Putting Children (and Values?) into Architectural Plans of Schools

If “the way we imagine space has effects” as Doreen Massey wrote (2005:4), then how we handle space and decide to represent it, is also important. Representations help to structure our conceptions of space and these are “intrinsic to the intellectual ordering of our lives and our everyday notions of causality and with it, agency” (Shields, 2016:9 [pdf, 18MB]).

So it’s interesting that in 1941, the architect (and designer of hundreds of children’s playgrounds) Aldo van Eyck decides to break with traditional, “clean” representations of schools by adding children to his plans for a primary school in Kilchberg, Zürich:

Aldo van Eyck Kilchberg school front elevation


Aldo van Eyck Kilchberg school front elevation details

Images from Strauven, F. (1998) Aldo van Eyck: the Shape of Relativity. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura, p.70.

Putting children into plans of sorts is something that another architect, Andrea Branzi, writes about too.* He notes that a number of Italian architects in the 1950s and 60s – Marco Zanuso, Enzo Mari, Achille Castiglioni and many others – were keen to distance themselves from Rationalism and one way of doing this was by opening to a represented world of the child, bringing them into images as a methodological move to imagine a different kind of space, with different kinds of effects, “as opposition, as reformism, as anti-authoritarianism”.

Plans – with children in or not – are expressions of power, a means of claiming both the world is a certain way and, in the expectation that the plan is realized, that it can be otherwise. Plans point forward to shape (or attempt to shape) in built life what exists only digitally or on paper. But plans point backwards too since an architectural drawing is “a reification of the way we have come to terms with the space in which we dwell” (Aureli, online). Changing the criteria of inclusion (what gets to be in the plan) is to adapt the processes of reification. Even in some small way, putting children in plans is to change the thinking (and representational) tools available for making architecture.

But that’s not only what plans are or attempt to do. They assert values about what or who is important and this includes both the content of the plan i.e. the things or people that get to be in it and how those things might be related (see Kress, 2005:12-16) for an interesting discussion on this). So a plan of a building has the potential to say something about “the purposes and the values of the group and its relationship to other groups [this] is the essential content to which a building gives form. Architecture is the physical form of social institutions” (Ackerman, 1969:4).

Clearly, plonking an abstracted child into plans or renders of schools is no short-cut to making those schools better or less anti-authoritarian. The addition of child to architectural image can be a cheap trick to “kid-wash” an otherwise hostile or unimaginative building/park/landscape as the post The Mysterious Adventures of the Boy in the Yellow Cap on the Failed Architecture site explores mockingly and well.

But as an idea, it’s interesting. When we learn to write, we’re often taught “Have your AUDIENCE in mind”, a heuristic to involve the reader, to help engender a conversation with them, to make the writing more for them. Putting children in plans may be a way to question and broaden the conceptual framework involved: who gets to be in this space? who is this space for?

It’s these questions and the idea of putting children into plans that make me think about values in educational architectural and school design more generally. Tomorrow is the first of 3 seminars Cathy Burke and I are organising about the values and aims of educational architecture (drawing on texts by Aldo van Eyck, James S. Ackerman and others) and I’m excited about what we’re going to hear. I have lots of questions…

  • How do you (can you?) put values into a plan for a school?
  • Are values even something that be “put in” or are plans born out of a set of values?
  • How about values in other kinds of plan, e.g. the brief, the values embedded within procurement systems, how do they structure possible actions?
  • Who gets to decide which and whose values get built?
  • Why are conversations about school design often “shy” about discussing values, and forthcoming on questions of efficiency?
  • What is the difference between (a) what is educationally/architecturally possible and (b) what is educationally/architecturally desirable? Who or what controls that distance? How could we better connect them?
  • Where are the spaces for thinking – as a community – about the schools we want and the processes that might lead to their realisation?

I’m not an architect and so especially curious about how – on top of all the other needs they need to juggle – architects see their work designing places for children. Now is an awkward time for education in many countries, a time when politics generally and education policy more narrowly has led to what Bob Lingard calls the “evisceration of a progressive imaginary” (2011:355) and James Duggan et al the “neoliberalising ‘foreclosure’ of the future” (2017:16). We need to repopulate/fertilize/extend/enrich (I’m not sure what the right word is) our imaginations of educational possibilities and spaces, but how?


If you’re interested, after tomorrow we have another two seminars in Cambridge on these and similar issues – on Friday May 11th and Tuesday June 19th – which will be free of charge and booking will open a month or so before each. There’s more information here and you can sign up for blog notifications including those announcing when booking opens.

* My thanks to Michele Albanelli, an architect based in Rome and Lima, who told me about children being drawn into plans and also pointed me to these references.





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