Window on learning

Good architecture is a vital element of education

Thirty-five years ago it was decided by those who established school design policy that students were at school to learn, and that they must not be distracted. This decision led to what seems now a rather bizarre directive: That schools were henceforth to be built with no windows. The decision was made in the belief that windowless schools would improve education, reduce operating costs, protect against vandalism, and save money.

Several schools were built without windows, but it was quickly discovered that they did not work.  Learning performance fell and absenteeism increased.  Within three to four years the practice was discontinued, and windows were installed in many of the formerly windowless buildings.

From the 1940s through the 1970s there was strong support for innovative school construction and high quality design.  It was understood that a well-designed environment served everyone well.  Learning was improved, and good architecture and planning demonstrated that Manitoba was committed to quality at all levels. A number of schools are still in use from this era. Many of these buildings remain important works of Manitoba architecture and, more important, many remain excellent environments for teaching and learning.

At the provincial level, the commitment to architectural excellence in educational buildings has declined, and public funding policy has tended for the past three decades to focus more on budget management than on education and design excellence.  It is not clear why this change in emphasis occurred, though “lower cost at any cost” seems to have been a mantra of government for a number of years.

In Manitoba, public school construction is administered by the Manitoba Public  Schools Finance Board (PSFB), which in turn operates under the direction of the provincial government. It is the PSFB’s duty to assure that construction budgets are adequate for new educational construction in the province.  When money is scarce, there are two ways to assure that budgets and costs match:  One of these is to reduce the quantity of building that is built; and the other is to reduce the quality of the buildings that are built.  The PSFB uses both of these tools to satisfy its budget management duty.

Many school districts, and their architects, have tried to build schools that are more than the minimal boxes encouraged by the PSFB.  The PSFB budget allocations are often inadequate for anything but those minimal boxes.  Both the ambitious school districts and the budget-conscious PSFB have been frustrated with the process and the results.

In 2004 the PSFB introduced a series of precise standards for the construction of school buildings in Manitoba. These standards are somewhat unusual in that they have been established as the maximum that is to be built.  Even if a building exceeding these standards could be constructed within its assigned budget, the PSFB will not permit designs which violate their standards to receive PSFB funding.

If this policy has grown from a political directive, the politicians who issued the directive should think about the message poor quality in our public environment sends.  If, on the other hand, the low standards evolved because the PSFB wants to please its political masters, perhaps the politicians should signal to the PSFB that the new standards, which actively discourage innovation and the values of well-designed environments, are a mistake.

The Isbister School, Winnipeg School Division’s Adult Education Centre, occupies a prominent downtown site between Colony, Vaughn and Webb Place. The original four-square school sat on its landscaped grounds in a way similar to many county courthouses found south of the border, and this rather stately arrangement has always been an inherent part of the building’s character and quality.

The school was in a decrepit state for 30 years – surrounded by parking lots, chain link and barbed-wire fences, and aging trailer classrooms. The building and grounds have recently been renovated, a new addition has been constructed, and new landscaping has been installed.  Viewed from the east (from Vaughn Street), the Isbister School still presents itself as a stately courthouse in a park. On the Colony side, however, the character of the building has become quite different. The new addition is adamantly not four-square; it stands in an asymmetrical relationship with the original building, and the courthouse-in-the-park is no longer easily recognizable from the west.

There was some critical comment about the new addition when it was first completed, and I suspect that this arose from the new building’s non-historic character and asymmetrical relationship with the original structure.  The design was approved through an extensive process of heritage review, and though there may have been other ways to integrate the old and new buildings, the new design did pass the litmus test of extensive and collegial review.

The addition was designed by Penner Prinz Architects.  It is a handsome structure, and represents a commitment by Winnipeg School Division to the downtown and to quality architecture.  In order to support this foray into quality design, the school division had to ignore the PSFB’s minimalist policies, and overcome its own recent tradition of minimal building.  This is risky ground for them, and they should be congratulated for their conviction, and for their ability to carry it through.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, August 20, 2006

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