Do Buildings: a) dictate b) choreograph… …e) suggest what you do…

You’re in a building. (And if you’re not, just pretend your app/software or whatever is a building anyway, it kind of is.)

Does this building you’re in:

  1. Dictate what you do
  2. Choreograph what you do
  3. Shape what you do
  4. Influence what you do
  5. Suggest what you do
  6. Do nothing, I decide what I do
  7. None of the above, something else.

Feel free to post your answers below in comments.

One of the judges for last year’s Architectural Review’s School Awards wrote: ‘A school is a kind of microcosm: an idealised version we make of the world (or for the world) into which we place our youngest citizens. Where architecture – organisation, space, material, light, nature – choreographs life to an extent far more all-consuming than any other space we’re likely to encounter.’ (Jacob, 2015)

There’s lots of good sentiments there but I don’t like this idea of architecture-as-choreography even if the point is a relative one: yes, a prison limits in a way that an open field doesn’t but that’s not a result of the architecture alone – it’s to do with the rights and roles we assign people and the institutions in which those rights can or can’t be expressed.

And then there’s the other stuff of school life. If there is any choreographing going on, my money’s on the assessment system and school performance measures. The domain in which school architecture can act is shrinking. A bit over a year ago I sat in a fairly glum drama studio with about 200 new Year 10 students when they were told that they could now do only one of the two Arts GCSEs they’d opted for. The government had recently announced its Progress 8 school performance measure where some subjects count, others don’t. The Arts lost out. And Maths and English GCSE grades carry double-weighting or to put it another way, it’s not really Progress 8 at all but Progress 10 – 4 tenths of which is made up of Maths and English! As I saw it, the school didn’t really have much choice but to follow what the government was effectively mandating even while politicians spout on and on about the new freedoms schools have. All this to say that I think architecture matters less for two reasons – 1) its contribution to school life is decreasing relative to other factors, especially assessment demands and 2) in absolute terms, what architecture might determine/enable/suggest etc in the way that students and teachers use it is (eg flexibility, play etc) is more and more limited.

Which isn’t to be completely depressing – it’s all the more reason why architecture should look to do less choreography and more providing of possibilities for people, of solutions to counteract the pressures put on schools. That’s tricky I admit.

Finally, for an antidote to all of this, Jane McGregor’s writings are brilliant: some are academically-paywalled eg Making Spaces: Teacher Workplace Topologies though this issue of Forum is edited by her, includes a paper and is open access. Her work provides a really nice contrast to the architectural determinism that Alexi Marmot describes and shows how the idea that school space is what we’re given and have to put up with is a redundant and impoverished one. She draws on Doreen Massey beautifully, for whom space is ‘an emergent product of relations’ (For Space, 2005:68) and so, by a different route, another kind of slap in the face to those with a deterministic inclination. It’s a great introduction to the kind of space that some architects and critics should read to get a grip on how school architecture can be and is lived in the days since modernism’s death.

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