A school, like a city, is composed of a variety of spaces, both public and private, supporting human habitation and growth – all interconnected to create a whole much larger than the sum of its parts. In each case, perhaps the richest layers of experience occur within spaces allowing a wide range of formal and informal interaction. Within the city, the public plazas and markets present this ever-changing, overlapping and vibrant experience. Within a school, the spaces traditionally thought of as “public” areas have been the library and the school cafeteria, yet these areas have (unlike urban public spaces) usually been isolated, tightly programmed, and limited in their ability to adapt to changing activities. How do we unleash the potential in these spaces – allowing them to function both for specifically programmed tasks and for a multitude of equally valuable informal activities?
In working this metaphor a little harder, I’d like to consider 3 characteristics of great urban public spaces that can be applied to schools:
- Provide choices and build in user agency.
- Pay attention to the edges and make connections.
- Break down barriers.
Provide choices and build in user agency
Even the most casual observer of human nature realizes how important it is for people to have choices in, and control of, their environment. In a school’s public spaces, this means providing a variety of seating choices (at least SOME of which are easily movable by the students) as well as a choice of locations offering a variety of experiences – from smaller, calm and quiet areas, to large open places supporting active engagement with larger groups. The design interventions to achieve this don’t need to be elaborate. In a public square, for example, even something as simple as the sheltering branches of a tree or a café umbrella can provide a subtle shift in the definition of space.
Pay attention to the edges and make connections
People, including students, are people watchers. Provide places around the edges for students to gather, allowing them visual command of the space and the opportunity to decide for themselves on the level of social or intellectual interaction in which they wish to engage. Also, locate these spaces in relationship to the rest of the school in a manner that provides flow through and along the edges of the spaces. Doing this will allow these spaces to integrate into the life of the school in the same way that a piazza at the confluence of several major boulevards becomes a focus of community identity and activity.
Break down barriers
The inter-relationship of these public school spaces is as important as their relationship to the rest of the school. I’m often amazed how the character and use of a public square can shift seamlessly from, say, a public market during the day, to intimate café experience at night. The same is true of a school’s public spaces. They no longer need to be single-function isolated program elements, but can take on all the rich and varied activities that transform them into a focus of learning and growth within the school. Many of our recent designs have borrowed space from both the library and the traditional dining commons to create in-between spaces (we’ve labeled them “Study Commons”). Through the use of operable partitions, changes in floor levels, movable furnishings and ceiling configurations, it’s possible to create a series of overlapping spaces that can morph throughout the day to accommodate changing activities – now a study area, later a creative studio, then space for eating; and on into the evening, a performance space – with easily shifting boundaries.
Unlike your favorite urban neighborhood, you may not be able to sit down to a great cappuccino in the school cafeteria, or purchase locally grown organic brussels sprouts in the library, but with some thoughtful and creative thinking, these spaces can be designed to be as integral a part of student and community life as any Italian piazza is to its hilltown.