The School of Life was started in London in 2008 by Alain de Botton, best known for his books including The Architecture of Happiness and Religion for Atheists, who felt that education could be better packaged to address people’s modern everyday concerns.
“Alain was interested in exploring the Australian market,” says Mele-Ane Havea of Small Giants, a social enterprise and investment firm which provided the funding for The School of Life Melbourne. “We were really inspired and fascinated by the philosophy of the school – in furtherance of meaningful living [and] it’s aligned with our philosophy at Small Giants.”
The classes, ranging from how to be creative to how to balance work and life, tackle these everyday but somewhat abstract challenges by drawing on a plethora of cultural references from film, literature, philosophy and general society. “The whole point of the school is to occupy the space that has been left by religion. All the guidance on everyday life and how best to live it used to come from organised religion, but we’ve got all these other sources as well,” says Sara Tiefenbrun, project director of The School of Life. “It’s helping to identify what your ideas are for yourself and gives you a little bit of context.”
Designed and built by the volunteer network at CoDesign, the entire space consists of a workshop, bookshop, outdoor space and café and was realised on a miniscule budget that would hardly cover a pallet’s worth of Alain de Botton’s books.
“The main brick wall with the burnt effect, which looks beautiful, is actually the result of a spot fire that happened before Small Giants acquired the space,” says Nikhila Madabhushi, project leader at CoDesign. The timber shelves in the bookshop were salvaged from a tip. The milk crate wall in the courtyard concealing the portaloos were a surplus from local café Streat, also funded by Small Giants, and has been turned into an eye-catching and much talked about feature.
“CoDesign is very concerned with localising the project as much as possible,” explains Nikhila. Fashion label The Social Studio provided the drapes and local artists created a mural of Collingwood in the form of a map made from junk found in the area.
So far, the School of Life has been a sell-out success, with many of the classes full to the brim and long waiting lists. “It has been a fabulous collaboration and we have brought an Australian flavour to the School of Life concept,” says Mele-Ane. Small Giants are currently exploring partnerships for a permanent School.