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The L-Shaped Classroom
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The ‘Fat L’ Classroom in Practice
Building on the Concepts of the ‘Fat L’ Shaped Classroom
fatl-2Since the article was written in 1994, a number of school projects that incorporated the ‘Fat L’ Classroom have been constructed. These projects include four Lincoln Nebraska Public fatl-3Elementary Schools, the Prairie Hill Learning Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, North Platte High School in North Platte, Nebraska (See Fig. 2), and Waverly High School in Waverly, Nebraska (See Fig. 3). James A. Dyck’s architectural firm, The Architectural Partnership (TAP), in Nebraska has been responsible for these designs, with the design for the Lincoln Nebraska Public Elementary Schools receiving in 1998 The Impact in Learning Award for designs that enhance learning. This award was presented to TAP by The School Planning and Management Magazine and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI).

The Maxi, Cavett, Campbell, and Roper Elementary School
fatl-4While each of the school projects indicated above is unique, the Four Public Elementary Schools and the Prairie Hill Learning Center, all, in Lincoln Nebraska will be examined. These projects are most notable for how TAP arranged the plans to create integrated, flexible and variable learning environments. The Maxey, Cavett, Campbell, and Roper Elementary Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska were the projects that received the award for designs that enhance learning (See Fig. 4). The designs of each are basically the same where the ‘Fat L’ Shaped Classrooms are stepped along the corridor. This arrangement affords small group activity settings outside the classrooms. TAP has created a layered system so that learning may be perceived as extending beyond the behavior setting.

Another element that TAP incorporated into the design is an entry portal to each classroom. It is approximately twelve feet wide and encourages unobstructed movement between the classrooms and the corridor space. Although this design feature may not be appropriate for every learning environment, it reflects an understanding that learning does not begin and end in the classroom setting. The intention of this design was to create an integrated setting so that the flow of activities may be understood as connected from the classroom into the corridor and possibly throughout the entire socio-physical environment.

The design affords a variable and integrated setting. It is a layered system in which the public and private zones have been defined in relationship to the corridor. The most public zones occur around the portal, whereas the more private zones occur in the leg of the ‘L’ furthest away from the portal. Yet, each of the zones may be understood as flexible, since each may be arranged to afford individual, one-to-one, small group, and large group activities.

fatl-5Prairie Hill Learning Center: The Prairie Hill Learning Center (See Fig. 5) is an elementary school in which the ‘Fat L’ classrooms are book-matched. The demising spaces that separate the classrooms house a pair of toilet rooms for each and a kitchen area. The kitchen is a circumscribed area, yet it is not an enclosed room. While specific activities for the kitchen may occur within it, activities between classrooms may transpire through this space bridging the behavior settings.

This area integrates the classrooms and the design reflects an understanding that learning is not defined to an area, but rather occurs between settings. In addition, the structural column located approximately in the center of each classroom assists in defining areas in which different activity settings may be organized. Yet, they don’t disrupt the flow of activity within the classroom. The Prairie Hill Learning Center within its simplicity is a rather complex design. Not only do the physical elements afford flexibility and variability in the creation of the activity settings, they also afford an integrated learning environment within the classroom as well as between the classrooms where students may always be engaged in the activities of others as they work on their tasks-at-hand.

Examples of the L-Shaped Classroom
While Dyck was the first to propose the ‘Fat L’ Shaped Classroom, the concept of the L-Shaped Classroom has been incorporated in numerous school projects. The Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois by Perkins, Wheeler, & Will and Saarineen, the Montessori School in Delft in the Netherlands by Hertzberger, and the Newark Eastside High School, Newark, New Jersey by Fielding/Nair International, are examples of schools where a type of L-Shape has been used. Each of these projects integrates the L-Shape in a unique manner with the overall layout of the school environment. In addition, each project reflects an approach and understanding of how the physical layout of the classroom setting as a learning center might afford the learning. Even though the settings of each are unique, they are similar in that they evolved from a collaborative process between the architect, the administrators, and the people who would inhabit the school once it was constructed.

The Crow Island School: The Crow Island School (See Fig. 6) which opened its doors in 1940 was an:


“… outgrowth of … a plan by Winnetka’s businessmen to create a public school whose philosophy and facility would rival its private counterpart” (Newton, April 1990, p. 2).

Carleton Washbourne, the School Superintendent, envisioned a child-centered learning environment. The result was an elementary school with three classroom wings arranged around common spaces that included a play room, stage, art room and library. The classrooms were organized along horizontal corridors. In addition, an L-Shape Classroom design was integrated into the overall scheme.

The L-shaped layout used for the Crow Island School was not the ‘Fat L’. The legs are not of equal size. In addition, each leg was designed as two spaces. The smaller and narrower leg is the workroom that contains a sink, counters with windows above, washroom and drinking fountain. This room was considered the space where the students would work on specific projects. In addition, this room may have been designed for either individual or one-to-one activities. Connected to the workroom is the classroom area that is the wider and longer leg. This space was designed with a bay window to define a large group meeting area. In addition, the space was to be flexible and was provided with age appropriate furniture so that it could be arranged in a variety of small group activities.

The Crow Island School is an architectural precedent, and is an example of how the physical environment was created to afford learning. The participatory process in which the architects met with the staff and students was invaluable in creating this setting. While the L-Shape plan used by Perkins Wheeler & Will and Saarinen embraces the notion of the behavior setting and aspects of variability and flexibility, the plan does not embrace the concept for the flow of activity between the two legs of the ‘L’ shape. This L-shaped classroom is not an integrated plan, since the legs of the ‘L’ are understood as two separate spaces where different types of activities are intended to occur. While the furniture can be arranged numerous ways to support learning, the layout of the plan is not flexible since each leg of the ‘L’ is intended to be used for specific activities.

The Montessori School in Delft
fatl-7The Montessori School in Delft was designed by Herman Hertzberger (See Fig. 7), and was originally built in 1960 with subsequent additions that were completed in 1981. Similarly to the Crow Island School, this is an elementary school that uses a variation on the ‘Fat L’ design pattern. In addition, the Montessori School in Delft was conceived as a learning environment where all the places in the school afford learning. The classrooms were not organized along a horizontal corridor, but rather as dwellings arranged around a central avenue. Whereas the classrooms provided for more focused activities, the notion of the central avenue reflects an understanding that learning extends beyond the limits of the classroom behavior setting.

For Hertzberger, who worked directly with the Principal and the teachers of this school, the L-Shape Classroom evolved from his notion that students are involved with formal (intellectual), informal (practical) and creative activities. Intellectual activities maybe understood as math, science and language, while practical activities might involve the more social transactions where students work on projects together. Creative activities might involve individuals painting and drawing. While these activities are not incompatible, they involve different intelligences and types of concentration.

Building on these concepts, the L-shaped plan evolved where three defined activity settings were introduced. The settings are in each of the legs of the ‘L’ shape and the corner where the legs come together along the exterior perimeter wall. In addition, this version of the L-shape includes one narrow leg that is of the same length as the wider classroom area. The narrower leg is defined as a separate space with steps leading into it and base cabinets built in the shape of an ‘L’. While each of the four sides of the base cabinets are used for storage, incorporated with the base cabinets in the narrower leg is a sink.

This version of the L-shaped classroom affords flexibility, variability, and is an integrated learning setting that provides opportunities for activity settings. Within the classroom, each setting can be organized to support individual, one-to-one, and small group activities. Additionally, this layout enables individuals to work on one side of the classroom without distracting the activities occurring in the other settings. While the fixed base cabinets divide the classroom physically, they afford students working in the other settings and as they walk through the space the opportunity to participate, though from a peripheral position, in the activity.

Newark East Side High School
fatl-8The Communications Suite for Newark East Side High School (See Fig. 8 ) that features two 900-square foot Project Based Learning Classrooms was designed by Fielding/Nair International, LLC 2003. This project reflects another version of how the L-Shaped Classroom may be integrated. Unlike the previous classrooms described above, this project is for a High School. Furthermore, this project is over twenty years later than the Montessori School in Delft and reflects the current concepts for learning in which the physical environment is designed for the engagement of students.

Unlike the elementary school, the high school setting may necessitate greater flexibility; for, activity settings may need to change not only from day to day, but from hour to hour depending on the intended activities. Taking this into consideration, Fielding and Nair have proposed an L-Shape Classroom that provides flexibility and variability as well as an integrated behavior setting. The ‘L’ shape chosen for this behavior setting is a twenty-seven foot wide by thirty-two foot deep leg connected to a seven-foot wide by thirteen-foot deep leg. This L-shaped layout may be understood as an alcove space attached to the overall classroom space. The alcove is intended to support individual, one-to-one, and small group learning activities.

The overall space is open with built-in cabinetry with a sink, countertop for computer stations and coat closet for the teacher adjacent to the entrance at the North wall. This layout affords students the opportunity for the creation of various activity settings for individual, one-to-one, small group, and large activities. Students may work individually at the computer stations while others work in small groups in the alcove space and the overall classroom. Students may be fully engaged in their own projects while they are simultaneously and peripherally engaged in the work of others. Another feature that Fielding and Nair have incorporated is a folding partition that can either separate two classrooms or allow them to come together for large group meeting between the classes. As each classroom may be understood as affording the flow of activity, the feature of the folding partition extends the flow of activity and learning from one classroom to another.

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February 27th, 2006

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