AND THE WINNER IS… On School Design and Architectural Awards

I noticed recently that a school (actually a Kindergarten) had finally made a “Top Designs of the year” List. Yes, the 2015 EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture includes in its 40 project shortlist a wonderful little kindergarten in Copenhagen, the Forfatterhuset Kindergarten by the Danish firm COBE.

Forfatterhuset Kindergarten, COBE Architects

Forfatterhuset Kindergarten, COBE Architects

Why is it that schools, as an architectural building type, so seldom make these lists or garner major national or international design awards – awards generally given by architect-led juries valuing what architects value: inspired works of bold execution, innovative expression, and adventurous aesthetics? A quick perusal of the last 5 years of AIA National Architecture and Interior Awards, for instance, yields not a single school out of over 100 recognized projects. In the awards mix are lots of museums, civic structures, college and university buildings, private homes, corporate offices, “pavilions,” and a scattering of just about every other building type.

I think one answer lies not with the often-lamented constraints of a school district’s budget and operational constraints, nor with a lack of design talent working on school projects, but largely with the process associated with the design of schools – a very public process that often rewards the timid and usually shrugs its shoulders at inspiration.

There is an ongoing debate, recently amped up by Frank Gehry’s comment “…98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure sh…” and by a series of opinion pieces including those by both Witold Rybczinski and James Russell about why, in general, so much of the architecture around us fails to inspire. I happen to agree with Russell when he says, “…unique architectural expression rarely survives an endless public process that tries (impossibly) to please everyone.” The failings of many new buildings can be the result of trying too hard to satisfy too many.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of school design, where we seek out and work with perhaps hundreds of stakeholders throughout the design process. Public schools are, after all, paid for and supported (In the US, at least) by the citizenry at a very local level. Probably no other building type has such a direct connection in the local public’s eyes to their purses and wallets. No other building type has as deep an obligation to bring value and satisfaction to its surrounding community. (And, no other building type is so deeply rooted in our individual and collective memories!)

There is a wonderful flip side to this. The very process that threatens to derail innovative design ideas and bold thinking also has the capacity to closely align architectural solutions with community values and needs. It can provide the framework that brings the architect and school community together to learn from each other. The challenge for the architect, then, is to work within this process in a way that not only satisfies perceived needs (and this is important), but also challenges preconceptions in order to explore creative ideas and provide innovative solutions.

The best schools don’t always win design awards, but the best schools do form a meaningful connection with the communities they serve – and, yes – push beyond simple solutions to offer a dose of inspiration as well.

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