School as a Magic Box


I’ve been feeling sad and angry and afraid and finally I wrote this for my first year architecture students who are designing a school for a fictional site in Manhattan. This is the studio course in which they learn about the integration of program and form—they are dealing with a complex program for the first time. Their mid-review is coming up on March 1st, so I wrote this today to help them formulate a programmatic idea about their school proposal, but also for me, so I could spend a morning dwelling in the magical incredible space that is a school.

Dear studio:

When you present your school project on March 1st, I don’t want you to fall back on platitudes about well designed spaces for learning. Instead, take some time this weekend to think through school spaces for every program item. I’ve written this narrative to complement the square footage requirements listed in our syllabus. The list will only get you so far; to tap into true architecture magic you need to think of your school as the dynamic space-time animal that it really is.

First of all, you have the core classrooms, three classrooms per grade times three grades for a total of nine classrooms. This is where students read and write, where students revel in or struggle with mathematical concepts, and also where they learn about history and human rights. Imagine them moving around between these nine classrooms: 6th, 7th, 8th grade language arts, 6th, 7th, 8th grade social studies, 6th, 7th, 8th grade math.

The language arts room is about literature so there are lots and lots of books. Sometimes everyone reads the same book, sometimes different students choose books that interest them or that the teacher recommends based on who they are. Literature includes poems that can be recited or plays that can be enacted, and here’s a possible connection to the theater—perhaps a project that begins in a language arts room ends up as a theater performance. Theatrical productions need sets so there’s a possible connection to the art room, where sets could be designed and built. Fiction can have socio-political content and non-fiction books require close reading, so language arts and social studies can be linked under a larger umbrella of humanities.

The social studies room also has lots of books because it has to cover a fair amount of history and critical thinking; here too there’s lots of reading and writing. Here too you may have enactments of historical events and a potential connection to the theater. The connection to the art room can even be direct if, for example, communicative props/posters made for social justice units, become part art project. There could work requiring groups of twenty-four when a unit was presented, groups of twelve when two sides developed opposing arguments on a topic, groups of six when students developed arguments for those two sides, groups of three as each of the 8 groups of three makes a formal presentation to the rest of the class about the position they have developed through research, reading, writing, verbal debate, and peer input.

The math room is probably the one with the greatest range of subdivisions. Once the problem is presented students get to work by discussing potential solutions with their classmates. These discussions could start between pairs of students, then that pair of students shares their finding with a second pair of students, then a third pair and a fourth pair, then perhaps each group of eight will choose a representative to present their findings to the entire class of twenty-four. What I’m trying to convey here is that each problem will require a different problem solving set up. Teachers and students will make any environment work, but what could we do if decided the architecture should be complicit in the varying group structure? All three types of core classrooms have some version of group work, from pairs, two students editing each other’s writing, to socratic seminars that involve all twenty-four students.

These nine classrooms have the potential to open, connect, and augment based on their potential use as different kinds of learning spaces, but it must also be possible for nine 30’ x 30’ spaces to be enclosed and locked spaces. The teachers have work areas for themselves and their colleagues inside these nine core classrooms, and so they are used for lesson plans or curriculum planning and coordination when the students are elsewhere (between the social studies teacher and the language arts teacher when they are coordinating a humanities project collaboration; or when all three math teachers are reviewing what worked or what didn’t in a particular presentation of a problem).

Also, schools have lockdown drills now, and in those situations the nine core classrooms become a place of refuge. They must be able to keep someone from coming in but with windows to street access so that firefighters can get to them in case of a fire. This relates to the requirements of the whole building: there is only one point of access for the school for everyone, teachers, students, staff, parents, visitors all need to go by the security guard’s desk and prove their purpose. But at the same time there need to be enough exits in case of a fire, doors that are unlocked from the inside and alarmed, but almost invisible from the outside. In fact, nothing should be visible or accessible from the sidewalk. Any glass must have protection against forcible entry and against seeing into whatever spaces are at the sidewalk level.

This sort of condition, an interior brimming with life, but an exterior that must protect the precious interior, brings to mind a body in armor. The additional requirement to keep its interior hidden brings to mind a magic box. This is a building that does not announce or reveal itself, but nothing architectural is lost here. The concept here is the exterior mute mask hides the articulate sectional organization of the building. For an example of this architecture-as-magic-box idea look at Louis Kahn’s Yale Gallery for British Art, built in New Haven, CT in mid-twentieth century. Here too there was a peculiarity about the ground floor. The university needed a gallery to house its collection but the city was worried about loosing the tax revenue of the property. As a solution the building used the vierendeel truss to lift the museum program above the street level and leave the taxable ground floor for commercial uses. A pedestrian hiccup in the project planning led to a wondrous space of light and air inside. This building is a magic box building, mostly a gray taut envelope on the outside and pure magic inside.

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