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Schools, Transparency, and Socio-Spiritual Formation

My experience in community-building suggests that architecture can be a very effective vehicle for educating and opening dialogue across difference. For many years I’ve used sacred space to bridge religious differences, and it is perhaps most obvious in this context that whether we notice it or not, architecture expresses a belief system.  

When I then began exploring applying that same architecture-based community-building model to another context—bridging differences between high schools, I was first reminded of traditional “schoolhouse” architecture. My high school mates and I always lovingly referred to our school as “the brick prison” (the building is a turn-of-the-century repurposed armory in New York City). But what about newer, purpose-built schools? As it turns out, some very different architectural styles have emerged for schools over the years, and I was fascinated by the question: what do shifts in architectural school design say about the desired socio-emotional and even spiritual formation of our students, that is, how are belief systems inherent in built educational environments?

As I’ve been researching, it seems ventilation and lines of sight “to rest the eyes” have been important to most school buildings since the 1870’s (source). These aspects are still thankfully of importance, but 100 years later there are other developments of note. One article on the new school design (which I infer to have begun around the year 2000), for example, is “The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environments” by Emelina Minero from edutopia, which is an articles database on education and a branch of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. The article enumerates five design principles comprising the ideal—I’ll call it—“post-modern” learning environment: technology integration; safety and security; transparency; multipurpose space; and outdoor learning.  

All of these principles exemplify our particular contemporary socio-historical context, which emphasizes designing environments that promote collaborative and spontaneous learning, the essentiality of technology, and heightened attention to ensuring the safety of our children and their school staff and faculty.  

But I want to focus on one of the current stated design elements in particular: transparency.

The article explains how architectural transparency is an emerging standard in new school construction in which “internal spaces like hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias—typically separated from each other by opaque structures like walls and doorways—have given way to open layouts that emphasize glass partitions and uninterrupted lines of site.” Transparency is not just the placement of a window “to rest the eyes”; it aims for “visual interconnectedness” as well as the creation of a large collaborative space where every teaching and learning space is in essence a fishbowl for both observation and participation.  This is to be sure a significant departure from my beloved brick prison, and even most purpose-built schoolhouses, where what happened in classrooms was experienced only to those inside, and where metal lockers in the deep recesses of hallways landscaped exclusive “cliques.” 

I’m fascinated by this new type of school architecture mostly, however, because of how it embodies and promulgates a belief system that radically diverges from the brick and mortar schoolhouses that emerged out of the industrial revolution, where theater-style classrooms featured the front of the room, each student listening quietly and working on their own.  These environments, indeed, expressed and furthered a national culture focused on individuality and hierarchy.  

The new architecture, by contrast, puts forth the idea of community over the individual. It maintains that interconnectedness is integral to building a future humanity that realizes and understands the profound effect each of us has on one another. I think of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, prolific author, and profound teacher—and his example of watching a pebble drop into a lake making ripples outward that stretch far far beyond where the initial pebble dropped. Each human being is like this—we have more profound power and affect on each other and on the world than we realize. The design principle of visual interconnectedness I see as being a way of building this spiritual sense of interconnectedness between human beings and also all living creatures. And the massive windows connect us to the environment outside so we can participate in nature even while we are indoors.

I would go out on a limb and say that this new architecture also attempts at what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. Turner wrote about communitas in the context of religious rituals and rites of passage, but what he identified in that context brings up some interesting insights when applied here. Turner said in his influential book The Ritual Process that communitas means an ”area of common living.” During communitas there is a lack of identifiers of social status—one’s social role may even be reversed and one experiences what it is like to be the “others” in society. Communitas is precisely where social structure is not. Communitas is spontaneous and immediate, it is existential or ontological; whereas structure, on the other hand, is rational and cognitive.

Turner maintained that the experience of human commonality and the full humanity of every member of society comes out of the experience of communitas. Experiences of communitas are transformational, and are typically rare. But when one does experience communitas, it becomes a persistent memory that carries through one’s re-incorporation into the social structure “outside.” 

There is much more to these ideas within religious and ritual systems, but what is immediately striking is how this new post-modern architecture is replacing the model of society as structured and differentiated with a model of society that is open, equal, non-differentiated, and perhaps even liminal in its very nature. The communitas design puts forth that we all need each other to exist—we don’t just learn, but we learn by observing learners.  We become dependent on and open to one another’s experiences; we are participants and observers in tandem. Even social spaces are multi-purpose; they become interlaced with whiteboards to inspire collaboration over non-focused chatter. Our participation—even how we must be—in these new built environments is multi-layered.

If former built environments advocated the individual and a structured one-tiered experience, the current design trend encourages a focus on a communal identity maturing inside the multi-dimensionality of transparent walls and wide open spaces.

In many senses, this new architecture is Dante’s paradiso. In Dante’s artistic rendering of heaven, even our thoughts are transparent. These are idyllic spaces that defy bullying and inhibit violence as there is nowhere to hide. Awareness of interconnectedness and violence do not mix. And to be clear, this new architectural environment, is a belief system, and this kind of environment will forge a new generation.  

I still look back with great fondness on my old brick prison. I also remember when I had to report on Dante's Paradiso years later in Seminary, and how I desperately wanted to retain at least some right to my own thoughts. How does it feel to be observed while learning? Does this heighten anxiety? As an only child and more of an introvert, I also need my separate spaces to recharge. Would I find this amid the glass walls? Will there be a loss of the balance and focus within the new structure that might create emotional stress? While I admit to being a staunch supporter and believer in cultivating communitas (as well as of the new architectural style), I believe these are important questions to raise. 

Coming from a religious studies background where I engaged with a variety of belief systems, I'm intrigued by the belief systems that are building our schools and how they will affect the socio-emotional development of the next generation.  

By the way, did you know that we are now offering a community-building program to address diversity within the school system through our unique vehicles of architecture, dialogue, and hospitality? Please contact our office to learn more about CommunityIQ.

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