Spot the Difference!

A composite image of 6 different schools.

A glam and exciting post from ArchDaily sped by on social media a few weeks ago: School Architecture: 70 Examples in Plan and Section.

So similar were many of these designs that it was difficult to say where in the world they were or even what kind of schools they were.

Have a go, can you spot the differences or guess where these schools are? (answers and photo credits at the bottom of the page)

A composite image of 6 different schools.

My collection of images is a slight manipulation: two are schools not in the article (for reasons that will become clear) and I avoided ones with such specific materials (e.g. bamboo) that would give clues as to their location or at least where they were unlikely to be built. Note also that the article’s collection is already a selection: (a) of recent schools (b) of schools that seem more dramatic, more suggestive of design as you’d expect in an online architecture magazine. In short, these schools have more ‘click appeal’. No architecture magazine ever published 70 Dull-But-Nice-to-Use Schools Across the World.

As a consequence, these 70 schools are more likely to have dramatic exteriors and exhibit whatever aesthetic currently signifies new and exciting. This in turn depends (in part) on not looking like a traditional school. The aggregate effect is that by seeking to be different, the look quickly becomes standard across an international field.

John Hardcastle draws on Walter Benjamin to make a series of related, interesting points:

Photographic surrogates of school building have come to divert reader-consumers’ attention from the way the building is actually experienced towards ‘readable’ (and thus marketable) visual styles … visual representations of schools such as Pimlico and Holland Park [well-known schools in London] are made to stand as emblems for ideas and policies that have a fashionable appeal and, crucially, a shelf-life like other consumables (2013:665).

Similarly, a recent paper by Grosvenor and Van Gorp discusses the travel of school design ideas via émigré architects and notes ‘the power of the visual in carrying knowledge across borders’ (2018:545). Only certain types of knowledge, I’d add. That is, as Hardcastle notes, ‘the way the building is actually experienced’ is a form of knowledge that is both less generalizable and less amenable to representation in visual form.

I want to draw some points from this – some are really quite basic, others are more speculative:

  • Products (including school designs) that appear to be more generic have greater market access and, with that, the potential for being in greater demand.
  • There are two distinct economies of knowledge: one (based on visual appearances) moves objects fast and easily across borders: in a sense, school reduced to image of school. This obscures another more fragile economy of knowledge about school buildings which is less developed, less travelable, more idiosyncratic and so also more awkward to understand and to represent being based on ‘actual experience’ and also what we can call for the moment ‘local context’¹ (although I hate that word ‘context’ for all kinds of reasons that I want to write about soon).
  • A “shelf-life like other consumables” is another way of discussing trends. So we might expect this faster, visual economy to manufacture obsolescence in its promotion of the new. That partly explains the language sometimes used to treat non-new school designs and classrooms as ‘boxes’, say, or ‘egg crates’, or ‘cells’. This dismissal of history is key for marketing the new as new (regardless of whether it really is new or not). Indeed, this article K-12 Market Trends 2018 in Building Design + Construction magazine, takes many old (sometimes very old) ideas, deletes their histories and presents them as ‘trends’.
  • If meaningful space for school users is harder to represent, this explains why the article headlined ‘School Architecture: 70 Examples in Plan and Section’ illustrates these first of all not through plans and section but (largely) by exterior photographs.
  • If one economy trades in visual representations and outpaces the production of an economy based on experience, we are left with an important challenge – how, who, where can ‘actual experiences’ be shared? How can actual experiences by explored in terms of what may be generalizable and what may not? These are questions about the handicap faced by research, by individuals in schools and by groups of people attempting to understand the needs of the present alongside a business-oriented world that produces fetishized representations of design rather than values and aims. It is also, I suppose, one reason why Emma and I set up this blog as we wrote on the About page 3 years ago. Of course, these questions are not specific to school design – they’re common to lots of questions of human experience but they are fascinating given that the difference in speeds between the two economies are so great (and appear to be getting wider).
  • To take a more theoretical line on the last point and borrow the language of Ruth Groff (a brilliantly clear philosopher I frequently find helpful), it’s not too much of a stretch to see how this more active economy of the visual promotes a particular view of what can qualify as knowledge about school buildings. That is, there is an epistemological promotion of the visual that helps to obscure experience and this secretes an account of what schools are. They become fetishized things, products, with design a tool to sell them.
  • If, as a group of researchers in England argued, the ‘challenge [of building good schools] is simplified by giving up the attempt to predict the future’ (Woolner et al., 2005:38) then perhaps a parallel call could be made to give up attempts at following fashions. Both future prediction and fashion following are related, they prop each other up. But they are also potentially harmful in similar ways: they introduce more unpredictability into design – not always a bad thing but risky when accompanied by the deletion of valuable and organisationally useful histories. Both also draw attention away from present, situated needs and people’s actual values.
  • There is another disconnect. Images can be moved more freely than educational policies, practices and discourses which have probably had (traditionally) stricter national boundaries. I intend to do more work on this over the summer but so far have found this paper by Marcelo Caruso a very useful framework to kick things off (and it includes links to more of his work on the globalisation of the monitorial system where architecture as the organization and form of space is central).
  • There is a relation (perhaps) between images speeding by as if viewed from a car, and images presented through social media. 40+ years ago, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about how Las Vegas buildings were transformed into visual consumption opportunities for car-going publics eclipsing their spatial, experiential aspects. As a result, their research approach was to emphasize “image – image over process or form – in asserting that architecture depends in its perception and creation on past experience and emotional association and that these symbolic and representational elements may often be contradictory to the form, structure, and program with which they combine in the same building” (my emphasis, 1977:87). The social media question is taken up explicitly by the Architect’s Newspaper here: How are image-sharing apps affecting architecture and design?
  • To be clear, I’m not arguing against the sharing of images about school design. And it’s not a new phenomenon, although the speed, scale and extent are greater than ever. I am interested in the effects of this (earlier I wrote about the role of search engines in promoting certain understandings of architecture) and there’s some great research at the moment relating to this that I’ve cited from above that I’d really recommend reading or do please get in touch if you have more suggestions – thanks.

It’s summer here in Europe and I’m signing off for a while to concentrate on holidays and then some other work. If you’re going on holiday or going back to school or university if in the US or elsewhere, I wish you a great time.

Here’s the answers:

A composite image of six schools

¹ A good example of the problem where visions travel without their ‘contexts’ is explored by a good-humoured Andrew Saint in the case of open-plan school designs arriving in England in the late ’60s and 70s:

Because of the variation in space-standards, even the exchange of planning ideas was fraught with danger. In the 1960s, many American schools took to the fad of the ‘open’ or ‘loft’ plan – undifferentiated big boxes … But the generous space-standards which prevailed in the richer American school-board districts gave the concept some plausibility and success [there]. Britain succumbed to a short-lived clamour for the open plan, an easily grasped idea which excited the shallow-minded, less among teachers than in the architectural profession (1987:211).

Interestingly, the same example (travelling visions of open plan) is noted by Tyack and Cuban:

In the 1960s, one architect explained, ‘the “in” thing in educational design was the open classroom,’ imported from California and ‘predicated on infinite optimism … it was a disaster in New York…’ (1997:137).

The difference between Saint, and Tyack and Cuban (America vs California) and Saint’s recognition that the resources of the school districts had an effect on what space really involves in use, serves as a good reminder that we need to be careful with how we abstract design, at what level we make abstractions and an overreliance on images tends to ignore this altogether.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks (as ever) for your interesting reflections, Adam. I’d quite forgotten the point we made about giving up on predicting the future to (somewhat) simplify school design. Annoyingly, however, your link doesn’t work (Newcastle University in their wisdom have rewritten their website so older links now go nowhere). But the publication you are quoting is available here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/cflat/files/school-buildings.pdf

    Enjoy your holiday!

    Like

    1. Brilliant, thanks Pam – I’m glad you told me, it’s a really helpful document. I’ll update it this evening. Have a good holiday too!

      Like

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