Lessons learned

Pupils saw their tall brick board schools as ponderous monolithic structures; as out of date as their designers had perceived their Gothic predecessors. Nevertheless, through the D4R exercises, the pupils managed to overlay upon this perception, snapshots of their dreams, aspirations and obsessions. These took the form of colourful interventions providing for relaxation and fun – perhaps an escape from the stress of the well-used, homely but work-focused classroom. The collective methods employed at Daubeney were in marked contrast to those employed at other schools where exercises were designed to provoke individual vision and creativity.

Daubeney group exercises elicited a general preference for outside (associated with fast food, movement and freedom) over inside (associated with conflicting activities, deteriorating fabric and restrictions on building improvement). From this, students developed schemes that dispersed activities around the site rather than rehabilitating existing buildings. Students were also able to get a positive critical response to their proposals from pupils.

So whilst the methods employed at Daubeney were perhaps most useful at informing a strategic response to the problems of the school, they were less useful in unlocking images of children’s most vivid and imaginative ideas. The work which most nearly achieves this is the ‘soft space’ proposal at New End where images derived from the drawings of pupils were developed to link in with and enhance the existing classroom routine.

But there is much further to go. Schemes which derive their agenda and design idea from a fragmentary moment captured during interaction with the pupils rather than (or as well as) being informed by a strategic response to the school’s overall ambitions, promise a richness lacking from standardized output. The evocative drawing which shows a girl in conversation with her friend in the toilets at New End, the faith in technology mixed with homely comfort of the lift lobby drawing at Carlton and the whole plethora of bubbled retreat spaces emphasized in so many pupil drawings, are the potentially rich sources of invention and imagination usually missed during the design process.

Whilst perception based on the five senses might be regarded as changeless, the relationship between what we occupy and how it is perceived psychologically, changes not only with the age of the occupier but also with the age of the different layers of landscape being occupied. Board schools provided a fertile illustration of this phenomenon. Pupils’ imaginary representations, partly derived from film, television and advertising, were juxtaposed with the ‘listing’ imperative and historical interpretations of board schools as ‘beacons of light’ and ‘open air’ environments superseding their Gothic predecessors.

Many architects will argue that they have the capacity to not only interpret, but also invent spatial and material qualities and processes that transcend the dreams and fantasies of the users – making them at the same time real and better. This may well have been true of board schools in the time of Bailey and Robson, who provided an inspirational backdrop to the efforts of Victorian schoolchildren. But this inspirational relationship between architecture and pupil presupposes a timelessness to the built product which is less evident in those London Board school buildings which continue to be used as primary schools today.

We all overlay our experience of the physical environment with our current fantasies. Children are perhaps able to express this more easily than most adults because of the immediacy of their artwork. Most importantly, the D4R research showed that the landscape of the board schools was less an active generator of a pupil’s spatial perception and more a passive backdrop on which their imaginations were actively projected.

If architects are to provide landscapes for dreams, rather than nightmares, they should avoid allowing their own cultural obsessions to dominate school designs, which are more appropriately intended as neutral serviced containers for the more tentative and changing imaginings of their occupiers. Cedric Price referred to this when he insisted that his Potteries Thinkbelt project should be ‘capable of being… supplanted, with the minimum amount of physical (that is, built) fuss in order to avoid. being branded for all time as the ideal spot for scientific education’ (Price, 1984, see Bibliography).

In the private realm of housing, the work of Walter Segal and the self-build movement have demonstrated that successful inhabitation should involve some significant level of capacity for spatial manipulation by the occupiers (Segal, 1981/2, see Bibliography). In schools, this might at least imply a looser fit between major building works and anticipated occupation. The potential of the building and its grounds for make-believe might be reassessed with each facelift and redecoration. In the classroom, the artwork associated with discovering psychological perceptions can overlap and be extended to encompass actual changes, allowing a pupil’s imagination to reverberate and echo for a little longer.

In the D4R exercises the student working process might be seen as a line of enquiry seeking to project, through a form of dialogue, the individual creativity of the pupils within the public space of the school. Whilst Segal and Price focused on interactive technologies of making and use respectively, the D4R students concentrated on proactive dialogue in the briefing process to incorporate users creativity. Further understanding needs to be developed in all three areas of architectural performance.

Architecture can provide both the conduit and the structure for such a dialogue. It can set boundaries, particularly in the public realm and offer the challenge of new representational technologies and bodies of thought. But architects can only help interpret and orchestrate this process of dialogue if they have the tools to understand the changing relationship between physical fabric and fantasy amongst users of all ages.

Young people’s creativity and artistic talent has also been harnessed at perhaps the UK’s most high-profile (and well-documented) participatory school design project: ‘School Works’.59

Collaborating with the school community at Kingsdale Secondary School in Southwark, South London, School Works took ‘student’s interest in the arts as a starting point to explore issues of morale, self-esteem and identity… [and] the links between transforming the school structure and the spirit of the school.’60

At the time of School Works’ intervention in early 2000, the Kingsdale School community was struggling in a dilapidated late-1950s triple-decker,

Modernist building which, as well as hindering effective teaching and learning, had sustained a number of significant social and behavioural problems. Significantly, for example, essential ICT (Information Communications Technology) learning resources were kept out of reach of students for fear of theft and/or vandalism; lacking sufficient personal storage space, students failed to arrive at lessons prepared with the right resources; and perhaps most alarmingly, the students’ toilet and washroom facilities were so appalling that many preferred to go home instead, effectively creating a significant truancy problem for the school. Under these conditions, Kingsdale’s young people voted with their feet.

The offer of help with reinventing the culture of the school through redesigning its architecture was especially welcome to Kingsdale’s newly-appointed Head Teacher: ‘When he was approached by School Works, he jumped at the chance to give Kingsdale a fresh start.’61