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23 february 2017

I've been a teacher for 35 years, but I've rarely thought much about the buildings I teach in, except when they occasionally start collapsing around me. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating.) The building where most of my classes are held is 90 years old and laid out like 90% of other classroom buildings: three floors, a wide hallway on each, medium-sized classrooms (30-40 seats) opening off each side of each hallway. The classrooms have movable chairs with desk attachments – many of them have been at my university longer than I have. For items built by the lowest bidder, they are damn near indestructible, which is good because they have gotten steadily smaller than the average student over the past forty years. A blackboard and some ancient, crumbling tables and lecterns give the room an old-timey feel. An obsolete computer with a projector that frequently fails and a pull-down screen that tends to snap up without warning indicate that we're in the 21st century.

Yet somebody designed this building, just as somebody designed thousands of similar school buildings all over the world. My classroom building makes ideologies material, and conversely, people at work in the building have facilitated or subverted those ideologies since it was built. In School for Reaktion's Objekt series, Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor unpack the leading ideologies of school architecture over the past two centuries.

School is admittedly mostly about Euro-American school architecture, and within that field mostly about school architecture in England. Two hundred years ago, purpose-built schools were rare. Schooling was rare. Universities and public schools (in the British sense) were ancient, but extremely exclusive; the general population, when educated at all, would learn at home, at church, or in the workplace. Early general schools tended to feature large halls which could serve other community purposes. Sometimes the schoolmaster would sit on a raised platform to look down on his charges. Other systems included risers so that the pupils could look down on the master. In either case, openness, which allowed for communication but also for surveillance, was the key theme.

The challenges of educating large numbers of children gave rise to the master-and-monitor system. "Hall monitors" were still within living memory when I started school in the 1960s. But I didn't really understand the need for the qualifier "hall" till now. Hall monitors were vestiges of a much more elaborate 19th-century system where senior students would assist teachers, allowing one master to instruct as many students as a room could hold. The monitor system shows us that digitization has brought nothing really new. Today, individual "teachers of record" teach massive online courses, aided by "coaches" who perform monitorial functions. Apparently education always tends toward reducing the student/teacher ratio.

The kind of school building that I teach in, with its fixed corridors and individual classrooms, was largely a 19th-century Prussian innovation, adopted widely in Western nations that were moving toward free compulsory universal education. Such buildings can look "regimented," a Prussian stereotype, but of course regimentation is a feature of large open spaces like armories and halls, too. And the concept of the classroom as a private, walled-off space conduces to experimentation and customization of instruction.

As Burke and Grosvenor present it, the history of school design for nearly 150 years now has been an oscillation between closed-off and open spaces. Innovative as it may have been, the shut-off classroom began to seem oppressive after years of use. Ventilation could be bad. Teachers complained of the lack of light. Architects responded with more windows, both to the outside but also on the hallway side – glass walls allowing not just the diffusion of light but renewed surveillance. "Open-air" schools were a fad of the early 20th century, a way of combining a kind of pastoral ideal with the practicalities of access to light and air in the days before climate control. Burke and Grosvenor cite Giuseppe Terragini's 1930s nursery school in Como, but not its fascist provenance. Whatever its governing ideology, Terragini's school was a model of airiness and natural lighting. Though I have to imagine that philosophy succeeded better in Como than in the drizzly English Midlands.

In the 1950s through '70s, open-plan schools thrived once again, though now usually with modular and flexible dividers that could be used creatively to partially demarcate "stations" for investigation. Such models were labor-intensive, and though surveillance was in some ways maximized, order became hard to maintain.

Boxy hallway-and-classroom schools eventually came back with a vengeance, and open plans soon acquired fixed interior walls. Some late 20th-century schools look brutalist from the outside and others look postmodern and shimmery. Many look cheap and barely functional. Burke and Grosvenor emphasize that many different design types, though, can end up being inhabited in unintended ways. Like most classroom buildings, the one I teach in is packed for a few hours every morning and then (to the despair of efficiency-maximizers) ends up deserted for most of the week's 168 hours. Yet when I leave campus in the late afternoon every day, I often see the classrooms being used by tiny groups of students who have gotten in past the easily-bypassed electronic security locks. They use the computers and blackboards to teach each other, without any masters or monitors around. Learning will find a way into and around top-down structures, whether social or material.

Recently on Facebook I've been participating in groups that post old images of New York City. One sideline is old photographs of public-school buildings, most of them dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries when great waves of immigration synched with newly compulsory schooling to drive vast construction projects. Most of these old school buildings survive, and many are still schools; others, like the Museum of Modern Art's PS1 project in Queens, have been repurposed cleverly to make use of their gracious proportions and durable features.

My own elementary school on the North Side of Chicago, built in 1907, is still going strong. It's uncanny to think that my days there are now almost halfway through its history. We put our raincoats in cloakrooms. We had fixed desks, each seat attached to the desk behind; the desks had lids and inkwells, although we wrote in pencil. We competed by rows to go home a few seconds earlier; the row that could sit the stillest was dismissed first. Like most of the schools of its era, mine was hyperconscious about sexual segregation, a dynamic literally written into its structure by means of BOYS and GIRLS entrances. In 1965, boys and girls still entered the building separately. But we didn't use the grand streetside doors anymore. We lined up by gender on the playground and came in through separate back doors – probably to keep down noise on the street, and to keep us from playing in traffic.

I see no reason why that building won't survive till the year 2107 – I hope looking more and more archaic all the time.

Burke, Catherine, and Ian Grosvenor. School. London: Reaktion, 2008. Objekt Series.