Does a School Building need to look like a School?

…is a question posed by the architect of the school where I’m doing my research. It came up in an interview over a year ago and has stuck with me ever since. Neither of us answered his question – the recording of the interview has us both umming and urring for the next 15 seconds.

I was reminded of it again today when reading this great post by Kerstin Sailer: What makes a school a school, a church a church and a shop a shop? Thoughts on building typology. (which, by the way, has an excellent idea for teaching building typologies which would be great to see in architects’ briefs for school clients as a way to think about the extent to which a particular school needs to be schoolish.)

Anyway, these questions are important ones. People who want to change education often push the limits of the school type – reading the design statements and other planning documents for some of the BSF schools, it’s easy to come across something along these lines: “To transform education in [name of town] this school design will be different because x, y, z….”

Being different, that is, being distant from established norms of design obviously means being new and being new means involves a certain disconnection from history. Types are dynamic things, formed and transformed by the social action producing the tokens that go on to delimit the type. A bit like having a shopping bag full of live crabs. Except here the existence of the shopping bag is reliant on the limits that the crabs moving and positioning themselves establish. This feeds foward into defining future crab-movement possibilities. This, in real life, may be exciting but it can also be dangerous.

Does a school building need to look like a schoolIn a sense, a type is a form of culture guiding people’s actions. Removing it (by designing something outside of a recognisable norm) means people have to invent new practices (or, more likely, import existing ones and by a process of bricolage, develop something that fits the new environment). This can be tiring and there’s no guarantee that new practices are going to be ‘better’ at whatever it is they’re supposed to achieve*.

We can think of these practices as people developing and drawing on spatial cultures. These spatial cultures resource and frame limits to what people can do or reasonably be expected to do. Cutting them off from those cultures by a super innovative design is a risky business.

I’m currently a bit obsessed by sociological approaches to architecture and one of the few sociologists who did study this kind of thing made a similar point as to the one I’m making here but from the perspective now of users:

How wide a range of behavior within any single behavior pattern is compatible with a particular spatial organization? These are not questions that many sociologists have thought about or discussed, and therefore little in the way of a “conventional wisdom” is available. (Robert Gutman in Cuff and Wriedt (eds), 2010:169)

Traditional school spaces provide teachers and students with easy-to-access spatial cultures but if they want to extend their ‘behavior’ beyond the ‘pattern’ they may need to seek alternative forms of spatial organization. If that alternative is designed for them without dialogue or imposed on them, it might go too far: so yes, I suppose a school building does have to look something like a school.

*=This is partly my problem with ‘innovative’, used to describe so much 21st century mush in education. Innovative just means new. It doesn’t mean better, more effective, more user-friendly (often the opposite – which is why a historical understanding of school space is so important), more ethical, more efficient. ‘Innovative’ doesn’t define a purpose (innovative, ok, but for what?) It just means ‘new’ in a dead language. It’s not a comment about something’s value – you can have innovative crap as easily as innovative quality. In fact sometimes we seem to be drowning in it.

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Author: Adam Wood

Education researcher - school architecture. Blog: https://architectureandeducation.org

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