Education from education: what modern schools say about design at large

Pat Bosch, Design Director of our Miami Studio, re-examines the fundamental lessons we've learned from designing for education environments and how they can be applied across any continuum

When it rains, look for rainbows. When it is dark, look for stars.—Dr. Seuss

Millennials use basic as an insult. It means unimaginative, unaware, inauthentic. Vanilla. It’s a good insult—and works as a design critique as well. Monotone, one-thought-fits-all design is basic.

While we’re struggling to get our bearings right now, it might be tempting to fall back on an approach that has reliably served for projects and clients in the past. But this is a time for thinking forward, not falling back. We’re in a perfect storm of historic, social, economic, and environmental crises. But this situation is not calling out to be played safe. The storm should be a provocation, so I have a provocative idea: Avoid basic with the basics.

As in, the fundamentals, the things we learned first in school. Like the usefulness of warm cookies and milk. Like Dr. Seuss: “When it is dark, look for stars.”

Our concept for a university restoration lab in Boca Raton emerged from our basic design strengths: curiosity, experimentation, and humility.
Multiple scenarios in the interior concept illustrate how educational spaces touch every human scale of experience.

It’s important to be an expert resource for our clients, but we also need to let the struggle for certainty alone for a minute and sit in the space of reimagination. Curiosity, experimentation, and humility are a good designer’s primary strengths. We need to put ourselves and these strengths in a petri dish and start to test our understanding of our clients’ needs at the immediate, individualized scale.

Our savvy education clients have looked at our Road to Reentry and said, “OK, yes. This makes sense. Great. Thank you. But what about us? Right now? We have yet to account for all of our students. Many students have no learning space in their home. We have all this abandoned space and infrastructure. We have an underutilized workforce who are ready to step up. What do we do?” They’re coming back to us with the right questions about on-the-ground conditions in their communities.

Let me offer another provocative idea: Education should be the petri dish where we work out best practices for bespoking our approach to resilience no matter the project. It’s immense, education. It touches everybody. Strategies that prioritize small-scale, surgical, humanistic solutions where education is concerned can be scaled up according to a client’s needs and scaled out as needed for other projects with other dimensions. Multilayer, diverse scenarios will embody all the simplicity and truth of the incontrovertible basics.

Education should be the testing ground because it is already teaching us in very concrete terms just how fundamental educational spaces are to building resilience in our communities. When institutions of higher education have addressed the need for a sustainable business model and a sustaining infrastructure, they will have taken a huge step toward sustaining the neighborhoods and networks they are embedded in. When we have addressed disparities in access to resources among K–12 schools—of which technology is only the most palpable, not the most urgent during social distancing—then they will have become anchors for growth and stability in the communities they serve. No school will ever be at risk of losing a third of its students to disconnection.

We approached the campus design concepts from a deeply held conviction that educational spaces are fundamental to building resilience in our communities.

School, it turns out, is not so much a place as a continuum of community. When we address the challenges in the realm of education, we can leverage the lessons we learn and apply them at the macro scale and across any continuum. Let’s start here:

Lesson 1. Community-Specific Measures: Safety measures should address the specific circumstances in a given educational community.

Lesson 2. Holistic Orientation: Viable solutions promote health and safety without compromising a single community member’s learning potential.

Lesson 3. Risk Appreciation: Safety protocols should govern educational activities not just within the school, but in the surrounding environments as well.

Lesson 4. Influencing Behavior: The built environment affects individual and collective behavior and therefore has the power to support and promote public health.

And so if I’m being really not-basic about it, then I want to push my provocation further. Education is a model, but also a metaphor for how we need to approach all of our projects and clients. Let’s approach every project as though it reaches into all aspects of our lives, just as educational spaces do. Let’s approach every project as though it manifested the inequities of access and infrastructure that the freezing of educational spaces has amplified in the last eight months. Let’s approach every project as researchers and scholars and students do: Abandon preconceptions. Reset our filters. Drive discovery by putting many different lenses on a question, by asking the question in a million different ways. Perkins&Will has always led by working at the intersection of disciplines to invent new ways to learn, discover, and heal. We absolutely have the capacity to make good from the confusion of the moment.

We design educational spaces, but we are also inspired by the basic tenets of discovery and creativity places like the Henderson School exist to cultivate.

But we shouldn’t pretend we know all the answers. We need to resist the allure of the super scale. We can’t be seduced by the idea that technology can solve every problem. Those are off-the-rack ideas. The basics will get us to bespoke.

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