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Thursday, June 8 • 3:50pm - 4:10pm
Playful Armor: Defining and Designing Safe Learning Spaces

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This paper narrates the iterative assessment process conducted over the course of ten years regarding the school design project as a core component of the master of architecture professional program pedagogy. This work took place within three contexts that informed each new iteration of the school design project: the national professional requirements by the accrediting body, the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB), particularly regarding the role of stakeholders; the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that is the local urban context of Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture; and the research conducted at New York City (NYC) K-12 schools with students, teachers, and administrators. The final iteration of this school design project pedagogy, described as a “playful armor,” was the result of navigating the ambiguous territory of the school building typology, one that demands to be simultaneously open to its community and closed to all that is external or disruptive. Having set out to make “safe learning spaces,” the work led to increasingly nuanced definitions of what constitutes a safe learning space.

Describing a place as “safe” means it affords security or protection. It follows that designing a safe space for learning involves making a boundary that effectively keeps out whatever would interfere with a school’s internal activities. What is considered safe can be defined by what it is not: not likely to cause harm, not likely to lead to injury, not involving danger. Keeping dangers out of learning spaces leads to conceptualizing the building’s skin as a kind of armor, and the history of architecture is full of examples of these armor-like skins in education buildings. For example, when Eero Saarinen built a dorm for the University of Pennsylvania, he angled the window cuts so that the exterior wall appeared thicker and more impenetrable. The impenetrability of school buildings has new relevance in the face of increased school shootings in the United States over the last decade, now tracked by several organizations, including The Washington Post. The NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) emergency drills now include lockdowns, further emphasizing the importance of making the school building be and seem impenetrable. For architecture students at Pratt, these concerns necessitate understanding the urban context of their own architecture school’s location. According to data published by NYC’s Mayor’s Office, a limited number of neighborhoods account for half of gun violence in NYC. One of those neighborhoods currently identified by the city’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence (OPGV), Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, is adjacent to Pratt Institute. But “safe” can also refer to something that is so averse to risk it stagnates in unenterprising approaches. The OPGV is not “safe” in this sense because, in an enterprising way, it looks beyond traditional law enforcement strategies to engage community-building strategies. Research regarding progressive approaches to gun violence that start with the community can also be found in psychology publications, including a 2013 report by the American Psychological Association, “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy.” Similarly, in the development of design pedagogy, “safe” is also defined more comprehensively, teaching future architects how to design spaces in holistic ways. Good design pedagogy shifts the focus from the impenetrable building envelope to an architecture of community engagement. The “armor” becomes “playful armor” as it necessarily continues to control access, but in a way that simultaneously invites community participation.

Regarding the first context for the development of this learning space design pedagogy, the professional training of architecture students: A design exercise involving institutional typologies such as the school project focuses on understanding the role of the stakeholder. It also focuses on its social justice counterparts of accessibility (in all senses, physical and socio-cultural), and inclusivity. Strategies for the development of the school design curriculum in this context included one-on-one interaction between architecture students and multiple K-12 age groups in a range of classroom activities, from building bridges to designing reading nooks; conversations with teachers and administrators; inviting thirty fifth-graders to final architecture presentations at Pratt; watching documentaries about progressive school practices that featured students, including Approaching the Elephant (2014) by Amanda Wilder; interviewing students regarding their existing school spaces; and introducing films that enable architecture students to empathetically inhabit the complex world of childhood such as, for example, Céline Sciamma’s 2011 film Tomboy. Studying a film with the visceral power of Tomboy and being able to spend time with K-12 students, the actual occupants of the building they are designing, gave the architecture students the confidence to propose ambitious formal-programmatic schemes. A safe learning space is one that is accessible, inclusive, and reflecting true knowledge of its stakeholders.

Regarding the second context for the development of this design pedagogy, the specific context of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the greater NYC urban context, there are several formulaic approaches developed since the 1970s regarding making urban spaces safe. The architect Oscar Newman’s “defensible space,” and the criminologist C. Ray Jeffery’s “crime prevention through environmental design” or CPTED are attractive because they offer easily understood and enacted guidelines. Their positivist approach toward the creation of safe spaces, however, tends toward the reductive and works against holistic design approaches. Directives such as “make everything well lit” and “make all areas of the space visible” may sound right, but actually work against a design approach that benefits from varied lighting and cozy nooks. Footcandles and sightlines are easier to measure than the holistically assessed design quality of a space, but such a simplistic approach to design cannot lead to cohesive and nuanced design work. In order to make urban spaces that are conducive to community building, the more nuanced understanding of “safe,” the students’ study of their design project’s urban context was bracketed between fully developed urban design narratives and specific neighborhood urban knowledge from planners brought into the classroom. Exercises included, for example, inventing a dialogue between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses about urban design approaches to the site. Site-specific conversations with planners included the neighborhoods of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Red Hook, Hunter’s Point, Bay Ridge, and Sunset Park. Instead of a paint-by-number approach to the making of urban spaces, students devised urban fabric interventions through Socratic, dialogue-based approaches.

The third and final context for the development of this design pedagogy is the research conducted in NYC K-12 schools with students, teachers, and administrators. This research paralleled the development of the pedagogy for architecture students and relied on established teaching practices such as those in Montessori schools, as well as newer approaches such as Stuart Brown’s argument for the benefits of free play, Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence, and the compilations of school design strategies found in The Third Teacher. The most important components of this research, however, were the collaborations with teachers and administrators and the direct observation of students in classrooms. The years following the 2010 New York State’s adoption of Common Core Learning Standards provided excellent opportunities for the documentation and critical evaluation of how progressive teaching and learning practices were enacted in a variety of school environments, from the humble double loaded corridor to the extravagant auto-closing glass fire door. Best practices for the design of learning spaces were develope

avatar for Maria Sieira

Maria Sieira

Adjunct Associate Professor CCE, Pratt Institute

Thursday June 8, 2023 3:50pm - 4:10pm EDT
PS 405 (Design Center)