deconstructing school architecture

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The Basic Concept

At the fundamental level, school architecture is as simple as it sounds. The basic assumption, of course, is that we need some kind of building to house students. We should not take that for granted because there are plenty of examples around the world where that is not the case, either out of choice or necessity. In addition, online learning is becoming more common, which has the potential to transform the way we understand the concept of school just as it has done with our concept of community. But for the time being, we can acknowledge that most formal education takes place in a building of some sort.

Functional Importance

School architecture has a strong functionalist element. First and foremost, we expect that the school building will be safe and secure. Beyond that, school buildings tend to be designed in a fairly utilitarian manner to serve the taken for granted assumptions about how life in the school should be structured and about what conditions are necessary for the assumed modes of learning.

Most schools are pretty much just that. Functional structures. Rectangles inside of rectangles with more or less windows, more or fewer floors, concrete or cinder block or corrugated iron--the basic idea is generally the same. They contain students and not much more.

Unintended Consequences

Students spend a heck lot of a lot of time in their schools. After the home, it's probably the most significant physical structure in most students' lives. Through this daily immersion students develop some basic assumptions and expectations about their relationship to the physical world of buildings and the natural world beyond them. They also learn patterns of interacting with those buildings.

The archetypal "developed world" school is location agnostic, most could be transposed from one community to the next without anyone blinking an eye. The interiors of the schools are similarly devoid of personality, immediately recognizable with their long hallways, their bulletin boards (the sanctioned creative space) and their orderly rows of doors and windows and lockers.

Far from being "neutral", these schools condition students (and teachers) in their own insidious ways. They provide a physical scaffold which shapes the way we think and act, both individually and together, and contributes to the shaping of our social relations. Even before we get to the subject of decor, school buildings have a political voice, they have a sociological voice, they have their own values--codified in their mortar.

Schools also have an environmental voice. Different buildings can position us in very different ways in relation to the physical environment. Unfortunately, most schools--at least in the North and the West--are very wasteful structures, designed to provide a comfortable environment without requiring a care in the world. In most schools, all of the mechanics are hidden away. Students may have some nominal awareness of the school having some mythical thing called a boiler room, or they may be inconvenienced by an occasional stopped toilet, or they my suffer some discomfort in a room that gets too hot in the summer. But despite these experiences, students rarely develop a sense of the school's consumption, the input of resources and output of waste, or the inner workings. And almost certainly they fail to develop any sense of their role in managing the school's resource inputs and outputs, or the other maintenance requires

Educative Applications

A school building should be understood as a kind of three dimensional textbook. Rather than just being the site where learning takes place, schools should also be understood as an important source of learning themselves. We should think deeply and critically about what assumptions and values are encoded in school buildings, an what impact these could have on the students who occupy them. Buildings can be designed to reflect a sense of progress and modernization, or a continuity with historical building traditions. They can fit in with the surrounding landscape and provide students with an awareness or the world around them, or they can isolate and insolate students from all of that. They can incorporate various cultural forms, including that of the invisible global monoculture. Schools can embody a reckless disregard for consumption patterns and hide away the evidence, or they can be designed and built to be sustainable with their inner workings exposed for students to learn from and interact with. Subtle cues found in doors, floors, and windows can impart messages about segregation or the different status of those who inhabit different parts of the building. Consider the possibilities of open versus closed spaces, right angles or natural forms, windows, basements, hallways, staircases, foyers and other common areas. Each of these provides some structure which influences how we operate, how we think, and how we interact.

The important message here is two-fold. First, that nothing is neutral, everything is political, everything is sociological, everything is environmental--including something as mundane as a school building. In fact, the very fact that it is so mundane should raise alarm. Second, that with this awareness, we can begin to thing more intentionally about what messages--political, sociological, environmental, or otherwise--we are legitimizing when we build and renovate our schools.