If I were to walk in through the front doors of your school, what message would I receive? Would I feel welcome there? Would I be encouraged to stay for a while, or would I be more inclined to complete my business and get the heck out? Would I be able to get a sense of the vision and purpose of the school?
In my last entry, I started to do some thinking out loud about architectural design and, in particular, how values, vision and purpose can be expressed and affected by the physicality of this place we call school.
For many educators, the physical design of their schools are a given, inherited and already determined. Often the only opportunity to change design features is through a retrofit or renovation process.
But let’s start doing a little blue-sky thinking and imagine that, as a parent, a teacher, an administrator or a community member, you were invited to be part of the planning team for a brand new school in your district. What design aspects would be important to you? What architectural features would help to reflect your school’s values and vision?
And let’s begin by making a grand entrance!
Entrances are powerful places, possessing the ability to communicate so much about what goes on beyond the threshold. But I would also argue that what goes on in the rest of the building can be greatly affected by the design of the entrance.
One of the “mantras” that I use to remind me of the vision for my own dream school is, “Let’s turn this school inside out”. This involves the idea of drawing the outside community into the life and work of the local school, and allowing students to engage in more frequent learning activities out in the community.
So how could that vision be reflected in my school’s entrance? One idea would be to dedicate electronic display space in the front foyer. A photo and video feed displaying recent school trips to local businesses, facilities and learning centres would help to underscore the importance of that connection to the immediate neighbourhood and wider community. The multimedia pieces would be student-designed and part of the curriculum-based follow-up to each excursion.
Another design related to this same inside-out principle would be an established and jointly sponsored studio area, along one side of the foyer. Studio spaces for dance, drama and visual arts would allow local artists to “take up residence” in the school, have a place to work, and act as an on-site resource for teachers, students and the rest of the community.
Another learning principle that should be reflected in my school’s entrance involves a commitment to the environment. An indoor garden area is a simple and sustainable project idea that could involve students, teachers and the local community.
Important to both the life of the garden and to the sense of openness that I wish to inspire in my school is a substantial amount of natural light. Ground level window space might be impractical and pose some threats to security, but skylight and overhead window spaces would do the trick!
A couple of final design features that would help to establish an inviting atmosphere.
First, comfortable furniture! Nothing says, “Come in and stay awhile,” more than soft, comfortable furniture arranged in ways that invite dialogue and conversation. Coffee tables with copies of the latest school and parent council newsletters, as well as student-produced books and magazines would help to communicate what is happening in the school.
Finally, background music can go along way to offering a subtle invitational quality to any open space. I’m not talking about loud or intrusive music, but something that complements the atmosphere created by other design elements.
Entrances represent more than a way to get to other spaces in a building. They are a type of calling-card for visitors and a reminder to residents and employees of what it means to be in that space. I’ve been to many schools where it is obvious that time and thought have gone into the design of the entrance space. I’ve also been to others, however, where the entrance is rather dull and uninviting.
But entrances can also help to inspire and influence the life of what goes on in the rest of the building. By making design elements interactive, dynamic and open to the input of students and teachers as well community members, it is quite possible that curriculum activity within classrooms will change to take advantage of the opportunities provided.
So, now it’s your turn. Tell us about the grand entrances that you’ve seen in some of the schools that you’ve visited. Perhaps your own school has a particularly engaging design feature. Or maybe you would just like to join me in some blue-sky thinking about the school of your dreams.
As always, I look forward to your input!