Open Space Good, Closed Space Bad? Problems with Architecture and Language

The ideological baggage words carry help to shape how we understand school learning spaces.

Because I spend a lot of time in classrooms and open learning spaces and I’m trying to work out what these things mean, I end up thinking a lot about the role of language in communicating and selling architectural and educational ideas.

So it strikes me that in the case of Open Learning Spaces or Flexible Learning Spaces, say, we have already moved beyond mere description. These are value statements – think about what it would mean to talk about Closed Learning Spaces or Inflexible Learning Spaces.

“Open” belongs to a semantic web that speaks of good things: freedom; transparency; innovation; of the future and perhaps even democracy. A closed space seems squalid and dark, stale of air and of ideas in comparison. The past is closed; the future is open.

Sometimes these words are worked into extended metaphors that tie together individual ideas into ideological knots. In his autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright expressed his desire for doing away with walls and creating larger, open spaces:

I could see little sense in this inhibition, this cellular sequestration that implied ancestors familiar with penal institutions… ([1943] 2005:142)

Prisons, sequestration, cellular-ness, inhibition – these existed with rooms and can be deleted – ping! – by a wave of the openness wand. “Cells and bells” is a similar construction that I often hear, one that attempts metonymically to reduce a vast and broad range of school styles (architecture and system organisation) and social relationships to a figurative world of the time-ordered prison.

But a twelve-year-old girl reminded me recently that things can be very different. She taught me two lessons: firstly to get off my high horse and stop assuming that as an adult, the way I see things is always the right way and secondly to be wary of the language of architecture.

I was sitting in her science lesson, a large and truly open space and keen to hear what students felt about the different kinds of classroom / learning space in the school. (Built in 2009-10, this school has a range of spaces where lessons happen, from this larger, wall-less one to more traditional classrooms and on to “break out areas”.)

I’ll call this student Marie, we’ve already been talking for a minute or two and she’s keener on the classrooms than the more open spaces:

Me:           So you prefer the classrooms then. What is it about these open spaces you’re less keen on?

Marie:      I feel claustrophobic in them.

Me:           Do you mean “claustrophobic”?

Marie:      Yeah, yeah, all the people, it’s all ehhhh [waves hands close to face].

In my arrogance, I assumed she’d used the wrong word: how could an open space be claustrophobic? Forgetting that for a 12-year-old girl the experience of space might be very different from my own (a late 30s male) and that what is open might not necessarily suggest freedom and lightness for someone else. She reminded me that if I am to understand people’s experiences of space, I need to find ways beyond my own.


Note: I don’t know what explains her reaction or if it can be explained. It may be a feeling particular to her and a personal reaction to these kinds of spaces. It could be her age, her (relatively) small size, her gender…it could be any, all or none of these. I don’t think much has been done on open spaces and student characteristics, has it? The gender aspect is curious – I wonder if the generally larger numbers in open plan have different effects for students of different genders. It wasn’t the main focus of my research but I’m curious now. If anybody knows of any studies, I’d be grateful, thanks.




  1. Excellent reminder to consider the experience of a school’s users (and don’t forget that includes the staff as well as the students).

    For further reading on the ‘open plan’ classroom issue, Bennett et al (1980) ‘Open plan schools’ is a classic for the UK 1970s’ experience. For discussion of modern open plan design in schools, have a look at Neil Gislason’s US study and the work of Anna Kristín Sigurðardóttir in Icelandic schools.


    1. Thank you very much for the comment and useful references. Could we interview you, if you’re ever in London/Cambridge/Manchester? It’s so much more fun to do an interview in person.



      1. I was in Manchester just the week before last on my way to see some school buildings and take part in a seminar in Iceland. Not sure when I’ll next be there (or indeed in London or Cambridge), but it would be great to meet for an interview – thanks for the invitation!



    2. We have interviews with two teachers coming up in the next fortnight – one with an NQT and the second with an experienced Reading Recovery teacher leader and teacher. I agree, so important to listen to all of those voices.



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