ArchDaily is continuing our partnership with The Architectural Review, bringing you short introductions to the themes of the magazine’s monthly editions. In this introduction to the October 2015 issue, Editor Christine Murray uses their recent school awards as incentive to discuss the plight facing London schools and (in timely fashion) asks “are we going to battery farm our children now?”
My son’s postwar school won’t win any awards for its design. I’d like to think that’s why they plan to demolish it. But the school faces a more sinister fate.
Hackney has its eyes on rising land values in this fast gentrifying London borough. It plans to demolish three primary schools, carving up the plots to build private homes for sale on designated education land. New schools will be rebuilt on a fraction of the original sites, some with twice as many pupils squeezed in.
The mums at the school gates aren’t happy, but, ‘the mood music suggests it will happen anyway’, one sighed after a community consultation meeting. The headteacher seems pleased. The watercolor feasibility plan is on display in the school entrance hall – the building hidden behind blurry children at play.
The proposed school is opposite a park, but the south-facing, high-rise residential towers will block the view and daylight. The school is built in their shadow. (Ironically, residential towers on this site were demolished 20 years ago as a sign of progress.) The number of unaffordable homes crammed in doesn’t leave room for much else. Play spaces are on the roof, in permanent shade. As for the classrooms, there aren’t many windows. The corridors are internal, artificially lit rat-runs.
My son’s current school is not a gem. A chain of prefabricated boxes, it offers little delight. But it has design features that dignify it as a school. There are no corridors: the main entrance, classrooms, offices and hall are all located off a single reception space. You can’t get lost, and there are no hiding places for bullies. Every classroom has a door to the playground through which students enter and exit, eliminating chaos and doubling as fire escapes. The doors can be left open for fresh air – a precious asset when so many schools are sealed boxes. Every classroom has its own toilet, eliminating that walk down an empty corridor to stinky loos. The outdoor spaces, although modest, are lovely – a grassy hill with enough bushes and trees for a game of hide and seek, a bee hive, kitchen garden, football pitch and three surfaced play areas (one for nursery, one for reception and one for everyone else). It’s here that the poverty of the new school is laid bare: not a blade of grass, no sunlight, and two residential towers to look up to (with residents, looking down).
Children spend 30 per cent of their life in school, with profound effects on their health and development. A 2007 Danish study showed fresh-air ventilation rates are linked to performance. In a study of 2,111 Spanish schoolchildren, time in (not near) green spaces reduced hyperactivity and behavioral and emotional problems, and improved ADHD scores. A six-year American study on 905 Massachusetts elementary schools found pupils in schools with more ‘greenness’ scored higher in standardized tests. Chinese scientists discovered a 23 per cent reduction in shortsightedness among children who spent an additional 40 minutes in the sun.
The schools in this edition inspire as too few do. In a wealthy city such as London, there is no excuse for poor stewardship of a land asset that, once sold, will be gone forever. With the shortage of school places, we need education land to build on. We once battery farmed hens until it was found to be too cruel. Will we battery farm our children now?
We build temples to human endeavor; museums and libraries that provoke feelings of higher purpose and continuity. Our schools must also be temples, not hothouses. A humble place of learning can be a sacred space. And if you can’t afford architecture, let nature do what you cannot. “The answer may not be a building.” There is no ceiling higher than the sky.