Should We Model Our Schools After Shangri La Studio?
I began to think about Shangri-La studio this morning after listening to the Broken Record podcast, I’m often taken back in daydreams to this serene landscape that artists and creatives flock to. Rick Rubin’s studio, that has housed musicians such as Adele, Ed Sheeran, Eminem, Kanye and many more, has a dirty little secret to inspiring artists from around the world: minimalism.
After seeing the Shangri-La studio tour, given to us by Zane Lowe of BBC Radio 1, I have to wonder if the key to creativity is an absence of design. Should schools be modeled after Shangri La?In being away from my classroom this year and busy with virtual learning, I have to wonder how creativity is cultivated, away from the crutches we depend on to facilitate it.
Before I answer this question, it is important to see what makes Shangri-La studio so special and find the answers in its aesthetic that’s made it such a sacred space for so many artists. I noticed in Zane Lowe’s video tour with BBC Radio 1 that wall decor is nonexistent, natural light is a staple and glimpses of comfort inhabit the homey studio. Nestled in the foothills of Malibu California, Shangri-La is known for its oasis-like decor housing artists looking for a new purpose in their sound.
I wonder if Rubin has found the secret in manufacturing creativity. In personal interviews about his recording studio, Rubin often reflects on the musicians that have inhabited the space for as long as their recording allowed and the successful albums that were created there. But, what Rubin doesn’t reveal is the way Shangri-La mirrors a “blank slate” to encourage artists to create record breaking albums.
I’ve often wondered about the pull for minimalism decor. I love quirky art, patterned rugs, crazy colored furniture. I never miss a beat to go to the nearest thrift shop and find more unique pieces. I’ve always seen minimalist houses as untouched and sacred, I used to wonder where the personality went. The tour shows more than an idealized recording studio, it inspires what can exist beyond walls, away from outside influences and noise. Maybe he’s onto something. I reflect on my own classroom and the missed opportunities for inspiring spaces,
Public schools do not follow this aesthetic. Teachers are encouraged to decorate their rooms with posters, subject-themed pictures and positive mantras all over the walls to make students feel safe, seen, valued and welcome. The clutter is encouraged, accepted and championed across the board. Old furniture lives in most 2021 public school classrooms, which often takes up more space than it is used. I have to wonder if this standard-model of classroom clutter is killing student’s passion to be lifelong learners alongside a curriculum that furthers this agenda. Maybe students never had a chance to create in the first place.
In comparing my classroom and others to Shangri-La studio, I have to wonder if the elements in the Malibu recording powerhouse were adapted to modern-day public school classrooms how student mindsets towards learning would shift. Would students enjoy school more? Would creativity be the cornerstone of learning? Would students want to stay in the classroom longer?
Following Zane Lowe’s tour of Shangri La, he enters through the kitchen area. Lowe describes the room as ‘ simplistic’, and honestly, without knowing it is Rubin’s kitchen, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from others. Neutral colors pronounce the space, with food laid out for the next artist’s arrival. Plain furniture with no semblance of colorful decor, barren walls and no defining characteristics.
The absence of personality and busy decor may make most of us feel vulnerable if we’re used to a cluttered space, but it is clear from Lowe, that there is something sort of magical about the way Rick Rubin has manufactured his studio, even something as simple as letting in natural light to his kitchen.
Classrooms are often surrounded by artificial lights. The kind you see in department stores. Amidst the artificial lights you’ll see walls covered in posters from top to bottom. Desks lined up in formation for students to sit in seven hours a day. I have to wonder if classrooms had no defining characteristics and natural light was implemented if it would actually encourage more creativity. Sunlight exposure promotes improved mood and productivity, it sounds like a no-brainer.
Next, Lowe introduces us to the recreational area, featuring a basic layout with only a grand piano and pool ball table. The next room has a couple of couches, and what looks like the largest beanbag chair in the world. Comfort compliments this “pretty minimal” aesthetic. In the main control room, the legendary couch sits where Lowe points to to name famous artists that have all taken pictures sitting on it. The window looks out to the dreamlike Malibu hills landscape. A few things I notice here. Natural light still filters each room, and the furniture carefully placed has a functional or comfortable purpose. It’s truly inviting.
Most public school classrooms do not have the resources to create flexible seating, let-alone purchase the largest beanbag chair in the world. Several studies have shown the benefit in including flexible seating for students with a range of learning abilities and attention spans. CJ Reynolds, a Youtuber and veteran teacher in West Philadelphia has pronounced the importance of flexible seating, especially for the students who can’t sit for 7, 80-minute class periods. He’s created his own classroom aesthetic on his own budget to make his classroom comfortable for his students. I wonder if flexible and comfortable seating would provide an equitable learning environment for every learner to feel safe and comfortable. I wonder how teachers can create inviting spaces for students.
Another reflection I had in observing Rubin’s studio, the artificial lights and absence of windows doesn’t scream, INSPIRE, like my posters do. Most public school classrooms are products of their county budget, their state budget, and lack the update they so desperately need. My classroom resembles a cave, with one window you can’t open or see out of, a metaphor I’ve seen all too often in the public school classrooms: clouded potential, little freedom and absolutely no opportunity to create anything beyond the classroom walls and curriculum taught there. Would natural light and more windows inspire more students? Would outside classes do the trick? Many of my creative ideas have come from spending time outside and having access to a window where I can observe it. Most students do not have this luxury.
Next on the tour, we’re taken to a room where Lowe tells us, “all the magic happens.” The main studio room hasn’t been changed since the studio’s existence. A variety of guitars line the side of the studio, while small, tribal rugs, sprinkle the spaces underneath studio screens and a drum set. Instruments lined up with other instruments. The walls remain bare and neutral. Rubin reminds us that tools are all you need to make an idea a reality. Lowe then takes us outside to an incredible skyline overlooking Malibu Beach, next to the ocean and the greenest grass you’ll ever see in California. Bob Dylan’s tour bus lines the backyard, and rather than an “old artifact”, Lowe takes us inside to show us its functionality, with a soundboard and seating lining yet, another recording space. Everything in Shangri-La has a function.
I like the mindset: everything has a function. This can be something we take away from this tour and incorporate in our own classrooms. In a room that students are forced to sit in for 7-hours a day, it is no secret that bulky, dusty furniture that serves no purpose, takes up space in our classrooms and in student’s unused potential. As seen in the studio tour, every piece of furniture and instrument has a purpose. I wonder if classrooms were equipped with less furniture and more tools for students to experiment with how the pressure to perform well on standardized tests would decrease. Would functionality improve learning and test scores in taking the control off of admin. and teachers and put learning in the student’s hands? I’d argue it would do both.
Basing my observations off of Rubin’s successes and studio tour, minimalism seems to be the key to creativity and it is something that schools should model their shells off of. While the funding to completely recreate a minimalist aesthetic from scratch isn’t plausible, the choices Rubin has made to inspire artists at Shangri La can be borrowed and modeled to fit educational spaces.
In an ideal world, schools wouldn’t look and function like caves and prisons, they’d provide a welcoming landscape for students excited to learn. Unfortunately this isn’t a reality for most schools across the country, and most students have determined that they hate school before they even reach 8th grade. If the mindset in fostering creativity is shifted to grant students more freedom and access in spaces we create, we can finally allow students to grow. Like flowers, overwatering can kill the flower just as much as under-watering it. It is a delicate balance Rubin has nailed in creating a space where artists find success away from controlled influence from him and the world outside Shangri La. Schools and educators should model something similar if we’re looking to encourage students to create original ideas, foster higher-level thinking and pull students away from the pressures of testing. Without this shift, students will never view school as somewhere they actually want to be, and will continue to feel limited like the walls around our classrooms.
Amidst a strict, standard-bound and limited curriculum, maybe we start with opening the door for students and giving them permission to explore and create beyond the window that won’t open. Maybe we create spaces ourselves where children actually want to learn.
Shangri La Studio Tour: