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BFTP: What do our school building say about us?

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post March 26, 2009. Serving on teams which are planning our new middle school for the district and an addition to a wing to our current 7-8 building, I've been thinking about facility design again. This was a good one review for me. 

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

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. Jack Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects

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 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 construction, 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 difficult 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 many other ways to show respect for facility users beyond creating interesting lines. Indirect lighting; varying elevations in ceiling heights; real windows and skylights; warmth-creating wood and fabric surfaces; and comfortable 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.

Shouldn't to start designing schools for people with choices? And for children we respect?

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