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After Newtown, Architects Weigh School Design Changes

By C. J. Hughes
December 21, 2012
Photo © Leonardo Finotti
The triple-glazed facade of Christian Kerez's Leutschenbach School in Zurich is emblamatic of the transparency that's currently popular in new school design. It is unknown how, if at all, the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, will affect school design going forward.

The Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shootings on December 14 that killed 20 students and six staff members have prompted many to call for a ban on semi-automatic rifles, or assault weapons.

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In the week since the shootings, others have said video games should no longer contain such violent content. And some are urging that access to mental health care be expanded. But schools themselves shouldn’t be radically redesigned to fortify against future attacks, according to some architects.

While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning. Edmund Einy, a principal at GKKWorks, says that what’s been done so far in many urban schools in the name of safety—such as slapping bars on the windows—has had a pernicious effect on students’ morale and performance. Einy’s new Blair International Baccalaureate Middle School, in Pasadena, foregoes bars. But administrators must greet students before they are allowed to go inside, which led GKKWorks to create an entry plaza. “There’s not much more we can do,” he says. “What are we going to do, put kids in prisons?”

Mark Simon, a founding partner of Centerbrook Architects and Planners, agrees. “I think [bars and other fortifying techniques] send the wrong message to both kids and teachers,” he says. Based in Centerbrook, Connecticut, Simon has designed 20 school buildings, including five public elementary schools, though none in Newtown. “Buildings tell stories, and when a building is designed that way, it tells you that it doesn’t trust you. And kids intuit that they’re not trusted,” he says. In fact, Simon adds, improved security can be achieved through a more open layout, like with his King & Low-Heywood Thomas School in Stamford, Connecticut. Its focal point is a large rotunda encircled by offices, so administrators have clear views of the hallways and the comings and goings of students. Simon admitted, though, that the school was more concerned with divorced parents snatching kids, say, than an intruder with rifles.

In recent years, glass has become the material of choice for the walls of many schools, which have cottoned to the idea that students will be more stimulated in rooms bathed in natural light. An example—according to Thomas Mellins, an architectural curator—is Ennead Architects’ Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, N.Y., where a transparent façade allows close-up views of ballet and other classes. (Mellins’ exhibition, “The Edgeless School: Design for Learning,” is on view at New York’s Center for Architecture through January 19, 2013.)

For his part, Mellins doesn’t rule out that the shootings may result in design changes; he just hopes law enforcement talks to architects early in the design process. But, Mellins says, “I don’t think safety concerns translate into a simple and direct agenda, like build this way, don’t build that way.”

In a sense, school design has baked-in security concerns ever since the mass school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999. Doors now routinely lock after the first bell. Metal detectors are also common. Possibly, more steel could be used in doors, but “that seems to be sort of in the opposite direction of where schools have been headed,” says architect Jerry Waters, of Portland, Oregon’s Dull Olson Weekes Architects. School buildings make up 70 percent of the firm’s portfolio. Waters adds, “When someone has the intent to kill, I’m not sure if architecture can solve that problem.”

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