Immersion into a new world by Professor Rachel Armstrong


Professor Rachel Armstrong is considered one of the UK’s top innovators. Known as a pioneer in the field of architectural design for her approach to sustainable building, “living architecture”, on which she delivered a TED talk, Rachel is a passionate advocate for the importance of arts education on innovation.



We’re living in a digital age where a new kind of knowledge is being put together. Being able to think across disciplines is more in demand. In our connected, international society we need to step outside classical forms of thought, stand in other people’s shoes, and see the world through their eyes. And this is where the arts come in.


Through the imagination, art allows us to transcend an immediate reality. It creates an exploratory forum where we can be curious about our world in all kinds of ways, from our material explorations to the way that we think. Arts education empowers children to challenge ways of seeing and thinking as told to them by convention and is a place in which a synthetic kind of thinking can be developed.


Through the arts, children can experience physical relationships to stories and scenarios, making them more real and tangible. Being able to take on different characters, to be King of the castle or the architect of a fantasy building, to create something out of bits and pieces that the teacher provided, means that your experimental, evaluative and innovative process takes on a new meaning, because you can test it and explore it.


I call this ‘immersion into a new world’. Having an embodied relationship with experimental spaces, whether in a play or dance, is like stepping into a new reality. It’s not just a virtual reality, it’s not just an illusion, it’s a physical space. You can interrogate it in ways that you can’t do when you’re at a distance. And that’s really valuable because you bring that exploration back into your next set of propositions, whether they are purely about the imaginary or whether they’re new designs or engineering propositions. To be a successful innovator you have to have both the imaginary components and the ability to be immersed in the experience so that you can really engage in the process of discovery.


I came from a very strong scientific background, and whilst it’s important for us to understand subjects like mathematics, science and geography from a specialist’s point of view, it’s also equally important to keep the connectivity between subjects. In primary school, I had the opportunity to play with materials and ideas, to tell stories and work with other children, to creatively collaborate to produce artwork. Art was a free space. Being able to stand in the arts allowed me to make connections with my scientific knowledge and innovate in new and interesting ways.


We need to nurture creativity from an early age to keep this explorative manner alive, and to keep a space where rules can be broken. Creativity evolves through being given limits and challenges and asking questions. It’s crucial to start young, because then it’s not about unpicking the way children think but encouraging them to form new connections that then help them construct ways of thinking in the future. Over formalising things can constrain minds in such a way that they give up trying. That desire for discovery has got to be there throughout your life. Otherwise, you stop dreaming.


Rachel Armstrong completed her PhD in Chemistry & Architecture at UCL, and is currently Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University. She was a member of the RESCUE


“Collaboration between the natural, social and human sciences in global change research” Working Group, an interdisciplinary body of European experts making recommendations to the EU regarding research into climate change, and part of the TARPOL report “Targeting environmental pollution with engineered microbial systems á la carte”, for the European Commission. Rachel was nominated as one of the most inspiring top nine women by Chick Chip magazine, and in 2011, was named as one of the top ten UK innovators by Director Magazine.


rachel armstrong

Rachel Armstrong

27 Jan 2015

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