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A school is… (Verse 12)

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A school is a place whose environments must practically and aesthetically serve students and staff.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an architect, but the profession fortunately dodged that bullet. It’s more than just as well, because every year the whole idea of designing spaces for a school becomes more complicated. Adding to the complication is the growing reality that more and more, those spaces are becoming virtual or even imaginary. It’s about environments nowadays.

For reasons that were once historical, for a couple of centuries and more school architecture tended to reflect the churchly beginnings of European education, and schools and colleges today are still happy to exploit the drool factor of a richly Gothic or otherwise faux-medieval campus; a dining hall or library that excites the comment “This looks like Hogwarts!” from starry-eyed parents on campus tours must assuredly house a better sort of student and educator and be just a bit more selective and perhaps a bit more, hmm, costly. (Those same parents are not at that moment thinking of the solicitations they might receive for funds to keep the belfries free of bat dung and the hammer beams varnished, but oh, well). In New England the plain, durable and fireproof brick used by Harvard’s founders generated another, “Georgian” look, understated elegance with simple white trim and dark wooden shutters.

Although James Garfield once quipped that “The ideal college is [Williams College president] Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other,” his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had opted for the democratic, understated elegance of brick at “his” University of Virginia, and at some point in the mid nineteenth century the American campus arms race began, with its emphasis on picturesque exteriors and inspiring public and community spaces and with paradoxically banal sleeping spaces and rectangular classrooms whose sameness is striking in every schoolroom photographed from the daguerreotype era right into the 1980s: desks in rows, blackboards, pull-down maps, a few meager bookshelves, perhaps a flag, and the inevitable portraits of Washington and, later and north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Lincoln.

What gives the spark of life to such photographs is usually the presence of students and, if one takes the time to look hard, evidence that whatever teacher claimed the place was indeed human and not so different from ourselves. The odd stuffed bird becomes an idiosyncratic icon of an interest in nature, the personallysupplied framed prints or mottos—and nothing has ever been cheap on a teacher’s salary– demonstrate a love of history and ideas. We can’t see the titles of the books usually, but there they are. Whether our predecessors were the sanctimonious martinets we tend to imagine them as or vibrant, curious, funny people (like ourselves!), enjoying their work and the company of children, we can imagine that most worked to make their poorly lighted and chalk-dust filled cells into interesting, perhaps even fun, places to learn. They filled these otherwise dreary boxes of desks with things that represented their own passions, situated to draw their young charges into the joy of learning and thinking.

We ought to be careful when judging teachers by the spaces they are forced to keep. Our Sudanese former foster child learned English in an open-air classroom in which dozens of refugee boys learned from a single textbook. It would be churlish indeed to fault his teachers or harp on their rote style of teaching—they did extremely well with what they had, which above all was a passion to help their students build lives beyond the endless waiting that filled their lives, and their students appreciated their efforts. It wasn’t “21st-century learning,” but it was collaborative in the extreme and fitted to students’ most fundamental needs and interests.

Today we can take our classes to meet peers from across the world in Second Life simulations (or perhaps, scaled digital representations), and school libraries have to decide whether they are coffee bars, study spaces, media centers, or laboratories of applied information science. I very much doubt that the British-style open dormitories with curtained sleeping spaces that were found until the 1970s at one school where I taught are still as they were; privacy and other concerns must have changed their configuration by now. And faculty lounges, once foully smoky bastions of gossip and posturing characterized by pecking orders every bit as powerful as those among students, have mostly given way to offices and workspaces designed to “foster collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking;” the smoke at least has gone, although I dare say all the gossip has not. The cafeteria system has largely replaced table service in even the most Hogwarts-like dining rooms, and portraits of founders, benefactors, and former heads now stare benevolently or bleakly out onto soft-serve ice cream machines and steam tables arrayed with broccoli sauté and vegan hot dogs.

And of course there is always the fun of imagining the ideal teaching and learning space—flexible, high-tech, LEED Platinum, with infinite connectivity and furniture out of the Jetsons. Architects and designers of 2011 have both lucrative opportunities to design such spaces anew and probably even more lucrative mandates to retrofit the School Georgian and Neo-Gothic buildings of yore to meet modern needs—the best of both worlds. It’s a good thing I never got into this work.

What the future will bring, who knows? Will “blended learning” environments change the whole meaning of “classroom space,” and will schools even begin to revert to the kinds of community centers of which alternative school people dreamed in the ’60s, with their social functions taking precedence over “teaching” as students do their academic learning on line and depend on schools mainly for activities, sports, and companionship?

I think independent schools are likely to be safe from on-line replacement for a while, as their strong values bases and reputation for developing powerful student–faculty relationships will keep families who can find ways to pay sending their children for the rich personal experiences as well as those Hogwartsesque dining halls. But new ways of teaching as well as the brute force of technology are changing the meaning of space, and schools will need to be thoughtful and nimble as they negotiate the next decades.

It makes me almost wonder whether one day the pendulum will swing back, and parents will be seeking bleak Neo-Dickensian environments to give their children a dose of cold-water reality (perhaps with a bit of birching, for good measure) that would go places like Gordonstoun and the rugged term-away places in North America more than one better. I’ll be gone by then, I hope.

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1 Comment
  1. Peter, Delightful post. As another ‘frustrated architect’ your reflections on school design resonated quite strongly. Schools will continue to evolve but I suspect will be even more intensely designed to support more intense interaction. Have you read Stephen Johnson’s new book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”?

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