On Space and Learning

Gehry Staircase

One of my favorite hobbies is architecture. I am a huge fan of spaces that evoke meaning and emotion by their design. Living in Buffalo we have many such spaces including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House Complex. I had the opportunity to visit a new space yesterday in Frank Gehry’s recent addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Mind you, art is the main attraction at the AGO (they have an incredible collection) but the building is just as important to me. The most prominent aspects of the AGO addition are the Gallery Italia on the entrance side and the spiral staircases that go up the north and south faces of the upper galleries. Walking the gallery and interacting with the art in such beautiful and emotional spaces is an experience that washes over you and takes you in.

This feeling led me to think more about learning spaces in school. Learning is the most important thing that goes on in school, and the surroundings should not matter. Or should they? Take the architecture of the typical school – boxy and utilitarian. Not much feeling is typically evoked by arriving at a school (more often negative feelings related to what is about to happen…).  The difficult thing about school architecture is that it is designed for the interior spaces, and the form follows the function (a common architectural theme). Many schools, even the multitude built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, have interesting spaces inside for classrooms (retractable walls), team planning (offices), and common areas (libraries & cafeterias). Over the course of time, impending needs cause a space to be restructured beyond the original intent. Team rooms become classrooms, offices become closets for multiple teachers, etc. Eventually, the question comes up, “why was this designed this way?”

I love to walk through a school and look at the way space is set up. I look at structural elements and try to determine if it is original work, or a change/addition to accommodate a need. I try to think about the designers intent vs. the current use. One of the most disappointing things to me is when I see interior windows covered up to prevent distractions between rooms. Windows are meant to expand space and prevent a feeling of isolation. Covered windows certainly cut down on distraction, but they also imply “leave me alone.” Last summer I worked in one of our high schools that was designed as, and for the most part still is, an open classroom building. Sure, there are “walls” (locker banks, partitions, etc.) that separate rooms, but for the most part, you can walk around and see almost everything. The atmosphere is great. Everyone understands and respects the open style. Once you are in it, you can feel the difference in the setting. And yes, they move walls as necessary – what a great option to have.

This brings me to the building I’m in this summer – a traditional walled high school. As hard as I try, every time I arrive at the building, I look for that element that says, “Welcome,” but have not found it. However, once inside, the layout and materials (brick, wood) speak of good design. There are a variety of flexible spaces, included partitioned classrooms and larger lecture conference rooms. As with any school, rooms have been re-purposed for a specific need, and sometimes the result  is not what the designer intended.

Why this reflection on space? Well, I blame the AGO for getting me onto this topic, but more importantly, space and the use of it is important to a school. I think an architecturally appealing outside can do a HUGE amount for the overall presence and impact of a school. Unfortunately, most of the time you do not get the option to design the outside elements unless you happen to be involved in a capital project or building a new school. Inside a school there are many more opportunities to reflect on and redesign spaces. Often times the need comes up due to overcrowding, but even in those instances, the use of space can have a huge impact on the learning. School is the place students will spend the majority of their time – it should evoke a sense of warmth and encouragement to promote the best for all learners.

How is the space you work in everyday?

Image Credits:
DSCN0695 and DSCN6700 by TomFlemming on Flickr