When School Architecture Meant System Architecture

In 1811, Joseph Lancaster publishes his Hints and Directions for Building, Fitting Up, and Arranging School Rooms, one of the key triggers for the idea of a modern school building and a legacy-leaving document that affects how we think of schools today and perhaps even the fact that we can think of schools today. Just four years later in the Paris of 1815, Charles de Lasteyrie writes this:

This work [ie Lancaster’s Hints and Directions] could serve in France, not only for the construction of this type of ‘classroom’, but also to make known the arrangement and internal organisation necessary to this System’s mechanism. (1815:online)

As de Lasteyrie shows, ideas about education ignore borders.

This is a quick post and these are just a few undeveloped ideas so….

  • de Lasteyrie identifies three ‘things’ and their relationship to each other: (1) the design of the instructional room itself (2) its organisation into a bigger entity or ‘articulation’ of different spaces as Herman Hertzberger discussed in an interview with Emma recently, perhaps contiguous with school but a different vision, one that emphasises the relationship of one space to another and people to others, and (3) the System ie Lancaster’s version of the monitorial system but maybe also system thought more grandly as a programme to be rolled out across a country as de Lasteyrie hints.
  • This System needs its parts in order to exist but the System is the overall point of interest and the System includes pedagogy, architecture, theories of learning, of control, hygiene, divisions of gender and age and so forth. It is then, a holistic system, a System – when people bought de Lasteyrie’s or Lancaster’s book, they were buying the idea for a system design. Architecture was a necessary part but it was a subordinate part to the aims of the system overall: mass education and all that that incorporated. Lancaster wasn’t an architect in the sense we would use today, he was a systems architect.
  • Today, we don’t have education system designers. We have lots of piece designers. So: school managers (who design their bit of a system); teachers (who design their bit); architects (who design their bit); regulators of school exams (who are de facto I would argue the closest there is to a system designer since the bit they design restricts the freedom of the others’ opportunities for manoeuvre and the others cannot feedback onto exam regulation easily. This is especially so in England where curriculum – often teacher-designed even rather than school-designed – was until fairly recently what ruled the roost. Assessment and its henchmen, performance indicators, are now the tool of ministerial choice for system control); students of course (who definitely design their bit) and so on. It is an ‘ad hoc-ing’ of bits together albeit an ad hoc-ing that favourably suits the long distance, light-but-heavy touch of politicians


I don’t really have a conclusion so much as questions:

  1. Does modernity’s carving up of ideas into specialist trades mean that system redesign is now impossible? If not, does this at least explain partly why rethinking schooling is so difficult?
  2. Is tinkering with the bits ever going to do anything when revolutionary, entire system design was what gave us what we have now?
  3. Do we have to change our ideas of what schools are now we have PISA etc? Perhaps the architecture of schools has changed radically in sense once again. The PISA-based Test for Schools exists in England and relates a kid in Bolton to one in Beijing. If we think of space in the way that the geographer Doreen Massey proposes ie ‘space as the product of interrelationships’ (2005:9) and ‘an emergent product of relations’ (2005:68) then where does the space of school now start and where does it stop? What constitutes the system of school now and where is it constituted?


de Lasteyrie, C. (1815) Nouveau systeme d’education pour les ecoles primaires, adopte dans les quatre parties du monde. Paris: Deterville. [Online, accessed 8/2/16, available at https://archive.org/stream/bub_gb_X8LpbYs1Z5kC/bub_gb_X8LpbYs1Z5kC_djvu.txt]

The quote above in the original: ‘Cet ouvrage pourra servir en France, non-seulement pour la construction de ces salles, mais aussi pour faire connaître l’arrangement et les dispositions internes nécessaires au mécanisme de ce Système.’

Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: SAGE.



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