Sunday, November 23, 2008

Progressive architecture?

I work in a building that was designed and built in the 1920s, in its day a model of progressive school architecture and still a pretty nice place to teach and learn. Deep in our archives lies a long essay by one of the early trustees (not the architect), a hands-on Boston Brahman of an engineer who wanted to make certain that the new country day school's classrooms received the maximum amount of sunlight each day. To this end, he had even built a model that could be rotated relative to the elevation and declination of the sun at various times of day throughout the school year. Sunlight was reckoned to be good for kids in lots of ways, not in the least because it was the best available source of vitamin D, which prevented rickets, the scourge of upper and lower class city children whose exposure to sunshine was limited by custom in the case of the wealthy and necessity in the case of the working poor. (Now most of us get our vitamin D from milk, to which it has been added since the 1940s.)

Kids at our school were unlikely ever to get rickets, as on a sunny day the light in our original building is clear, bright, and in warm weather even a little bit relentless. Along the way, the salubrious effects of good and plentiful light make for a pleasant learning environment. The classrooms are still adequate in size for classes today, and the hallways, dining room, and other areas serve their purposes remarkably well after eighty-some years. Just as the fine light makes reading and working more pleasant than it might be in a less well-planned structure, so do our flexible modular tables and chairs make it painless for teachers to shift from small group work to seminars to lectures with only a few moments' redeployment of the furniture. Add wireless internet and built-in projection devices, and teachers and students can generally focus on the work and not on getting set up to do the work.

All in all, our school, like most older campuses, has been able to retrofit our spaces and classroom accoutrements to meet our needs. Most of this has been done incrementally, and we have adapted pretty happily. Our hallways, however, are often clogged with students doing small-group work outside their classrooms, and our meeting spaces are booked pretty solid. The elaborately designed 1960s science classrooms are still pretty good, but they could be better, and the multilevel library of the same vintage has both accessibility problems and, increasingly, functionality problems in a world moving from paper to electronic research. There are ways that we could imagine all of our spaces to be a bit more functional, a bit more friendly.

But our systems all still work, and work well enough in their way, but the retrofitting is becoming a bit more of a challenge. As our founders did, we have recognized the need for some new conceptions, and so we have completed a master plan and are pondering the best way to bring the new concepts of space and work into being.

The challenges of new technologies and new approaches to learning have us thinking hard about our lovely Georgian building, and they will pose the same issues for schools across the nation and the world. The rational, endlessly replicable rectangular classrooms filled with chairs and desks or tables have their place in the educational world, but new kinds of spaces are needed to serve 21st-century goals such as collaboration, new media literacy, digital communication, and even virtual or enhanced reality.

Now, architecture and design do not equate to learning, but I think it's pretty much undeniable that student-friendly design and easy access to necessary classroom resources and technologies can facilitate learning by de-stressing the process for students and teachers alike. In the next town over from our school they are building a new high school that will cost around $200 million; I hope this will de-stress the people in the school, although the pricetag has sure as heck stressed the community's taxpayers. Arguments will persist over the cost, but the town will have a state-of-the-art school building that has been meticulously planned to meet every conceivable educational need for the next decades; one also hopes that the planners have left enough flexibility to accommodate the things of which they didn't conceive.

This afternoon I came across a wonderful and provocative slideshow containing dozens of ideas about and examples of revised concepts of space in schools. Rather than present my own analysis and pontifications, I invite New Progressivism readers to have a look and then leave their own comments. There is some cool stuff here, and I think you will enjoy it:

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