This Cool School Builds the 'Anti-Classroom' for the Arts

Ed Calma shares more about his latest project, the new visual and performing arts building at the British School Manila.

Architect Ed Calma doesn’t believe in classrooms.

“I don't think art can be learned in a classroom,” he says. “It's [arts education is] always through reading things: reading the environment, reading your travels, reading books.”

Ed Calma at the new visual and performing arts building at BSM

Ironically, he shares this as we walk through one of his latest projects: the new visual and performing arts building at the British School Manila. Set to open in June, the structure is fashioned to be an antithesis to the rigidity of traditional arts education, where theory and practice are normally confined within four unmoving walls.

“This building hopefully changes that perception,” Calma continues. “It's not so conventionally designed like a school building.”


It is a massive understatement on his part. The exterior alone has a dynamism that sets it apart from the other structures surrounding it. The front gate is a collection of seemingly random white hatch-lines creating a porous border in front of the building’s glass-framed atrium. Above, on the classroom levels, steel louvers bend around corners and cut across windows, forming a musical graph that adds a sense of rhythm to the façade.

Inside, lines collide in dramatic fashion, with angles neatly intersecting along an invisible perspective grid that transforms as you walk through the building. At the center, the triangular atrium gives you a full view of each floor’s main halls, lit up brilliantly by the skylight above. There is a wealth of wide-open spaces, both inside the classrooms and out. Lighting fixtures on the ceiling follow no clear pattern in how they’re laid out; the deliberate randomness being its own texture.

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There is a distinct sense of motion to the structure, allowing it to bustle with life even when empty. Calma hopes that this energy encourages both students and teachers to explore beyond the classroom.

“A typical classroom design, they don't really think about it as a performance space. But that's not what art is about,” he says. “We wanted to redefine an art building. A classroom, a building designed for art, where you have all these exhibition spaces everywhere.”


“All these spaces, the common spaces here—corridor, the outdoor theater—[they’re] an extension of the classroom, where students can collaborate and talk about ideas. It's not just confined in the classroom; the building becomes a collaborative space for different media, different disciplines.”

Calma’s previous work on the College of St. Benilde is a testament to the power of this philosophy. His design was initially criticized for its large amount of open spaces. The sentiment was quickly shut down, however, as the students gravitated towards them. While some take advantage of the spaces to mock up installations or hold small fashion shows, others enjoy the occasional lecture facilitated by professors looking to shake things up.

The visual and performing arts building in British School Manila has sizeable pockets of space on each floor, where musicians, dancers, and actors can practice in public settings. Several walls are designed to be exhibition spaces for the painters and illustrators. The interiors are painted in a semi-glossy flat white, and are intended to feel like a canvas for the students’ works. Classrooms are designed with a sense of openness in mind. The building’s black box theater is a fully modular performance space, where seating rows can be neatly tucked away to the wall.


All this, along with the visual motion created by the building’s architectural lines, is Calma’s answer to a problem he believes is inherent to traditional modes of arts education.

“I always had this thing about education. It's so rigid,” he explains. “Everyone should look at things and question things, and not just accept any kind of order. We should be more open and look at things as you see it. Nobody should enforce any kind of system on you. Just be more free with how you want to express things. [We need] open-minded teachers who will guide the students on their own, instead of applying what's established or what art should be.”

“In fact, maybe we don't need classrooms anymore,” he adds, laughing.

There is a measure truth to his joke, however. Perhaps classrooms as they currently are cannot ably service the more explorative side to arts education. Perhaps the rigidity of clean, square walls and tight corridors should be traded away in favor of a building where the ideas and actions of art students are free to color the building inside and out.

Perhaps what arts students need is more space to create.

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