There was a time when the architect, with little involvement from the building owner, artfully crafted an iconic concept as a solution for a new facility. Later, the architect’s staff would skillfully force the program components (as they understood them) to fit the concept. Though such “starchitects” still exist, today’s dynamic public institutions deserve a more interactive planning and design process.
This new breed of architects starts not with napkin sketches and esoteric concepts, but rather with listening that leads toward understanding. This is particularly important in the realm of educational architecture, which can create opportunities for learning, or barriers to it. Therefore, the ultimate goal of the architect is the same as that of the educator: to develop skilled members of the workforce and productive members of society.
During our community engagement sessions, you’ll see colorful foam cubes depicting potential layouts, flipcharts with priorities, and idea cards pinned on walls. What you’ll also see is stimulating conversation . . . between parents and teachers, students and administrators, facilities personnel and architects. All this happens before a single line is drawn.
One of the key challenges that has emerged from planning sessions is how to build spaces that encourage self-awareness among students. That means spaces that inspire students to work together, to recognize their leadership value, and to become resilient in the face of adversity.
Different leaders have different styles, thus the need for diversity in learning environments, whether it’s a place that enables students to work individually, in small groups, or as part of a larger community. Architecture responds to these needs with environments that are changeable at a moment’s notice with flexible furnishings, technologies, and even walls.
One example of settings that encourage awareness are the STEM labs at Niles North and West High Schools. They offer flexible configurations and equipment so students have opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving, and self-directed study. Students can test a theory in the Lab Zone, then head to the Think Tank area to talk with their peers about their success or failure. Again, it’s about encouraging leadership and resilience.
Educational architecture can create opportunities for learning, or barriers to it.
Environments can also create learning opportunities using what I call “systems awareness.” If the building has an innovative structural or HVAC component, why not show it off rather than hiding it behind a wall or a ceiling?
Students can even build their leadership skills by participating in the design process. During one community engagement session for a new aquatics center, a student presented a well-developed argument stating that the center needed four diving boards. She ended up getting three. Not bad, since the initial budget allowed for two.
Educational leaders and architects should work together to create a culture of continuous change. When students walk into a space, they should know to act differently.
Unlike the bare bones schools of the past, today’s schools should stand as beacons of inspiration so that when students step inside, they think, “I want to learn about this. I want to be a part of this.”