On the train this morning heading to the airport and i’m struck by the variety of architecture around me in the industrial district: glass, steel and stone arranged into a wide variety of imaginative and often playful designs. They’re not quite skyscrapers, the Dutch don’t really go for that, but they’re substantial twenty floor tower blocks, vying for attention in a sea of one-upmanship.
There’s the one that starts on the ground floor as glass, but morphs to stone near the top, the one that splays outwards as it gets higher and the one that, against all expectations, seems to be built in the shape of a speeding train. Externally, each is different, each telling a different story, but all governed by the same laws of physics, all relying on an internal structure that gives them integrity.
With modern buildings, you can often see the skeleton peeking through: areas where, as the sun passes behind the building, you can view in silhouette the latticework of pillars, girders and braces that sit behind the glass. In parts, they’re made into a feature: the tower with a bite taken out near the top where the glass is missing and just the bones protrude. Some cantilever out in seemingly impossible feats of balance, but all held to account by the same gravity and stresses that govern us all.
I like the idea that you can play beyond the structure: that you use solid engineering to create the skeleton that plays by the rules, but that you can flesh it out with greater creativity. We have to ensure that the heart of any learning solution is solid, that it has integrity, that it conforms to the engineering that is tried and tested, but that we can play with the muscle and skin around it. We can be creative, but within structures that give validity, rigidity.
Structure is not the enemy of creativity, it ensures coherence and completeness. Structure lets us design learning within a rigorous methodology, but with enough freedom to use an engaging tone of voice and style. The problem comes if we focus on the creative at the cost of structure, if we start by thinking what looks nice rather than thinking what works. Organisational learning is almost always objective driven: we are looking for changes in skills, behaviours, attitudes, measurable return on investment. We need structure to the learning to achieve this, but we need creativity to make it engaging. It’s a balancing act. Too little and your building is safe but boring, too much and it will fall over. Get it just right and it appears effortlessly good.