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What do our school buildings say about us?

"We shape our buildings; and forever afterwards our building shape us." - Sir Winston Churchill

Paul at Quoteflections quotes Jack Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects:

Architecture is an expression of its time and place. It reflects the values, power, and dominant elites of the prevailing social structure and the relevant position of nation states in the global context. It even demonstrates the attitudes of imperial powers to their subject peoples.

Having just visited Paris, Paul reflects on colonialism and how the great buildings he encountered suggested its influence. But this quote struck me a little differently: to what extent do our school buildings show respect or disrespect for children? Do we adult overlords design spaces that purposely subjugate and control rather than encourage growth and individualism?

One of the ugliest buildings both inside and out has to be Minnesota State University's Armstrong Hall of Education.

Squat, square, and spartan both inside and out, it's windowless, right-angled and utilitarian classrooms couldn't have been very exciting even when the building was new in 1964. Might one not expect graduates of this school to think in straight lines and exhibit one-right-answer mentalities?

Designers of most educational spaces seem to concentrate on low cost contruction, ease of maintenance, security, and visual control. Comfort, aesthetics, and inspiration don't much figure into the design process. Hey, it's just kids that will be in these buildings after all - what do they care?

Here are two pictures from projects I've been proud to be a part of designing. Look at the pictures as see if you note anything they have in common:

Give up?

While it's a little dificult to see, both media centers use curves in their design. The St. Peter media center above has a curved circulation desk that mirrors the curved lines of the greenhouse above it. The Eagle Lake media center has a curved couch (and its unseen story area is curved as well).

There are lots of other ways to show respect for facilty users beyond creating interesting lines. Indirect lighting; varying eleveations in ceiling heights; real windows and skylights; warmth-creating wood and fabric surfaces; and comfotable work/study/reading areas, both social and private. And of course, a place to display art on either a permanent or rotating basic.

Our students are no longer the captive, "subject peoples" they once were. Few students have to attend your school with the growing number of alternative education options like charter schools, home schools, open public school enrollment, online schools, and private schools from which they have to pick.

Do we need to start designing schools for people with choices? And for children we respect?

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Reader Comments (3)

Interesting post. I was reading Will Richardson this morning talking about a school he visited in Australia, where the children actually took control of the design process and have a result which really demonstrates respect for the kids and the learning process. Very inspiring.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCraig McDonald

We are excited at our school board to be building a state of the art green school. "Dr. David Suzuki Public School will showcase innovative and proven environmental and energy efficient technologies ... demonstrating a new world of possibilities in educational facility design."

Thanks for the link to my post, Doug. Also enjoy reading from one of my favourite blog sites.

Paul C.

March 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C

Hi Paul,

I applaud the "green" movement in construction as well. Our new elementary will have a "green" certification here.

I am not sure how making a building environmentally friendly necessarily makes it kid friendly. One of our high schools built during the energy crisis of the early 70s is practically windowless - an engergy savings move. Lack of sunlight, seems counter productive to learning however.

A balance is needed, I suspect.

All the best,


March 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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