Making Spaces, Forgetting Politics

Walls* are breaks (Vesely, 2013). They break into established categories of meaning and space and make new ones. They do that publicly too, so we could also say that walls have a communicative function to orient attention and shout about what it is they’re doing.

And a school’s walls are especially powerful since they break into space in so many ways. They start by making school school and differentiating it from the outside, not-school. But they also confirm and reproduce the identity of the populations who journey to and from those buildings.

Inside, additional walls work to make further physical and social breaks into gender, ability and age for example but also into types of knowledge (the curriculum) and types of knowing (the intellectual traditions, ‘logics’ and ways of teaching and learning that often go with particular subjects). We make breaks in space to divide areas into serious ones and ones for play, areas for adults and others for students.

Edward Hopper liked his walls of light
Edward Hopper liked his walls of light

In short, the division of space into sub-spaces is a way of organising and ordering experience and so making meaning. But also politics. Having finally got round to reading Bowker and Leigh Star’s “Sorting Things Out”, I’ve been thinking about walls as forms of category-making. Key to their argument is the way that classificatory systems tend to hide their histories: “Once a system is in place, the practical politics of these decisions are often forgotten, literally buried in archives (when records are kept at all) or built into software or the sizes and compositions of things.” (1999:45)

That strikes me as one of the key difficulties with schools: we need (arguably) some kind of division of spaces as a heuristic organising time, knowledge, activities and, less clearly, age, gender and so forth, but as soon as we make those decisions we forget the politics that went into making them. Spaces have a wonderful ability to make themselves forgotten and what is forgotten is often more powerful as a result. Maths rooms, art rooms, playgrounds, toilets, staffrooms, school itself – these things all become more real, more self-evident once given their own space. And much harder to think how they might be otherwise since how do you go about changing what makes itself hidden?



* = I mean walls broadly since colour, differences in levels (Hertzberger, 2008:32) and materials can do the job of walls or at least differentiators of space as well. Lighting too as in the Hopper painting above and as argued here: “the space we use as social space is in part defined by light. When the light is perfectly even, the social function of the space gets utterly destroyed: it even becomes difficult for people to form natural human groups.” (Alexander, Ishikawa and Silverstein, 1977:1161).


Author: Adam Wood

Education researcher - school architecture. Blog:

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