Light shed on importance of school building designs

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Pupils' learning could be harmed by `depressing' classrooms, leading architect warns

"I've done a lot of work with mental patients and long-term prisoners, and some work with schools. They've all got one common thread: they're full of people who would rather be somewhere else."

These were not the comments of a de-schooler, but one of the UK's leading architects.

In a hard-hitting critique of building design at a national conference in Edinburgh last week, Will Alsop warned that children's learning could be harmed by a "depressing" trend towards standardised school design.

Clearly not starry-eyed about his profession, he said he had taken children to disused factories and asked if they would like to go to school there; pupils could see so many possibilities that there were unanimous replies of "yes".

The international principal of global architects RMJM, who is also professor at Vienna University of Technology, told his audience that, while the design of a school was important, so was the imagination of the people inside.

"It's possible to have an absolutely rubbish building, (but) with a fantastic headteacher and staff it all works," he said.

Speaking at the conference on school architecture and design, Making Space 2010, which was run by Children in Scotland, Professor Alsop warned that current school design was becoming more uniform and added: "We're in danger of producing a standardised citizen."

His comments contrast with the views of the Scottish Futures Trust, the Government's vehicle for capital investment in the public sector. It recently stated that 80 per cent of design was similar in all schools, and called for more collaboration between local authorities to achieve "economies of scale".

Professor Alsop said architecture was poorly understood by civil servants and other decision-makers, resulting in unappealing school buildings. Good school designs did not have to be expensive, he said, but that did not rule out aesthetic appeal. More people visited churches for their inherent beauty, than believed in God and went to worship every Sunday; there was "no reason why schools or hospitals shouldn't have similar qualities".

The architect's role, Professor Alsop suggested, was "to make a place where you would quite like to spend time", which meant giving schools "as much space as possible, with virtually no walls".

It was in "leftover space (that) the learning really goes on"; classrooms were "completely over-designed" and corralled pupils' minds. Schools should have spaces where "you can just dwell" and attractive outdoor landscapes to view. This was a recognition of the fact that "you don't learn all the time: you daydream".

Independent schools often had better spaces than state schools, Professor Alsop said, not because they had more money, but because they were freer from bureaucratic intervention to decide what was in pupils' interests.

He went on to stress the importance of consulting children because procurement practices did not encourage proper interaction between pupils and architects.

Design experts voice their opinions

School buildings had to allow for the "uncertain demands of the future", insisted Richard Yelland of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He recalled his involvement in discussions 15 years ago, in which many were adamant that design should allow internet cables into all parts of a building - until a lone voice piped up that wireless might render such concerns redundant. School should also incorporate "a little bit of disorder", but must not be "a monument to aesthetics".

"We need to be a lot less certain about what we plan in the future," concurred Sam Cassels, design adviser (schools) for Architecture and Design Scotland. The best people to decide how a school should be used were pupils.

The Industrial Revolution and Protestant work ethic had led to a "catastrophic" misunderstanding of childhood play's importance, said Charles Whitehead, a social anthropologist and former director of an advertising agency. Children thrived in places that were "untidy and incomplete".

Karin Hoyland, researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said politicians and planners had little idea how environments influenced lives.

Urban planning increasingly segregated different groups of people, as with demarcated outdoor playgrounds for children.

Ditch standard descriptions of rooms as "dining rooms" or "assembly halls", said Stephen Long, divisional director of 3DReid architects. Instead, say "we need a dark space, or a light space", and schools may find they have what they thought they lacked.

Too many school outdoor spaces are over-cultivated - wild, overgrown grass is a good thing, added Ian Gilzean, chief architect at the Scottish Government's learning directorate.

Built to last

The Scottish Government's statistical bulletin on the school estate, published at the end of last month, indicated that the number of schools in a good or satisfactory condition had risen from 61 per cent in 2007 to 79 per cent this year.

Other findings:

  • Some 303 schools were "substantially rebuilt" or refurbished between 2007-08 and 2009-10; 151 were funded by private finance initiatives of non-profit distributing models, and 152 with direct capital funding;
  • The average occupancy of schools in 2009 was 69 per cent, down from 70 per cent in 2008; 62 per cent of primaries and 34 per cent of secondaries were below 75 per cent capacity;
  • There were 216 schools sharing a campus with one or more schools; 298 had special areas for community services.

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