Just re-discovered this blog post I penned a few weeks back that was written at 30,000+ feet on the flight back from Charlotte to Dallas:
Last night during a quiet moment before the V/S Furniture Open House I was flown down to visit, I was sitting in the company’s marvelous new office and showroom, marveling at the wondrous and logical design of their school furniture. Thinking about what spaces would ‘grow around’ their mobile and ergonomic and kid-movement-friendly furniture, what a design team would do with this prompt. Or better yet, what a group of kids and a teacher would be able to do with a space that included furniture that was not only durable, but playful and color-bright and movable...and based on honoring the natural movements of young kids. What they’d create. What conversations would unfold. What sparks of learning would transpire.
Claudius Reckor, the Director of V/S America, handed me a book while I was sitting there. It was a book that detailed the design, planning, and eventual construction of a single elementary school in Germany slightly more than a decade ago. It was a beautiful book, to be sure. Something that a design-friendly soul would want on their coffee table. Something that architects are familiar with. But what struck me most of all was not design for design’s sake, but the real story that transpired in the pages, that wrapped around the photographs of engaged kids and a school slowly being built, that reminded us of why school design matters in the first place.
I was struck by one passage in particular, written by an adult reflecting back to the original experience years later:
"We were full of the naïve optimism of childhood, our teachers were young and open-minded, and the planners coaxed us on with their overwhelming enthusiasm, so that soon we thought of nothing but our new school...Dream concepts were developed, the maddest notions were thought up, cloud-cuckoo lands, castles, caves and nests were amusingly sketched out in words and pictures, and models were built as ideas became more concrete."
It was first and foremost a story of imagination. And kids. And a building that not only valued both, but actually put hammers in the hands of kids.
You see, the real magic of the design of the school had as much to do with the kids being asked to take words and dreams and turn them into sketches, take those early sketches and kid drawings and turn them into models, take those working models and begin to see how they turn into construction documents, take those builder drawings and then be handed tools and allowed to help frame one of the first buildings under the careful guidance of adults and master craftsman.
Eventually, the pros took over for obvious reasons. But what was left behind was a ‘footprint’ of imagination turned into reality, a school truly conceived by/with and built by/with the students themselves. And reading through the gorgeous collection of photographs and project specs, the simple fact is that like Crow Island School’s (Winnetka, Illinois) lasting legacy in the world of school design, schools that are built with kids imagination as a fundamental ‘building tool’ have the potential of not only inspiring learning, but inspiring empowerment for generations to come.
To that end, I leave you with a reflection taken from the 1990 “Children, Learning and School Design” invitational conference held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Crow Island Elementary School's construction that is both a challenge and gaze forward:
“…talking about how to do this: how to build schools on a human scale, schools to free children to learn and teachers to teach, schools that speak the message of architecture that strengthen self-worth, community, democracy, and humanity…”
Note: the Crow Island Elementary School is widely recognized as the most influential school building in America and has been designated a national historical landmark.