Board school bubbles: action research and the new collaboration between architects and primary children

While some architecture departments at universities like Sheffield and North London have started to work more closely with schools, academic studio design work rarely addresses the needs and ambitions of the occupiers of their hypothetical schemes directly, as there are no real clients to interrogate and learn from.

This is despite a growing realization that the psychological reaction of individuals to their spatial surroundings has a primary influence on their perception and understanding of modern urban space. Whether a ‘situationist’ or a phenomenological approach is taken to increase contextual understanding and generate a design strategy, the problem is still one of assessing the reaction of an individual (whether designer or occupier) to their surroundings.52 In primary schools, pupils bring their own fantastical imaginings with them from elsewhere and overlay these on what exists. What has gone before and what is proposed then moves into a newly active realm where the interlopers attempt to impose their preconceptions.

The relative permanence of a school’s fabric is occupied by rapidly changing cohorts of pupils. Each pupil will have their own perception of the school environment and will attempt to engage with these relatively timeless edifices as a backdrop to their own fleeting fantasies.

There is an enormous gap here in the knowledge available to architects. It is clear that techniques are required allowing the political, psycho-geographical and phenomenological responses of occupiers to penetrate the studio teaching cycle and the architects’ design process. But in order to contribute to better school design, some way should also be found to understand the potential of spatial design to facilitate the exploration and creative expression of the pupils’ own imagination. As we have seen already, the work of the architecture workshop movement has provided some important first steps in enabling young people to express their own design ideas.

However, such an understanding implies a structured dialogue between architect and building user which is seldom found in practice. There are, however, a few precedents. Pioneering architect Walter Segal thought that as a profession, the architect’s role could no longer be ‘one of taste maker’ and that it would be desirable ‘for those for whom architects are building… to bring their own talents to bear’.53 In his own work this dialogue involved the manipulation by individual self builder/house owners of a basic kit of parts designed by the architect. Cedric Price thought that this dialogue with the user was the ‘delight’ in architecture (Price, 1984, see Bibliography). The uncertainty over time of the interaction between the elements of his Fun Palace projects and their users distorted ‘time and place, along with convenience and delight [which] opens up a dialogue that reminds people how much freedom they have.’54

The kind of intellectual freedom identified by Segal and Price is represented exactly in the kind of creativity which has been illicited and utilized in schools design and refurbishment projects like those at Ballifield (sic.) and Kingsdale (see below). As we will show, this interactive approach has also been explored by architecture students investigating the implications for design in changing public buildings within the framework of a ‘Designing for Real’ (D4R) collaborative design process, in the context of Victorian school buildings.55