t sure if my hosts had simply not got around to re-designing this space, or were keeping it as an awful warning. Either way, I thought, if it had been here in the IOE, students would have been fighting over it.