A place to learn

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  • Harold B. Gores

    A place to learn

    For the most part, our schools and universities are chilly places, designed for indestructibility and against property damage by presumed van- dal impulses of the occupants.

    It is said that at the turn of the century, the psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, observed that qn- tellect is but a speck on the sea of emotion'. Yet our schools and universities, ever good at nourishing the intellect, are deficient in serving the emotions. Education has dealt well with light but not warmth, facts but not feelings, in- formation but not inflammation, performance but not people. Educational facilities, taking their cue from the process they house, are chilly places.

    Except, of course, in the places where the very young are taught. Thanks to educators like Bruner, Froebel~ Montessori, Pestalozzi, Piaget and Rousseau, the learning environment for small children is less institutional, hard and slip- pery than what we provide for older children.

    As long as a child is small we are kind to him. In America we surround him with humane, de- structible, child-scaled space and furnishings. We try to design around him, his nature, and his needs. But once his voice changes, we design against his new-found strength, lest somehow he destroy his own environment for learning.

    HaroM B. Gores is president of the Educational Facili- ties Laboratories, New York, N .Y . , United States.

    Consequently our secondary schools are ada- mantine, defying any scholar to leave a mark that he ever passed through the place. Under- standably, our colleges and universities are even more unfeeling than our secondary schools in their devotion to ceramic containment.

    Yet, there is hope. Looking back at edu- cational facilities in the last decade in the United States, I see many changes--mostly for the better. Some examples are given below: The notion of flexible, modular space is now

    firmly rooted in the American and Canadian system. The so-called systems approach is becoming increasingly universal. Alert com- munities are able to gain occupancy to a building within twelve months of their de- cision to have one. By maximizing the use of pre-engineered components, flexible, re- arrangeable, quiet (carpeted), comfortable (air-conditioned) and relatively inexpensive, schools are now going up in the United States and Canada. Even the old schools are seeking a systems approach to their remodelling in some of our larger cities.

    The encapsulation of space seems finally to make sense. Heretofore, air-supported bubbles of space were dependent on membranes of short life. Understandably, municipalities were reluctant to erect a ~building' whose skin had to be replaced after six years. But space- age technology has produced a new long- lasting membrane, proved by the roof of


    Prospects, Vol. II, No. r~ Spring I972

  • Harold B. Gores

    the United States Pavilion at the World's Fair at Osaka, and we now can erect great scoops of space at relatively low cost and with long life. 1 For the first time we can now think of inex- pensive ways to roof stadiums, of constructing gymnasiums, fieldhouses, and even student centres. Already in the United States we have one college that is planning to cover three acres of its campus, and another that is con- structing a bubble fieldhouse of 6o,ooo square feet. My guess is that the predominant new art form for the I97OS will be the cable- air-supported membrane over large cavities of space.

    The development of a 'kit of parts' makes it feasible to establish schools in places not origi- nally designed for education. In New York City, for example, where there are currently II million square feet of untenanted office space, the opportunity of placing schools in office buildings is vast. The famed Hunter College Laboratory School will soon be lo- cated on the third floor of a new office build- ing. The 30o children, aged from 4 to 12, will find there all the furnishings and equipment necessary for learning. The floor will be car- peted and the ceiling will provide light, acous- tic absorption and air conditioning.

    The same principle is being applied to numerous conversions of commercial space to educational use. In New York City over $200 million has been committed to so-called 'joint occupancy'rathe mixing of education on the same site, and frequently under the same roof, with housing, commerce, and industry. Many a factory is being converted to vocational education and loft space gen- erally is becoming a superior place for learning.

    Currently emerging is a new form, best de- scribed as a community-centre school, a gath- ering place for persons in all seasons. The

    I. See Ronald Beckman, 'Education under a Bubble', page 84 of this issue.


    community centre is designed to provide a supportive environment for the education of children, as well as for general use by adults. In the United States, Pontiac (Michigan) and Atlanta (Georgia) are probing in this direc- tion. In Pontiac's Human Resources Center, several social services are brought together on a single site.

    At every level of schooling, efforts are being made to shape environments that are humane and less likely to induce alienation. College hous- ing for example, is fast moving away from the two-to-a-box cell arrangement toward apart- merit-type living for the student. Many second- ary schools are altering their programmes and premises in recognition of students' varying life styles. One is encouraged by the development of individual programmes designed to enable each student to proceed through the curriculum at his own pace.

    In Broward Country (Florida), two high schools of 2,ooo students each will consist mostly of loft space in which the teachers and students are free to cut their own pathways in both the space and curriculum. While the school shell is being constructed, the various disciplines and departments can be negotiating their particular territories within the building. Flexible space gives everyone a second choice and reallocation can take place each year.

    At Colorado College, students are creating a successor to the college classroom. So far, it is a place possessed by one group alone for six weeks, day and night, with living-room furni- ture (rather than institutional kitchen-hke furni- ture) and one fixed focus of design--the coffee u r n .

    At present something like seventeen companies are preparing to offer the education market various types of cartridges and cassettes, evidence of the current explosion in educational technology.

    In the United States, increasingly, 'systems building' and "building systems' are coming into general practice. Invariably these buildings are

  • A place to learn

    flexible and inexpensive to rearrange. This de- parture from the conventional and unchangeable layout of space, produces suction on the process of education and encourages new roles for teachers and children. Schools are encouraged to reorganize the hierarchical placement of person- nel, especially one teacher per class, in favour of more flexible staff deployment.

    The trend is clearly towards generalized space made special by its furnishings and equipment. Predictably there will be fewer chairs and more hassocks, fewer desks and more clip-boards,

    fewer partitions and space dividers, and fewer dedicated spaces.

    And so the school can be a place not just for children but for all. It will be a good place to meet, irrespective of the length of one's legs or the length of one's life. For some, according to their life styles, the community-centre school may be only the base of operation if their cur- riculum is the community. Finally, schools will be contemporary in their concerns, and their physical facilities will reflect the amenity adults have already secured for themselves.