Whether you can measure the benefits or not, well-designed schools are simple common sense, says Rory Olcayto
Can well-designed buildings improve the lives of those who use them? It’s a long-standing question and one that has yet to be answered comprehensively – largely because the question itself is so nebulous. What, for example, do we mean by improve? In the US, for example, there is a backlash against open-plan office design, with demands for the return of the cubicle gaining ground. Some argue the latter is more productive and more reasonable, too, in that it does not force people into social interaction, but rather encourages contact from time to time – like when you want a break from your desk.
Then there are the Maggie’s Centres, built on ideas of the life-enhancing power of design. There is no doubting the success of the charity’s cancer drop in centres, all of which have been designed by high-profile architects with great design reputations. Still, there are no clinical studies to show that they prolong life or improve users’ wellbeing. The notion of great architecture improving the lives of a building’s users is most controversial in school design. The matter boiled over in 2011 when then education minister Michael Gove ended the BSF school building programme with a withering attack on architects, effectively blaming the profession for lavishing money on design. There’s no point, he seemed to be saying.
Yet focusing on whether we can empirically measure and prove the positive impact architectural design can have misses the more obvious point. Who doesn’t like working in spacious environments with natural light and easy-to-navigate circulation? The best teachers will be drawn to work in buildings that provide a great environment to work in. Average teachers, at the very least, would have a spring in their step. And kids will enjoy learning and playing there. Think of it like good weather: measureable benefits or not, few would argue against it.
With this in mind, we’re collaborating with Hawkins\Brown to investigate how the profession can design better schools. As Roger Hawkins, founding partner of Hawkins\Brown, states in his call to arms, the AJ will be reporting on best practice employed by a range of professionals who feed into school design. We very much hope to involve the AJ’s readership, too. Your input and feedback is most welcome. Do please get in touch.
Working conditions for Qatari world cup constructors
News that Foster + Partners has been appointed to design the main World Cup stadium in Qatar is intriguing. Why? Because last September, when Zaha Hadid was coming under fire over conditions of site workers in Qatar, she called for an alliance of architects to lobby for a better, safer working environment for the people building these landmark projects. There arises then, the tantalising prospect of both Lord Foster and Dame Zaha clubbing together to make this most important of points. Surely then, the power-brokers in the Gulf and in Fifa, too, will listen. The AJ is standing by to give both esteemed architects all the support they need.