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Architecture Matters

Does design matter at Chicago Public Schools?

By JOSEPH M. VALERIO, FAIA
“Children learn based on interactions with people and interactions with their environment. The latest teaching techniques elevate the importance of the environment, encouraging socialization and learning; the “classroom” is another teacher.”—Karen Haigh, Early Childhood Development, Columbia College.


   The message is clear: Architecture matters in education. Better architecture and building fulfills an important role in education. Unfortunately, good design is scary to some...

 ...Take for example the long and winding history of the architecture of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). For decades public school construction in the city was always of high technical quality and distinctive—supporting the notion that schools needed to be designed to fit their neighborhoods—and with some frequency, meeting the highest design standards of their day. Carl Schurz High School, designed by Dwight Perkins, and completed in 1910 is considered a Prairie School masterpiece.
  This tradition ended like many architectural traditions, at the Mid-Century. The past 60 years have been anything but notable. Few schools were built or renovated as the population fled to the suburbs. Beginning in the 1990s there was a flurry of new construction, major additions and major renovations of CPS buildings.
  With a few exceptions, the majority of this work was “comfortable,” and definitely not scary, proving the axiom, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” This period was marked by poor construction quality and forgettable design. But the most mind-numbing aspect of this period was the attempt to save money by repeating the same (or similar) school design over and over again. This misguided approach denied the idea of neighborhood exceptionalism, making Chicago one big bland repetitive place. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, the more he tries to stop the magic he has unleashed, the worse the problem gets.
  Why did this happen? It was all safe, very comfortable and not scary.
  Perhaps the ultimate betrayal of both the students and of architecture was the Big Shoulders, Small Schools Design Competition from 2000-2001. Sponsored by CPS and a variety of business groups, the competition selected a list of architects by invitation to participate and included an open competition where anyone could submit designs. Four finalists were selected for two sites from a total of 123 designs.
  Eventually, Marble Fairbanks of New York City and Koning Eizenberg of Los Angeles were selected as the architects for the two schools. This elaborate competition was expensive for the sponsor, more expensive for the 123 firms who entered and substantially more expensive for the eight finalists.
  Unquestionably, the finalists and the two winners presented designs which were innovative, thought-provoking and eminently buildable. Construction was to begin in 2004—and the clock is still ticking. Neither school has been built despite the awarding of numerous contracts for other school projects by the CPS.
  In contrast, the private schools of Chicago have emphatically decided that design is not scary. With budgets as low or lower than CPS, John Ronan has recently completed Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School for the Archdiocese of Chicago. But of course, the Archdiocese has a tradition of supporting modern design.
Many new charter schools have been built in the city including Doug Farr’s Shaw Technology and Learning Center.
   Most recently, our firm was selected to rebuild the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago, which includes 300,000 sq. ft. of existing buildings and two major additions, each roughly 100,000 sq. ft. From the first day, the major issue was design excellence. In fact, parochial, private and the new charter schools have consistently demonstrated they understand the relationship between design and education.
  Does design excellence matter at CPS? They are no different from most school boards anywhere in the nation: New school construction is about capacity and not about excellence. Is there hope? In fact, Carol Ross Barney completed two significant designs for CPS during the dark period of the 1990’s: the Little Village Academy and the Cesar Chavez Multi-Cultural Academic Center. John Ronan is building two new Chicago Public High Schools. And Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will was recently selected to design Jones College Preparatory High School. Mr. Johnson won his first National American Institute of Architects Honor Award for Desert View Elementary School in 1989. It only took the CPS twenty-one years to ask Mr. Johnson to design a building in his hometown.
I think there is growing consensus on how we learn. Traditional education emphasized what is often referred to as “left brain” activities of study, memorizing information and testing. More than a hundred years ago, John Dewey, founder of the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago proposed a project-based approach to education where student interests were engaged in the educational process. This has evolved into an process which engages both sides of the brain—students are asked to be creative based on the body of information presented in the classroom. Increasingly, the educational environment is seen as an important factor in this approach.
  “Creativity in education today is as important as literacy. Kids will take a chance, if they don’t know they’ll give it a go. They are not frightened of being wrong. Being wrong is not the same as being creative. But we do know that if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. By the time kids get to be adults they are afraid to be wrong. We stigmatize mistakes. This is how we run our companies and our education systems. We are educating people out of their creative capacity,” wrote Sir Ken Robinson, in “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”.
  Too often, creativity has been “educated out” of our school buildings. It is time for this to change.

Published: August 08, 2010
Issue: Fall 2010 Issue