My path to become a learning designer

Published on
Sep 29, 2023
mins read

My beloved school, the Faculty of Architecture Chulalongkorn University, has just turned 90 years old this month. The school is famous for fostering creative minds for Thai society and has been since I was young. Many famous alumni have made Thai’s creative industries flourish. Getting a seat at the school was competitive but I managed to get in. I hoped one day, I would be come a creative person and also an architect.

Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University

During my years at the school, most of my friends who were keen on design had dreamed of becoming a great architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, or Sir Norman Foster, to name a few. Never had I imagined myself becoming one even I really did enjoy every architectural projects I was assigned to work on. I just wanted to design something that helped people.

I took almost every extra-curricular activity at the school, such as acting in the drama club, writing for academic exhibitions, and working at architectural student club for social betterment. In the latter, we went to rural areas every school break (twice a year), built something for the village, such as classrooms, health clinics, and village centers. I was head of masonry in the second year, and later, I was head of public communication. My duty was to persuade new students to be our workforce by disseminating media, holding events and exhibitions, and producing newsletters.

At the camp, while constructing buildings, we also built relationships with village people and children by hosting activities such as cooking, coloring in, and storytelling with children. I loved what we did so much because it contributes to human well-being.

In our 5th year, everyone would work on a big final project. We used everything we had learned since first year to create our own architectural design project. We had to choose the building type, the site and location, and other aspects of design problems we wanted to solve to make the project strong and compelling.

The building type I was most interested in was cultural and religious architecture, traditional Thai Buddhism architecture in particular. I wanted to explore how to incorporate the Thai-Buddhist philosophy and Thai traditional elements of architecture into modern-day architecture, and also how space can contribute to people’s states of mind — calmness, concentration, knowledge, wisdom — and eventually lead to enlightenment. I was working on a mini-design project in the previous semester in the design studio sessions and developed a strong foundation and design concept in the subject. I was ready to carry them on for my own final senior project in the last semester.

Things, however, didn’t go as planned. When we selected our advisors, the school would have us pick three professors to be our final project advisors. One of my favorite advisors was an expert in the field called “Phenomenology in Architecture”, which focuses on human experience, reflection, and emotional sides of architecture, and she is also an expert in space for children.

When we first proposed our topics, another classmate of mine who was in the same group of advisors as me also wanted to work on Buddhist architecture. All advisors agreed two advisees in their group could not work on the same topic. As we could not change advisors, a solution was someone has to change the project topic which none of us wanted to do. My favorite advisor said “Maybe you should use “rock, scissors, and paper” and whoever wins gets to do the topic she wants while the other has to pick a new one.” So we took her advice. The result was, I won.

Well, even then I didn’t get to do the topic. The classmate begged me to let her do the Buddhist architecture topic, saying she would never ever design anything in her life after graduation because she was 100% sure she was not going to be an architect and this would be her only chance to design it. Empathizing with her, I decided to give the topic to her and I was positive I would find a new one that I would be passionate about.

    Reflecting back on my experience and what I love to do, I applied the     same questions of how space and architecture can contribute to human     experiences, to another context — learning.

I was also interested in architecture for children, so this also fitted another field of my interests — designing space for learning. To make this more concrete, I did some research and read some learning theories, pedagogy, and educational psychology. It was fascinating to learn how people learn and how to design learning. At last, I had found my new passion.

The site for my project (it had to be a real site), was in Chiang Rai province as there was a local policy on expanding educational facilities up north. My site was on a hill-side around a 1-hour drive from the Chiang Rai urban area. The context added more complexity to the project because I had to take into consideration the local aspects — such as northern Thai architecture, climate, natural slope, and water resources of the mountain. So there were many factors and constraints to consider in design, but this is what makes designing exciting.

My “Chiang Rai International School” project was successful, in terms of the design, grade, and praise from committees and peers. I was very proud of it. However, designing space, in my opinion, is a small part of how to contribute to human development. What matter more, especially in the developing country like Thailand at that time, is how we cultivate learner’s mindset, promote literacy, and empower teachers and students. Working on the project tremendously expanded my mind.

I discovered my interests in education and human development. It gradually steered me toward the other path— which later bore fruits in many of my social projects, my enrollment in the School of Education at Stanford University and other projects afterward, as well as my professional career.

Even though I acquired a professional license and worked as one for about 2 years and had taught architecture, I don't consider myself an architect but

   I am a learning designer–designing to improve human learning.