What High Schools Look Like and Why

In the Middle Ages, colleges like those at Oxford looked like monasteries because the Establishment was theocratic; today [1969], our high schools look like factories and regiment students like the labor force because the Establishment is commercial and industrial.” (James S. Ackerman)

Ackerman is generalising and knows it. He wants to skip past instances of particular schools in particular places and think about why they tend to look as they do: it’s a question that’s often ignored.

But ignoring why facilitates an automaticity about school design that works to obscure who they are designed for and what purposes. [1] Schools, Ackerman says, are not built for students but for “board members and administrators” just as “churches are designed for pastors and elders, banks for bankers, housing developments for politicians”. It is the Establishment’s “concepts of what the others need or ought to have that determines what the others get.” [2]

In effect, Ackerman has set up an interesting series of questions – a thought experiment really – that might help an enquiry into what schools look like today, and why they look the way they do:

  1. Does this pattern (i.e. that educational buildings look as they do because in some way they reflect the Establishment’s economic and political nature) still hold – if it ever did?
  2. Answering (1) first requires answers to: (a) what is the organizational nature of today’s Establishment? and (b) what do new high schools generally look like today?

Clearly there are many possible answers to these and a lot depends on which Establishment we’re talking about so I’m not going to do an Ackerman and will leave the questions floating instead. Ultimately, I think Ackerman provided an interesting line of provocation and that may be more important.



[1] A very interesting tweet last week from Chris Bradbeer (a school teacher and researcher of learning space design) neatly prompts consideration of purpose and I’ve been thinking about it since. (ILEs are Innovative Learning Environments)

I think Chris’s provocation can help us towards an evaluative space by encouraging us to consider our aims and ends in light of the means employed to achieve those ends: will building ILE’s then help us achieve our aims? Alone? Will other resources be needed, besides ILEs? What will building ILEs not provide? Continuing along these lines brings in some of the most important work to do with school design, namely our values and the sense of educational purpose that we have and how those values and purposes can be translated into buildings themselves. Our interview with Gert Biesta from 2015 is worth looking at if you’re interested in these issues. There’s also a video of Biesta speaking on educational values and purpose recently at the Schools of Tomorrow conference in Berlin (May 2017).

Finding the space to think why – why are we building schools, why are we building ILEs, what do we want with design style X – can be hard but it’s important precisely because it brings us back to the essentials. It’s a point Giancarlo De Carlo made in the same edition of papers as Ackerman: “we cannot deal with problems of ‘how to’ without first posing the problems of ‘why’. If we were to begin discussing immediately the best way to build school buildings for contemporary society without first clarifying the reasons for which contemporary society needs school buildings, we would run the risk of taking for granted definitions and judgements which may not make sense any more; and our speculations would turn out to be sandcastles.” (p.12)

[2] Ackerman’s statement here also provokes a way to think how this process – the Establishment producing school buildings in their image – might be disrupted and raises further points about participation, stakeholders and who the design constituency really is. This is something I need to think about more…


Both Ackerman’s and De Carlo’s papers come from a special edition of the Harvard Educational Review on education and architecture in 1969 that provided a response to the student protests in Europe and the USA the year before although the idea for the edition was born in 1967. There’s an awful lot in there that’s very, very good, in part I think because all of the writers (almost all architects including Herman Hertzberger and Aldo van Eyck) used the opportunity to get to some of the fundamentals around why they were doing what they do and what education was all about. The papers can be hard to get hold of but it’s definitely worth trying. I find the fact that it exists interesting. Would an academic journal such as the HER publish something like this today? Would architects have a similar line of thinking as the ones expressed in the foreward to the edition:

“Our intent is to explore the relationship of architectural values to significant human experience and in particular to basic educational goals-to question if and how the physical environment informs and shapes and liberates the human spirit.

While authors were invited to write on the reciprocal implications of architectural and educational concerns we do not see this issue as providing specific answers. Hopefully this will initiate a greater collaboration through which both architects and educators may find new insights.”

I’m not sure. My guess is that learning would now be the main focus, that schools would be explored as buildings designed to facilitate learning, and that that “learning” is often a far cry from “the human spirit” that these writers refer to.

Ackerman, J. (1969) Listening to Architecture. Harvard Educational Review. 39 (4), 4–10. http://www.hepgjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.17763/haer.39.4.q5n7lv312k3w2755
De Carlo, G. (1969) Why/How to Build School Buildings. Harvard Educational Review. 39 (4), 12–35. http://www.hepgjournals.org/doi/abs/10.17763/haer.39.4.r1163153200753u4



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