Architecture has many purposes. It keeps the rain off our heads, keeps our belongings secure, and brings pride and beauty to our lives. But architecture-and school buildings in particular-can do far more than that. Every building ever made carries within it the goals of its creators. Just as we can learn what was important about ancient societies by examining their physical artifacts, we can see what we ourselves value by looking at the buildings we construct. In America, school facilities usually promote economies of scale, separation of kids and adults, passivity of learning, and standardization of practice and outcome. We don’t seek these results maliciously but our decisions-from the six-period day to row-and-column individual classrooms to large consolidated high schools- lead to these results.
Architecture almost never causes behaviors directly, but it certainly makes some actions easier and others harder. If a school building clusters its administrative staff away from teachers and students,it helps administrators work together more efficiently, while at the same time increasing the isolation of those decision-makers from the teachers and students they serve. If a school locates itself in the heart of a town, it allows easier access for students to the real day-to-day life of their community. If a school uses one-piece desk/chair combinations, it reinforces learning as an indi-vidual act and hinders collaboration and group understanding.
If we actively want to pursue different goals, then architecture can help us do that as well. We can use intersections in corridors to enhance social contact. We can arrange tables and chairs in ways that help learning become a joyful, unselfish act instead of a solo performance. We can locate our schools in the centers of the neighborhoods they serve, to promote parental contact and student service work. We can use local services like theaters and athletic programs to reduce the isolation of school from community and increase the numbers of adults in kids’ lives. We can make the principal’s office the heart of the school community rather than a punitive outpost for the disobedient. Schools can be helpful, satisfying, and equitable places. Architecture alone will not make them so, but we can use buildings to assist us in creating schools that are homes to powerful learning and delight.
Herb Childress, Director of Research at the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, wrote Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of its Teenagers (State University of New York Press), a penetrating look at the use and meaning of school, home and town in teenagers’ lives.