Why School Buildings Matter

The classroom isn’t just a space in which we learn, it is a space from which we learn. 

“Students are the new object of the designer’s attention.In the twenty-first-century school, students and teachers are the starting point for all design decisions.” 

Perspectives from our Partners

Christopher Hume
Architecture Critic, Toronto Star
Christopher Hume

As obvious as that may sound, it has been long in the learning. Indeed, education boards in Canada are more likely to focus on what things cost than what they’re worth. Though that’s not hard to understand in an age of official austerity, the fact is that if we value our kids, we must also value the schools they attend. If we are content to let them do with buildings where air quality is poor, lighting dim, and rooms feel isolated and oppressive, we are telling them they don’t matter. By contrast, schools in healthy buildings are those in which students, teachers, and staff do better. It’s that simple.

A perfect example is the Bridgepoint Health Care Centre, which opened in July 2013, in Toronto. The building is designed to give every patient not just a room but a room with a view. Fresh air is pumped throughout continually and connections with the neighbourhood are emphasized. Though the project cost a small premium, health experts say it will reduce recovery times by between one-third and one-half. In other words, buildings have a huge effect on those who spend time within their walls.

In Ontario, the progression of educational architecture is easily charted. To look at schools from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is to see buildings that imparted a strong sense that what took place inside was held in the utmost seriousness. Architecture also situated these schools in a cultural continuum that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. But clearly, school architecture of these by-gone decades served institutional, not individual, needs. Students entered the school on its terms, not theirs. Just as there were dress codes, there were architectural codes. Like other important civic buildings we knew schools were important because they looked it. A certain gravitas was inherent in the very arrangement of columns, stairwells, doors, and windows.

Today, of course, good architecture serves the individual not the institution. In the case of schools, that means students are the new object of the designer’s attention. The personal discomfiture tolerated in earlier times has gone the way of rote memorization. In the twenty-first-century school, students and teachers are the starting point for all design decisions. As attitudes to education have shifted in favour of self-directed learning, the traditional hierarchical structure of a classroom with desks facing the teacher has given way to a more informal arrangement. Interaction among students, once forbidden at the threat of the strap, isn’t just allowed, it is encouraged.

Consequently, the model contemporary school is a place of open spaces that are comfortable, connected, filled with light, and deliberately part of the larger world beyond. Students, experts tell us, learn not by sitting at desks for hours on end but by exchanging ideas, consulting, talking, and moving around.

One of the first examples of this new approach, Glen Park Public School in Toronto, was organized around a courtyard garden and a library, which are the physical, social, and emotional heart of the building. Accessible through multiple entrances, the library can be expanded when necessary to function both as an intimate space of story-telling and gathering place for the whole school community. Designed in the late 1990s by two firms, Taylor Hariri Pontarini and Rieder, Hymmen & Lobban, the school was conceived with maximum input from students, teachers, parents, and neighbours. The underlying idea of the project was to create a building that both expressed and exemplified the notion of community. It is the opposite of the traditional school, which was a fortress-like centre of learning, the ivory tower, a place where the rest of us weren’t welcome.

At Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg’s McKee Public School (1998) in Willowdale, the library also sits at the centre of things. Talking about McKee, the architects refer to the concept of a community of classrooms positioned around a central court using simple circulation systems, transparency and natural light.

Located in the middle of a low-rise suburban enclave, the two-storey building structure is straight-forward and easy to navigate. Its glazed exteriors add a sense of openness and transparency that enhances the feeling of the school as an extension of the neighbourhood.

Thomas Wells Public School in Scarborough, the first LEED (Silver) public school in Canada, was commissioned by the Toronto District School Board as a sort of living demonstration project. The intention was to promote the idea that the needs of environmental design and education overlap effortlessly.

Once again, the building is arranged around a double-height library surrounded by south facing classrooms, corridors, and courtyards organized in clusters. Inside, glass walls and interior windows mean the building is flooded with natural light. Designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, Thomas Wells opened in 2005 and has since been recognized as one of the most important examples of twenty-first-century school architecture in Toronto.

Eglinton Spectrum Public School, completed in 1999, also offers a worthy reexamination of the elementary school. Designed by Teeple Architects in joint venture with Shore Tilbe Irwin, the L-shaped building sits on a busy corner in North Toronto. As a result, it looks inward, away from the street. Though that has been criticized, in this case, it was a valid response: pupils would otherwise be forced into a playground bordered by two heavily trafficked streets. Inside, however, Eglinton is as integrated as a building can be. With its interior windows—some of them portholes—pupils and teachers are always in contact.

Even beyond the realm of the public school, the trend toward openness and architectural transparency has changed everything from condos and community colleges to hospitals and office buildings. It’s not just that we love glass, but that we long to be part of something larger than ourselves—the world. The appeal of bringing the outside in, of blurring the line between the natural and the man-made, runs deep. You don’t have to go to school to learn that.