Editorials- Schools and Modern Architecture

Schools are mostly workhorse buildings. Perhaps at the very high end of elite prep schools they can occasionally afford to be skittish, temperamental racers with stylish breeding and impressive pedigrees. But, for the everyday world, they need to be able to do their job well. They need to bolster the critical enterprise of helping kids learn in a way that is supportive, nurturing and inspiring. Their core role in society and in people’s lives is too fundamental to allow self-absorbed architectural predilections to overpower fundamental good design.

The architectural mission in schools is different than it is in more glamorous, high style building types. There tend to be repetitive modules of somewhat predictable dimensions. Functional relationships and accommodation of very particular needs are often essential, and it is rarely appropriate to neglect programmatic requirements. Budgets are constrained. Occupants come with piles of stuff, and can hardly be expected to inhabit the building in the spare tidy way architects’ photographs generally depict. School buildings, if they are doing their job, are not pristine eye candy. They are vital, messy crucibles of complex human life.

In my book, this is a delicious architectural challenge. School design, at its best, elicits real creative problem solving. It combines vision, imagination and invention with perceptiveness, discipline and dogged good sense. The kinds of buildings that emerge from this approach possess a genuineness and authenticity that we have not valued enough in architecture in recent years. We have been distracted by an enticing fantasy that architecture might stand alone and independent— apart from the constraints that should shape any credible social/political/cultural phenomenon.

As greater economic responsibility tempers the excesses of the early years of the 21st century, it is perhaps the design values that create great schools that might inspire a broader design ethic in our field. It is an appropriate time to investigate the ways in which fundamental design innovation can come from authentic response to real social and cultural problems.

Schools and Modern Architecture

Historically, many of the most influential schools have come out of periods in which performance, function and authenticity were powerful architectural values. Advances in early modern architecture, both in Europe and in the United States, were significantly fueled by exploration of the fundamental issues prominent in school design. A problem-solving attitude, applied to changing notions of education, provoked innovations that had ramifications well beyond schools as a building type.

In the early 20th century John Dewey, one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism and of functional psychology, published a very influential series of books advocating an experiential, child-centered kind of education. Based on his ideas, largely developed at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, Dewey’s colleagues in the Progressive Movement conceived a different kind of school building where active, project-based learning might occur. Schools with outdoor classrooms and/or classrooms accessible to generous daylight and natural ventilation were preferred to the boxy, monumental public school buildings common in the era. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Home School in Spring Green Wisconsin of 1908 embodies many of the educational principles of John Dewey, his Chicago contemporary and occasional advisor.

Several early modern architects in Europe experimented with similar notions. Ernst May designed the Friedrich-Ebert Schule in Frankfurt with open-air classrooms and group activity spaces. The goal was to improve the students’ sense of initiative and autonomy as advocated by the New Education movement in Germany. Willem Dudok designed several schools in Hilversum, Netherlands in the 1920s in the same spirit of revolution and reinvention.

Richard Neutra’s addition to the Corona Avenue School in southeast Los Angeles in 1934 was perhaps the most influential of the early modern school buildings, even though the new one-story L-shaped wing consisted of only a kindergarten and six classrooms. Each of the rooms had a sliding glass wall that opened to a patio/classroom defined on each side by hedges and above by tree canopies. Outdoor hallways, operable clerestory windows for light and natural ventilation and furniture that could be moved easily indoors or outdoors all helped to create a completely different and more informal atmosphere for education.

Neutra wrote a ten-page article titled ”New Elementary Schools for America“ in Architectural Forum in 1935 in which he makes it clear that this innovative new architecture was inspired by health, safety, educational opportunity and a steadily changing philosophy of pedagogy. His creative solutions to the fundamental social and cultural problems of his era provoked seminal innovations that are still influential in the best of school designs today.

Probably the most famous American school building of any era, the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois designed by Eero Saarinen and Larry Perkins in 1939, has much the same provenance as Neutra’s works. It is rooted in a commitment to self-contained group workspaces, flexible and light-filled interiors, direct access to the outdoors— in short, an experiential and child-centered education.

The sincere response to program, function and philosophy in the work of modern architects like Neutra and Saarinen is what gives their work much of its potency and durability. Schools were an excellent vehicle for exploring these design parameters, a fact born out by the frequency with which they were noted as vanguards of the new modernism. When Alfred Roth selected 20 buildings to herald The New Architecture in his book of that name in 1946, two of his exemplars were schools. Ten years later, based on a poll done by Architectural Record, the Crow Island School was named one of the most significant buildings in America built over the prior 100 years. Schools, with their emphasis on authentic problem solving, were leading a revolutionary movement.

An Infatuation with Image

If strong, potent schools often come from eras where pragmatism and social responsibility are prominent issues, it is also conversely true that eras with more emphasis on image and the self absorbed subculture of architecture often produce weak, flaccid schools. The postmodern era of the late 20th century (and still hanging on in many ways today) did not find schools so interesting, and it is difficult to identify school projects that became vehicles for exploring seminal directions in that period.

Infatuation with the cosmetic and purely visual quality of buildings does not play well in schools. They are too demanding and require attention to a fuller range of architectural concerns. It does not really matter whether the image infatuation comes in the form of classist garb replete with historical reference or modernist abstraction of form (which is, in some ways, also historicist almost a century after modern vocabularies were invented). Trying to hype up schools to become dramatic and precious visual objects has been tried, but with little success.

New and Authentic Innovation

Over the last decade there seems to have been a resurgent interest in really re-inventing schools once again. Perhaps because of a sense of crisis produced by diminishing student performance, there are genuine alternatives to educational norms that are being explored both in the United States and internationally. It is a rich period once again, as it was in John Dewey’s era, for new developments in educational philosophy.

There is a growing acknowledgement that there may not be a ”one-size-fits-all“ solution to the educational challenges of today. Magnet schools, charter schools, ”at-risk“ programs, professional academies, vocational internships and many other alternatives are challenging normative educational models. New high schools are cropping up in reconfigured clusters of big houses in old neighborhoods and in repurposed strip shopping centers. There is a frank rebellion against the formulaic environments that have dominated recent school construction. Even with the brightest new architectural lipstick and eyeliner, and even in the hands of star formalist architects, the old models have produced some embarrassing and dismal failures.

In contrast to these generic norms, the selection of schools included in this issue of Architype offers a broad range of inventive options. Often provoked by ambitious educational agendas, innovative programs, tough neighborhoods, constrained sites or tight budgets, these buildings provide creative solutions to diverse and specific educational problems. These are not so much prototypes for innovation in school design as they are case studies in how to address particular situations with freshness and ingenuity. That seems to be the germane challenge today.

A Case Study in Dallas

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts epitomizes contemporary innovation both in educational philosophy and in architectural response. One of the first arts magnet programs in the nation, this downtown Dallas public high school had struggled with inadequate facilities for years before its new home was completed in 2008. Like most other arts magnets, the school’s goal was not only to produce artists and performers (with success stories like Norah Jones, Edie Brickell and Erykah Badu), but also to educate kids who would go on to a wide variety of careers outside the arts, equipped with extraordinary creative skills.
Go the Architype Review feature on Booker T. Washington High School.

BTW is committed to building confidence, self-expression and the ability to work in teams and ensembles in a way more conventional schools miss. Students are encouraged to act out and develop their idiosyncrasies rather than to conform and follow the rules. There is also an interface with the community that is intense and productive. The school’s 700 students come from all over Dallas and from extremely diverse ethnic and demographic groups. Many of the teachers are part-time, spending much of their day as artists or performers in the real world. The public is invited into the school on a regular basis because it is inherently a place for exhibition, performance and display.

Allied Works was selected as architects for the project in a competition where they were the least well known of the four invited designers. All of the other architects produced stunning image-driven schemes that were visually very powerful but embodied little fundamental innovation in the way this sort of school might actually operate. Brad Cloepfil, the lead designer with Allied Works, impressed the competition jury with his sincere commitment to make a building that advanced the educational mission of the school and captured the extraordinary ”energy of the kids“ he had admired on his visits.

The principal, Tracie Fraley, describes the building as a ”performance machine“. There is visible action everywhere. Music wafts through the wide, vertically interlocking hallways that change in width and height as they thread through the building. Clerestory windows drop generous light through dynamic spaces that provide strong visual connections between floors and allow theatrical views up and down. Dancer practice their moves and acting ensembles rehearse their lines in nooks and crannies as well as in glassy studios where they are always on stage.

The heart of the school is an outdoor amphitheatre the students call the ”Green Room“ where performances range from ad hoc lunchtime shenanigans to formal evening concerts. Fraley extols, ”All this space and flexibility inspires students to try new things and push limits.“

Cloepfil uses words like ”workshop“, ”forge“, ”studio“ and ”factory“ to describe the feeling of the building both inside and out. He favors spaces for the kids that are ”raw, where they can get messy“ and feels the building ”will be at its best in ten years, as it gets honed by them.“ The tough ironspot brick walls and polished concrete floors give a sense of quality and public investment in education alongside a consciousness for economy and durability. This feels like a place where rambunctious high school kids can be themselves without either constraint or pretention.

The contrast between Booker T. Washington and its snazzy new neighbors to the south and west— The Wyly Theatre by OMA/REX and the Winspear Opera House by Foster + Partners— could hardly be more striking. In that contrast lies a very telling difference between schools as a building type and other, more glamorous, image-driven buildings.
Go the Architype Review feature on The Wyly Theatre.

BTW’s neighbors are sleek, glittery, attention-grabbing socialites while the school is a sturdy, solid citizen. The stepped amphitheatre at the Wyly is sculptural and dramatic, but is empty and virtually uninhabitable, while the stepped amphitheatre at BTW nurtures a constant, vital life as the hub of its community. The vast glassy atrium lobby of the Winspear evokes a hands-off awe and even intimidation, while the four-story atrium ”canyons“ at BTW have a friendly, curiosity-provoking intimacy to them.


School design should concentrate on making fine, elegant workhorse buildings and should leave the fashioning of skittish, temperamental racers to other building types. Many of the projects in this selection of schools take fundamental programmatic elements and constraints and use them to generate architectural magic and sophistication. Intrinsic rather than extrinsic forces shape the design. This is where the true action is in school design.

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