I was in Oporto on that disastrous September day. UIA/UNESCO had organized a wonderful conference on the Learning City and Children. I arrived from the airport to my hotel about 2 AM, had 4 hours of sleepless sleep, and met my colleagues to share in several great presentations. Those by Anton Schweighofer (Austria) and Mariza Weber Alves (Brazil) stand out in my mind. Midway through the first day we got the news from the US and things were put on hold. I returned to the hotel. First I wanted to call the States. I knew the lines would be busy, but I travel a lot so I had every long distance access number, phone card, and operator assistance number out there. It was useless. The phones were all the dial type and these numbers required the push button phones. I lay down on my bed hoping to come up with a plan.
The room was very small and sparse. I shared it with a mysterious number of micro creatures. As I would be there
for four days, I took a live and let live approach. Very
Kafkaesque. The room did have a TV so I found CNN. The events taking place in America were difficult to comprehend. The demons of the TV transmission world were also hard at work. Of it's own free will the TV image would flip between scenes of New York and Washington DC to scenes of a promotional clip for a tropical golf resort. Surreal.
The next day we dutifully finished the conference. I new the skies were shut down and needed to figure out how I would return to the States. Not being able to phone the airlines or my travel agent and not at all versed in Portuguese, I set out to walk to a local travel agent, figuring they would speak some English (the only foreign language I know). I do not know the Portuguese word for travel agent but I knew I could identify one by their window displays. And sure enough, what seemed like 14 kilometers later, I found one. In the window was a huge poster of New York with the Twin Towers front and center. There is no way to describe the feeling that came over me.
I got to Amsterdam, through Paris, after they opened the skies in Europe. The trip to the US would not be so easy as over 7000 others were battling it out for the few seats that would be available when flights would resume. However, now I could use the phone. I had at least 7 numbers for the airlines. Only trouble was, they did not answer or I got a busy signal. This time as I lay in my hotel bed (lucky to get one), I imagined myself in the lines at the airport. I would pick a line with old ladies and mothers with their children. I would have the physical advantage.
I would avoid the lines with the Jesse Ventura types. More and more surreal.
I found it quite disturbing to have these inexplicable feelings and less than honorable thoughts. When I finally did get back to the States, things only got worse. I knew our government was doing what needed to be done but it was very disconcerting. How do you have a war in which "place" is ubiquitous? However, the problem finally became clear to me. When the Attorney General put forth the plans to curtail our freedoms with no clear ending in sight, I realized that I truly did not understand what freedom was. I had no reference point. Freedom was assumed.
Only once in my life did I experience the lack of freedom. I was working on a school for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On one of the trips there, my client, the same prince who offered $10,000,000 to New York City, noted we had not solved a particular problem and we were not to leave the country until we did solve it. One of the happiest days of my life was when it was "wheels up" at the Riyadh airport and I was on my way to Taipei. Non-the-less it was a learning experience. Amongst other thing, I learned about the madrasa (traditional Islamic school). A few years
later, when I was designing a school in Baku, Azerbaijan, I learned about the caravanserai (an inn to accommodate caravans, otherwise called a camel motel). I was struck by their physical similarities. I suspect an archeologist not knowing the cultural "intent" might confuse these building types. But I digress.
In the midst of all of this I remembered a book titled "The Metamorphosis to Freedom" by Robert O. Fisch. The author is originally from Budapest, Hungary and is now a Doctor at the University of Minnesota. He also has strong creative and artistic abilities. This book is child-like in its' nature without pretending to be a child's book. Thin and in large format, it is the author's expression of how much he values freedom. He knows what freedom is. He lived under Communist and Nazi rule before coming to the United States. And he communicates these experiences in a powerful yet simple way. The sparse text unfolds with a series of beautiful, creative drawings (by the author) that depict this metamorphosis of his life from oppression to freedom. For him freedom is not assumed.
There was a mental disconnect here. I certainly had been taught freedom but I had not learned freedom. The threat (and reality) of losing my freedom is both disconcerting and difficult to comprehend. I think this is true for many Americans. We need to learn freedom.
At the same time I was taken by the creative powers of Dr. Fisch. He was free to express his creativity as are the rest of US citizens. Yet there seems to be something different here. I have worked in many other countries (34 at last count) and have experienced several international settings where people in general (not just artists) have strong creative skills. There are diverse reasons for this, but one consistent element in the formula is education.
Nearly all children are born with creative potential. The drawings, singing, play, and place making of young children is in evidence everywhere. As they move through their years of "development" many seem to lose this creative propensity. We have all seen it when we visit schools. The delightful, spirited kindergarten classroom seems to diminish, year by year until you get to the more somber rooms of the 6th grade and beyond. What's going on here?
For many reasons the teaching process in the US becomes more focused and controlled as students move ahead. This certainly is done for significant reasons. And with the fed's passing laws that require testing this will become even more evident. (Who was it who said you don't fatten a cow by weighing it?) The problem is this also is limiting the creative channels of children. Typically we, planners and designers, respond to our clients by developing teaching environments that are supportive of this emphasis on focus and control. Recent security issues even push those concerns further. I believe this is what we are expected to do, but we can do so much more.
I would not argue that the physical environment can "out perform" the people environment in the learning process. However, I do feel the role of the physical environment is under rated. After all we really only know one type of physical environment for learning - the classroom. Except for very few options, we have nothing to compare it to. In education it takes more then one or two examples to convincingly "prove" anything. If someone wants to stop a new idea in learning all they have to say is "prove it" and end of discussion.
Those of use who are responsible for creating these places to learn need to go beyond the task of accommodating the tried and true. And we need to go beyond providing for flexibility and adaptability, which I think, although important, is mostly an excuse for not really knowing how to do anything else. We need to create environments that actively nudge learners toward freedom and creativity. This is an Architecture of Persuasion. Historically there is much we can learn from Baroque Architecture in understanding this potential. Philosophically, I call this the Architecture of Intention. And scientifically it is supported by the research around "Emergence."
The story contained in the document "Free/Create" is about designing a learning environment in which the design "intends" for freedom and creativity to be integrated into the students' daily learning experiences, and not "designed-out" in the name of focus and control. The story is exemplified by a very real project that will be built (someday). It covers the process by which the design decisions were made and how the design evolved while also embracing the usual concerns of culture, history, site, precedent, landscape, climate and budget.
For me this is an attempt to expand the world of school design and open up new
possibilities. It is not meant to be "the answer" to school design. Its' success can only be measured by how much you learn from it. I welcome your comments.
Download the complete work at the link below:
Freedom & Creativity (PDF file, 6,327 KB)
© Bruce A. Jilk & Design Share, Inc., January, 2002
firstname.lastname@example.org | Design Share
The Metamorphosis to Freedom
by Robert O. Fisch, 48 pages, 2000, book