City Schools as Meeting Places

This is the edited text of a talk I gave at the Faculty of Planning [Aménagement], Université de Montréal on the 1st June for the research project and ideas competition Between the School and the City developed by Professor Anne Cormier and Alexandra Paré in collaboration with Professor Georges Adamczyk and Professor Jean-Pierre Chupin from the LEAP – Laboratoire d’Étude de L’Architecture Potentielle research group. The project’s aim is “to explore the didactic potential of the architecture of the school within the context of its relation to the city through the study and the design of ‘in-between spaces’”. To do so, it draws on concepts of the ‘in-between’ developed by architects Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger (see the competition notes (pdf) providing some of the background).

In the talk I look at the in-between (and similar concepts such as thresholds) in terms of their potential as meeting places. As well as examples of school architecture, I bring in discussions on space and education from Doreen Massey (2005), Lamberto Borghi (2000), Barbara Comber (2012) and others to help explore what meeting places could mean for schools.

City Schools as Meeting Places: how? of what? for whom?

This talk is about the spatial organization of education. Included with that are the spatial concepts and tools that architects of schools use to conceive of space and build actual educational spaces. The Dutch architect, Herman Hertzberger, is particularly useful here and I will draw on others working in a somewhat similar vein, mostly Giancarlo De Carlo and Aldo van Eyck[i]. In turn, I’m going to relate their ideas to those of geographer Doreen Massey, especially her elaboration of throwntogetherness and meeting places as ongoing opportunities for engaging with the “accidental neighbour” (2005:112).

In fact, in discussing the accidental neighbour and our sharing of space, Massey borrows an image of a building by Aldo van Eyck:

Doreen Massey writes that “van Eyck’s sculpture pavilion at Arnhem was to have the effect of ‘Bump! – Sorry. What’s this? Oh hello!’ (van Eyck, quoted in Jencks, 1973, p.316; Sadler, 1998, p. 171), which captures beautifully the potential surprise of space. It is the accidental neighbour; the encounter with the unforeseen.” (Massey, 2005:112)

How architecture and social, relational space might relate

I want to briefly flag up some key differences and connections between architecture and the kind of space Massey is interested in. First, I find De Carlo’s definition very helpful: architecture is the “organization and form of physical space”. I’ve discussed it at length here so will simply say that as definitions go, it has the advantages of being modest (in that it does not pretend to establish control over social space, aesthetic responses etc) and available as a sort of common denominator. By that, I mean simply that a definition of architecture based on physical space is a minimal, relatively accessible way for different groups e.g. policymakers, planners, architects, teachers and students to meet. I’m interested in how far this common language can go so it’s the definition of architecture I adopt. It is, however, only a minimal definition. There must be something more in social, spatial terms.

Doreen Massey’s space is helpful. Space as an ongoing outcome of our relationality:

“We are always, inevitably, making spaces and places. The temporary cohesions of articulations of relations, the provisional and partial enclosures, the repeated practices which chisel their way into being established flows, these spatial forms mirror the necessary fixings of communication and identity. They raise the question of a politics towards them.” (Massey, 2005:175)

In its providing the organization and form of physical space, architecture therefore offers some of the resources for enclosures, fixings and so forth without determining what happens to them, as De Carlo is keen to make clear:

“I think that a building is not a building is not a building. A building in terms of walls, floors, holes, spaces, materials and so forth is merely the outline of a potentiality.” (De Carlo, 1967 in Samassa, 2004:439-440)

Architecture is not the thing, not the end, but a means to ends that will be taken up and shaped by people. That’s the theory. Education is an interesting way to explore this in practice since education is intentional and itself a form of organization (as opposed to learning which can be incidental). So, this is the base for the kind of space I use in this talk. It needs elaboration (how is space lived and managed in practice?) and that will happen shortly.

Three more things before getting on to the main issue of schools as meeting places. First, why we might want to think about and build schools in this way. The second is a quick aside to clarify the role of space and time. The third is to provide an approach to space-in-use.

Why build schools? Why see them as meeting places?

In a talk in Canada in 1971, the architect Alfred Roth was very clear that school design should properly proceed through a series of ordered questions, first “for whom and for what purpose should schools be built at all?” (1971:34) and only then by moving on to questions such as for how many students. This reflected an approach by De Carlo whose 1969 essay “Why/How to Build School Buildings” debates these questions in educational and spatial terms at length and to quite some depth. It is a remarkable essay and not just “for the time”.[ii]

I don’t know of any architects of schools today who insist that “Why build schools?” is still the right place to begin school design and, in general, it’s not that common a topic in educational discussions either. My guess is that questions of “Why?” have been shifted to specialist, philosophical discussions of education where they can be much more easily managed (discounted?) and where we don’t need to worry about them complicating our lives. However, as Biesta (2009:39) and White (2007) note, questions of why we school and educate are inseparable from democracy itself.

I’m interested in how architecture relates to this because I think there’s two potentially very useful roles here. First, if design is the process of consulting, of formalising, of negotiating, of transcribing desires and aims into different materials and their arrangements – then at least in theory there is a heightened opportunity for the processes of architecture and school design to pose these questions and challenges and to make them public. Second, in making them public in the very structure of buildings, architecture is a useful means for leaving them on display (see the De Carlo doorway from Catania, below) as resources to be engaged with. “Why?” is therefore not simply a useful prod for making better buildings. It is a public question in the sense that it should be asked in public, discussed by publics so that the values and presumptions of public education are engaged with, changed if necessary, and articulated consciously: “why” is the most important question to ask of school education (White, 2007:5).

The follow-on question of why we might think of schools as meeting places is one I will postpone for the moment but only after leaving this from Lamberto Borghi’s The City and the School. Note the focus on difference and value – key points in Hertberger’s idea of thresholds that I will come to shortly:

“School is not only the meeting place of different students and their different cultures but the instrument by which those differences come to be valued with the aim of creating a richer and more articulated society.” (Borghi, 2000:182)

Time and Space

I’m going to return to the question of time later too – this is really just a warning note that whenever we’re discussing space we’re usually also referring to time (and vice-versa) as this sign I saw yesterday in a park indicates quite clearly:

The sign for a park in Montreal communicating whose rights to use the park are active and when. Divisions of space always raise questions about how time is divided (and vice versa). While this park rations access by user type and time, ideas of what is public and what public really involves and means, undergo changes that are easy to miss. At the end of the talk, below, I borrow from an essay by Dana Cuff that helps to pick up on some of these issues.

Two other important ways of thinking about space and time, I’ll come back to: teachers “gaining” time through space, and the adaptation of school space over long durations of time hence the possibility of designing in a slightly different way to accommodate or even help that.

An Approach to Space-in-Use (borrowing from Kevin Lynch)

I take it that most architects deal in the creation or organization of space whereas most teachers and students are concerned with space-in-use. They’re not the same and Kevin Lynch has come the closest I know to getting these differences across in just one short paragraph (whilst also imparting an ethical dimension.) This is from his book Site Planning:

“The ‘openness’ of open space is not so much a matter of how few buildings stand upon it but rather of how open it is to the freely chosen actions of its users. Openness is a product of physical character but also of access, ownership, management and of the rules and expectations that govern activity … This is a behavioural definition: a space is open if it allows people to act freely within it.” (Lynch, 1971 [1962]:352-353)

This is worth picking apart a bit. Lynch is talking about openness with respect to sites but the argument works for the interiors of buildings too. And flexibility (and many other claimed characteristics of space) could be substituted for openness – the point is that these are outcomes or products (as Lynch puts it) of processes. As such, if they exist (i.e. if a site is open or a space flexible) it is because they are human achievements (involving work) that depend also on physical space (and access, ownership etc) rather than a priori spatial conditions.

We take linguistic shortcuts when we talk about open spaces or flexible spaces. This is fine, if we can keep remembering that they really are only shortcuts. If we end up forgetting that in most of our discussions on space we really mean how space can be used, that suspension of complexity and ignoring of Lynch’s points is potentially dangerous. It leads us to glorify space and celebrate properties it cannot have – theoretically or empirically. In the process, this underestimates people’s work, the role of local norms e.g. access, people’s resources and real ability to employ them, as well as the “rules and expectations” shaping activity. In the case of schools, we risk discounting teachers’ work and over-estimating physical space. There is an interesting (potential) professional tension here between architects’ understandable desire to communicate the value-added of design work and teachers’ economic and moral desire for recognition of their work. Designs can be visualized, teachers’ work less so, hence there is an additional challenge here to do with a politics of visibility and associated economies/epistemologies of representation. Architects don’t make much money and especially not on schools – my point is not they are over-deserving but that arguments like Lynch’s are vital for understanding how space works and for signalling the need for empirical studies to see that happening.

Perhaps most importantly, however, if we forget the complexity that Lynch points to, and so we underestimate people’s work, we are also more likely to underestimate how that work differs for different people. Sara Ahmed really hammers this home: “walls are differentiated: some bodies are allowed to pass through” (2017:145). Ahmed’s work here focuses on gender and diversity and is a great practical demonstration of how Lynch’s “rules and expectations that govern activity” can solidify into walls or at least walls that are walls only for some people. We can’t always guess from looking at a wall how it works and making it “work” requires much more effort from some people than others.

There’s much more to be said here – about the dangers of abstraction, the construction of a mythically neutral user (see Forty, 2004:312-315) and especially their dislocation into a fabricated, future time. That future, where some of the more pre-determined and controlling discourses of educational innovation join with architectural excitement about unfettered and sensually innovative gains in both efficiency and aesthetic pleasure, can become dangerous and limiting (Wood, 2018). Lynch gets around that. And his argument is still richer than the bits I’m using here. For example, the demand to consider “rules and expectations” points backwards in time to the historic, social maintenance of rules and connects these through the present to a future part-formed by people’s intentionality via expectations and practices. Further, his re-framing of openness to consider it in terms of “how open it is to the freely chosen actions of its users” adds an important ethical dimension.

Finally, rather than “a behavioural definition” of openness, I think Lynch provides a neat demonstration of the value of thinking empirically in terms of space-in-use: the proof is always in the actual pudding, where it can be eaten and under what conditions, who can get to eat it, and not in the abstracted, context-less ingredients. This all means that if we’re interested in the experience of space, we have to make sure that there is responsibility and dialogue across designers and educators, students, teachers and managers etc. These are not luxury add-ons for better design but existential parts of what buildings are: “can people actually do the things that they want to?” is the empirical test that follows from Lynch.

Applying Lynch

I want to apply what we’ve just talked about to a junction in Berlin in 2017 at about 8am in the morning and two children, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, who are directing traffic:

  • What are the “physical characteristics” of this space? How does it differ depending on whether you move on foot, on two wheels, or four wheels?
  • Who has access and how is that access managed physically, by age etc?
  • Who owns this space?
  • What rules and expectations of space are being affirmed/renewed here? What histories are needed to give them legitimacy? What rules and expectations are being subverted?
  • For whom is this space organized? By whom?
  • Where does school begin and end here?
  • Who is being educated?
  • Spaces are worked for. What work and resources are involved? Are they one-offs or do they require maintenance?

And so on.

My interest in this photo is that it is precisely not a building although many of the questions that could be asked of buildings apply here too. It’s also a useful exercise in thinking about local situations – do schoolchildren do this in London or in Montreal? I doubt it. The pollution levels in many areas of London, even before we consider how drivers behave, probably rules it out.

Hopefully, the points made by Lynch, De Carlo and Ahmed can now be seen as frames for generating particular kinds of questions. They are tools for noticing. In that sense, the conceptions of space we begin with are key to where we can end up. So, apologies if this introduction was on the lengthy side but I think how we start out is pretty important in shaping what we then focus on.

Opening and Closing Schools

I walked past Hertzberger’s Apollo schools in Amsterdam during a couple of hours of free time in the city. The school was closed for the King’s birthday but the gates remained open and the school yard physically accessible to casual visitors like me. The apparently simple idea of openness that Lynch usefully explodes is here shown in a “city school” that I don’t think would be similarly open in London:

Exterior of the Amsterdam Montessori School (one of the Apollo Schools) designed by Herman Hertzberger

Schools’ physical openness varies according to culture as is well-known. Attempts to provide conditions for dialogue between the inside and outside also vary:

Classroom Window of Apollo Schools, Amsterdam by Herman Hertzberger

This photograph, around the back of the school shows a window providing views onto residential streets or into the school, depending on your perspective. The height of the window is a little unusual and together with the bay windows with space for seating, it offers both extensions into more public space as well as withdrawals. “I see walls more in order to make windows in” said Hertzberger in an interview in 2017 – in this sense the possibilities of visual and social connection are framed by deletions in the very material used to separate.

These same connections/separations can also be explored in terms of how they might help people to establish their own meanings and relations between/across what are nominally insides and outsides. There is a parallel here between architecture’s role in organizing physical space and schools’ attempts to organize curricular spaces of knowledge and practices. Barbara Comber’s paper (2012) recounting teachers’ and students’ struggles to understand the gentrifying environment around their Adelaide school and their connection to various histories and stories in the making is an inspiring attempt (also drawing on Massey) at weaving spatial and educational negotiations together. I’ll return to it later. It helped me think about this talk and I think it may be useful for architects and educationalists to talk to each other.

The in-between, l’entre-deux and thresholds

The idea of meeting, is intimately connected with the in-between (l’entre-deux), itself a powerful set of ideas that this competition of ideas and the students’ work in the coming months draws on. For the purposes of this talk, I’ll assume that we can take the in-between, l’entre-deux and thresholds as synonymous. I’ll start with what Hertzberger notes:

“The threshold provides the key to the transition and connection between areas with divergent territorial claims and, as a place in its own right, it constitutes, essentially, the spatial condition for the meeting and dialogue between areas of different orders.” (Hertzberger 2001:32)

Thresholds and other things that connect-and-separate such as bridges, doors, windows, holes and, to a lesser extent, stairs and elevators have of course long been of interest to sociologists and architects alike. Georg Simmel’s essay “Bridge and Door” appears in Neil Leach’s (1997) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory and I’m sure elsewhere. It’s part of a wider interest not so much in the objects themselves but their potential to contribute to relationality: “the relationship is … more important than the thing itself” (1963:234) noted Bakema in another effort to move away from the glorification of physical space itself. And the social potential of thresholds (metaphorical and not) to have physical and conceptual value continues to be exercised, recently by Stavros Stavrides, for example, who argues that the ambiguity of ownership in threshold spaces can be a lifeline for practices of commoning:

“Threshold spatiality, a spatiality of passages which connect while separating and separate while connecting, will be shown to characterize … spaces produced in common and through communing.” (Stavrides, 2016:5)

There are interesting lines to explore here, particularly for education: how ambiguous can threshold spaces be? Thresholds can also be tiring places to occupy/inhabit/use for the same reasons they are dynamic – how possible are they firstly and then how sustainable in already exhausted and pushed-to-the-limit education systems? Dynamism, like openness, cannot be a property of physical space only, it involves work… whose? Are these ideas that are more useful when thought of as horizons to work towards rather than representations of actual educational plans?

To return to Hertzberger’s point, above, it is interesting how the language around thresholds invokes time and movement. For example, “transition” is as much temporal as spatial and the idea of a place of threshold is about “dialogue”: exchange and movement are key just as the more explicitly educational efforts such as Borghi’s (above) sees schools as meeting places and opportunities for exchange – not with the aim of extinguishing differences but rather to facilitate the visibility and understanding of them: “a richer and more articulated society” (my emphasis) i.e. richer and different go together.

The philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, in a recent interview with John White discusses the role of education in relation to these issues in a paper definitely worth reading:

…effective citizenship requires cultivating the ability to cooperate across … differences. Democratic education also requires that citizens both learn to think for themselves and to think together… (Anderson and White, 2019:10)

I am not suggesting that architecture is a miracle cure for social fragmentation, nor that it provides a certain means for getting people together and holding them together happily ever after, nor even that physical space maps neatly onto educational space. But the modest, suggestive approach that De Carlo identifies with the emphasis on choice from Lynch, and “spatial opportunities” (2008:11) from Hertzberger is a useful, realistic but still hopeful way to point out different directions forwards. As De Carlo argued, “In itself architecture cannot change anything; what it does do is to prepare the way for change.” (De Carlo, 2005:online)

In this sense, the idea of a threshold – or meeting place – can be both to gently structure a dialogue and a means for relating and valuing what lies on either side. This example from what is now the Faculty of Humanities in the University of Catania and was the Benedictine Monastery that De Carlo restored and redesigned is perhaps suggestive of this approach. The “door” separates (whilst connecting) the more private study space beyond the wall/door from the corridor. But it also emphasizes that this work is being done, and how – a nod to spatial work as educational work:

There is another, more political dimension to this as Bowker and Star’s work on classification shows:

“When classification systems and standards acquire inertia because they are part of invisible infrastructures, the public is de facto excluded from policy participation … key for the future is to produce flexible classifications whose users are aware of their political and organizational dimensions and which explicitly retrain traces of their construction … The only good classification is a living classification.” (Bowker and Star, 2000:325-326)

This speaks to one of the core concerns of education (and architecture too) through the educational work of helping people become aware of spatial and knowledge construction and the classifications used (whether of people, of curriculums or of physical rooms and spaces).

At various points in time, there have been specific attempts in England to acknowledge how the physically and semiotically classified and classifying scholastic world is an always limiting one even while it systematizes and makes some processes easier to repeat across space and time. In terms of the school (and particularly the urban school) as a meeting place, one such attempt was formalised in a 1970s report for government which came to be known fairly widely as the Bullock Report. It continues to influence education today:

“No child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home as he crosses the school threshold, nor to live and act as though school and home represent two totally separate and different cultures which have to be kept firmly apart.” (Department for Education and Science, 1975:286)

The reflection in this image of the threshold, of the ideas noted above is significant: it is not just that school is porous i.e. that there is movement and flow between school and home, but that there is an explicit role here for the threshold to articulate a space of commensurability, not of equality so much as a way of seeing home and school as mutually constitutive. Does this necessarily involve a state of competition, of one coming out above or as better than the other? I don’t think so. Massey’s way of seeing space I think helps to guard against an easy hierarchization of the two by emphasizing how the space under discussion is really the space that comes come from people’s relationality. Home and school in this sense are merely “temporary cohesions of articulations”. What counts is what moves. And the threshold is a way of increasing the visibility of that.

This is more complex than I have portrayed here. The “home” in this part of the Bullock report is not a generic home, but one that belongs to “Children from Families of Overseas Origin” as the chapter had it. Hence, this is a challenge not just to the misrepresentation of the threshold as an exclusionary device and its potential as a space of commensurability and valuation, but to the educational usefulness of sharp divisions and to the denigration of immigrants’ language and culture. There is much more to be learned and said on this but I will have to leave it for another time, and return now to architecture more explicitly since there is a relatively simple point that can be drawn from this: challenging the hardness and inevitability of the boundaries around what appear to be different environments and institutions is itself an educational and inevitably spatial activity, and thresholds/in-betweens/entre-deux are both useful representational devices illustrating how that challenge might happen and tools in their own right to encourage it happening.

Before moving on and showing some images of schools and the particular ways they sought to establish spatial connections with the environments, I noted a few examples of how enclosure and distancing from the outside had been promoted at various times and so what the concepts of dialogue and in-between-ness were, in a sense, working against.

For example, this image of a site plan for the David Lister School was discussed in the Architectural Review’s Manplan series (probably from 1970, though it was re-published in 2015):

The separation of the school from its surroundings is reflected in the very common educational and especially scholastic separation from housing and social policy. In contrast, physical openness or at least the semblance of openness is now the order of the day in many current school designs. In England from around 2005 onwards, this often took the form of double height glass atria to form the public entrance to schools as with this example in the north of England:

Double height atrium entrance to Academy school in England

I’ve discussed this building and some of its spatial strategies in a paper here (an open access version is here). For this school, the design comes about at a time when architecture is a key tool in establishing the educational but also marketing policy of the school itself. The atrium could be a means of connecting with the community but – going back to Lynch – its openness is reduced by many conflicting needs and interpretations of what this school should be. Access is tightly regulated, for example, by members of the behaviour management team usually standing in the doorway in the morning as students arrive. Outside of school start and end times, the doors are closed, and operated remotely by reception staff for whom the glass is an effective means of visual and physical control. The small grey box attached to the green column on the extreme right of the image and the other box to the left of the double doors on the left of the photo are thumb scanners to “register” the students in the morning. Hence, in various ways the threshold space is here turned over to functions of delaying access and then quarantining or filtering particular kinds of user. Protection, openness, speed, efficiency, visibility, control, display are just some of the tensions pulling on this atrium, how it might be managed and what it might be understood to mean.

In contrast, Herman Hertzberger and Marco Scarpinato’s 2012 school in Rome emphasizes how a building might be woven into space. It’s sunken position – in contrast to the Board schools in London, say, which were raised up high – provides an approach that seems to offer the person coming towards it a vantage point. Originally planned without a perimeter fence, I was told when visiting that local government had insisted on this, another reminder that what is made open can easily be closed. Nonetheless, the school being lifted from the ground and stairs for seating running up the incline helps to give it a sense of lightness and access that is very different from the vast campuses that were planned in the 1970s including this one, the Centre Éducatif et Culturel “Les Heures Claires” in Istres, in the south of France:

A very interesting paper by Catherine Blain and René Borruey (2007) explains the new educational ideas attempted through the site planning of this large complex featuring a high school, shared inter-communal dance centre, theatre, sports club with gymnasium, swimming pool, playing fields and training areas, professional development centre, sheltered housing and vacation infrastructure. For more on how schools have historically been (dis)connected to their surroundings, Teresa Heitor’s and Alexandra Alegre’s (2012) paper, “School-place as a collective urban entity”, is very helpful.

Another way of answering the question of how schools might meet the city and provide opportunities for people to meet is provided here: establish a new educational city which in turn closes itself off (in relative terms) to the residential city. More a campus for older students therefore, this massive expansion of scales was an idea also explored by planners in 1960s’ U.S.A. to encourage desegregation. For example, one school was planned for 18,000 students to draw students across multiple, segregated city zones (Erickson 2016, 563). In general, smaller schools are now favoured and, it seems, with good reason for a range of educational and social indicators (Leithwood and Jantzi, 2009).

Long duration time and space

In a very useful chapter, “The School in the City”, Woolner (2016) discusses her research on urban primary schools and, in this case, the use of gardens:

“…having made room for gardening or cooking or any other practical activity, a school will tend to try to use that space. As one head teacher explained ‘If you’ve got that infrastructure, you can use it and you want to use it, don’t you?'” (Woolner, 2016:59)

This is a simple but important point: you can’t use what you don’t have. In the photo below, taken on the roof of a school designed by De Carlo in San Miniato, Italy, the gardens now seen are fairly recent but were planned for (with the associated drainage and air vents etc) in the 1990s when the school was built.

As is well known, funding for school design, construction, maintenance and possible subsequent expansion or additional design are often very fragmented across national, regional and local governing entities, as was the case here. Although vegetable gardens were planned for the site, it in fact took some 15-20 years for them to happen and effort by one of the teachers and her students to bid for funding. But it did happen, the infrastructure was there and the money actually needed was very little. Like the seating or outdoor classroom (below) also built into the roof of the same school, it offered a particular “spatial opportunity”.

I don’t know whether this space, above is used. But it could be at some point in the future. And if there are ways of providing for these kinds of space and they don’t cost too much, then why not? They are ways of opening up possibilities that can’t be tied down now to specific uses, and that the design team might not anyway foresee. It’s a more open-ended way of seeing the world. In the current risk-averse financial and planning climate that restricts design, such an idea is both less likely and a little unsettling. Of course, no-one can guarantee that spatial opportunities will become useful, cared for, inhabited meeting places but you can create the “outlines of these potentialities” and so help people to fill them in, in their own ways, and that ethical dimension is a key territorial gain.

A final point on the issue of space and time is simply that the brute quantity of space matters for teachers. Policymakers and probably architectural discourse tend to avoid this topic but if you give more space, activities can be planned and organized in advance, in parallel as it were, rather than being restricted to activities in series. Attacks on “teaching from the front” often do not acknowledge that this can also be a very reasonable strategy to coping with a lack of space. If flexibility is usefully translated – via Lynch – into that which “allows people to act freely within [a space]”, then more space should be included.

Final remarks

Though trying to guard against it, it is nevertheless possible I have spoken of meeting places and connections and so forth in slightly romantic terms, as if they are intrinsically good. While remaining hopeful that we might use architecture to provide visions of schools as something more than training grounds for the mastery of technical skills and exercise of 21st century competences – and the Elizabeth Anderson interview does this excellently – it is helpful to take a cautious view on the ideas for moving forward educationally and in design terms.

Part of the difficulty is in establishing what nice-sounding words mean and for whom. In a discussion with Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall noted that, in the UK under New Labour, there was a particular linguistic expansion and that the immediate purpose of this “logic of ‘spin’ was to detach concepts from their previous associations and shift them to new meanings”, shifts of language that were also “ways of deconstructing a form of consciousness”. The word “community” is singled out by Hall as a prime example of this trend: it is a “weasel word” (Hall and Massey, 2010:64) in place of society. There is a risk that these nice-sounding terms (and “meeting place” is definitely one too) can be used to social-wash any project at all. In the case of schools and discussion about sharing resources with the community and so forth, how community relates to in common is – like Lynch’s openness – really an empirical question.

A short essay by Dana Cuff, Collective Form: The Status of Public Architecture is good at picking through some of these issues. Although not about schools directly, it makes some highly relevant points and provides some important background e.g. that “at the same time that citizens mutated into consumers, the conceptual scope of ‘the public’ scaled down from a civic ideal to something much more geographically local” (2012:62). Cuff also suggests that the idea of schools as offering public space is in itself part of this scaling down of both publics and spatial ambitions, so that the “public in the public good shrinks to fit” (ibid:63). In this sense, we might see schools-as-meeting places both as a relief in that they provide some form of (reduced) public good but also as a means by which we become satisfied with less.

A geographer, Caroline Loomis, studies how such shrinkage happens in the closure of large public schools and the redistribution of students into smaller charter schools in New York City. The division (physical, social, institutional) of large buildings into sometimes four or five separate schools and subsequent (re-)production of racial and social divisions shows how the manufacture of boundaries provides opportunities for competition and territory-seeking as well as meeting places (in the nice-sounding sense).

All of this in a way to return to De Carlo’s point that “a building is not a building is not a building … [it] is merely the outline of a potentiality”. Hence, asking what it means to think about sharing and co-managing activities in a school in the long-term, not just space & infrastructure, is key. Still, the ends-in-view, the shape of that potentiality is an exciting one, one that buildings gives visible form to and so help to inspire, to act as frames for people to exercise their own planning, and to create spatial opportunities including the potential to join with others and learn about them, with them.

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[i] See Tuscano, Clelia (2005) ‘I am a Product of Team 10: Interview with Herman Hertzberger’, in Max Risselada & Dirk van den Heuvel (eds.) Team 10: In Search of a Utopia of the Present 1953-1981. Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers. pp. 332–333.

[ii] The times e.g. late 1960s clearly were important with the rise of mass university education and higher levels of schooling etc prompting renewed focus on what the purposes of education were and how we might avoid the worst effects of its standardization. Illich’s Deschooling Society (1973 [1971]) obviously comes to mind. For some interesting discussion about the spatial issues connected to this, De Carlo’s 1969 essay provides an excellent discussion. Federica Doglio has recently focused on similar questions in relation to another Team 10 member, Shadrach Woods, and in a very helpful paper makes the Illich connection explicit (Doglio, 2018).



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