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"Tackling the Crime of School Design" (part 4 of 8)

PAGE 4. Continued from page 3.


“Tackling the Crime of School Design”
Book Excerpt from Rena Upitis
, former Dean of Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; currently Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University.

Full biographical and contact information available on page 7.
Citations on page 8.


I do not share O’Reilley’s optimism that school and university curricula can solve the ills of society. People’s characters are shaped by many more factors than the influences of school alone. My pessimism comes, in part, from teaching in inner-city schools in Canada and the United States where, despite the loving attention and devotion of teachers, and the carefully planned curricula designed to produce joyful and contributing citizens, the time those students spent with their teachers had a negligible impact on many of their lives. But I do share O’Reilley’s view that architecture acts as a teacher. How much does the architecture of inner-city schools contribute to the life outcomes for the students who attend them? Surely it is not too much to ask that school architecture not contribute to the perpetuation of violence. Better yet, how can school architecture support the healthy development of its students?

Cultural values and expectations are reflected in architecture of all kinds, and expectation is a powerful teacher. In the times before the printing press, buildings were a primary medium for communication. ( 21 ) The medieval cathedral, for example, was a “testament in stone and glass to the teachings of Christian thought”. ( 22 ) Every aspect of the building conveyed meaning—the forms, the sculptures, the ornamentation and other details were all designed to further the messages of the church and to shape the beliefs of its followers.

Winston Churchill knew how architecture gave meaning and shape to human activity and social interaction. He is well known for the utterance, “First we shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us”. Less well known is the context in which he spoke these words. After the House of Commons was bombed in 1941, there was discussion of how the building would be re-built. In a meeting in the House of Lords on October 28, 1943, Churchill argued vehemently for the building to be re-created in its old form. ( 23 ) This form, a horseshoe shape, was one he regarded as ideal for debate. He also insisted it be built, once again, with an insufficient number of seats for its members. His reason for the latter choice? Most of the time, the House was empty, but at critical moments it would fill beyond capacity, which, in Churchill’s view, created a sense of crowd and urgency impossible to achieve in a room not bursting at the seams.

Schools shape us, too. The architecture of schools affects the social interactions, physical growth, emotional development, and intellectual attainments of its students. School architecture embodies the values of education and the pedagogical approaches that resonate with such values. Buildings enable and constrain the learning that will occur within their walls and on the adjacent grounds.

The most prominent ideology of education—ubiquitously present in contemporary schools—is one of socialization. Starkly put, schools have been built for young people to be trained to fulfill the roles society intends of them. ( 24 ) In this ideology, education is seen as most effective when it is efficient and organized, preparing young people for the bureaucracy of work. This is often called the factory model of schooling. But schooling of this type equally prepares people for work in armies, hospitals, and—I daresay—universities. Canadian journalist Margaret Wente talks about how large high schools were invented during the industrial age, not so subtly suggesting maybe that’s why they look so much like factories. She laments how schools have changed little since the 1950s when everyone seemed to agree bigger was better. She adds, when small rural schools closed, high schools “bulked up”. Classes grew and “principals morphed into personnel directors and safety wardens”. ( 25 )

In factory schools, teaching—like the buildings—tends to be boxlike and linear. Transmission teaching dominates: standing at the front of the classroom, the teacher transmits knowledge to the students. This kind of teaching works best when the teacher can see everyone at once, and so, classrooms are created as a series of boxes, the most pervasive example being one of double-loaded classrooms down a single long hallway. This school model has been criticized not only for the ways in which it limits learning and is uninspired architecturally, but also, for the security hazards that come with such large buildings and their labyrinths of hallways. ( 26 ) American Professor of Architecture Kenneth Tanner cites the Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado as an alarming example of this type of architecture. His suggestion to create easily supervised spaces is in keeping with British architect Mark Dudek’s praise for the Frankfurt Eckenheim day care centre, where an elegant crescent-shape makes security effortless. ( 27 ) I observed the same sort of crescent-shaped construction in the Willunga Steiner School near Adelaide, South Australia, where the semi-circular Kindergartens give teachers a clear and charming view of the kitchen, play areas, gardens, and toilets.

Tanner says smaller schools with ample exits would help meet the growing concerns for security in schools in America. But smaller schools are in direct conflict with the ideology of factory socialization. Large schools exemplify economies of scale, later echoed in the bureaucracies for which students are being prepared. And large schools are often multistoried, with the earlier grades on the lower floor. Students rise—physically and symbolically—to the higher grades as they become older, often lording it over those beneath them. In David Orr’s troubling book, Ecological Literacy, he suggests this ideology is not only about socialization for a bureaucratic existence, but is about human dominance over the natural world, a topic I will revisit many times in this book. ( 28 )

Acculturation is another prominent ideology of education and architecture. ( 29 ) There was a clear message, for instance, in the many schools built throughout the 1930s and 1940s with separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and for girls. By building in this way, we made clear our different cultural expectations for young male and young female pupils. Buildings can also be fashioned to reinforce other values, such as the importance of a classical education. Henry Kendall’s book, Designs for Schools and Schoolhouses, was first published in Britain in 1847. He urged schools to use a gothic style, ( 30 )making almost no reference as to how the interior spaces of the buildings should function. Kendall’s work lives on. Imposing structures, grand staircases, and Greek columns are all designed to let students and their parents know education is important, particularly if it echoes something of the education of ancient times.

Then there are the not so subtle religious messages. Many of the first one-room frame school houses in England, Canada, Australia, and the United States looked like churches, with a small peaked tower on the roof of the school which housed the bell and left the impression that school was not only for “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic”—the infamous three Rs—but also a place of reverence, a place of prayer.

Continued on page 5

Continue reading page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | page 5 | page 6 | page 7 | page 8 (Citations page)

February 26th, 2007

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