The Estate as School — On buildings for learning and working

Design of structures and physical space matters. Sudbury Valley School realized early on that a large estate is the perfect middle ground for a school. Between the intimate and the institutional. Balancing public spaces and private spaces. The importance of general purpose and special purpose rooms.

Here are some quotes from some related articles and books I’ve read recently about SVS, Apple/Pixar, and MIT.

(1) The view from MIT:

“[R]equirements [building codes], along with the directive to spend frugally, make it easy to overlook what is perhaps the most important question of all: What kind of impression will a new school make on the people who will spend their formative years there?

Certain details will linger in their minds long after they move on: the feel of the brick facade when they lean against it; the color of the classroom walls; the way sunlight filters through the windows and sounds echo through the halls. Mr. Strickland of M.I.T. says architects need to make schools more comfortable for the children who spend long hours there.

”If you look at the plan of a nicely designed house, there are large spaces for shared activities, as well as more private alcoves for people to be alone,” he said. ”Schools need to become more homelike.”

On flexible space: “[S]cientists in [MIT] Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission.”

On cross-discipline mingling: “The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. … The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

(2) The view from Sudbury Valley School:

“…Dennis said, as if it was clear and self-understood, that we would of course furnish the school with home furnishings, that the last thing on earth we wanted to do was furnish it like a school; that we’d have chairs and tables and sofas and armchairs, and that the rooms would look familiar and comfortable and not institutional. … I’m not saying that the furniture is the key, but all these things add up.”

Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School , page 28-9

On School Corporations (which can petition the School Meeting to have a special-purpose room:

“The great advantage School Corporations have over Departments is that the former can be formed and disbanded according to the needs and interest of the sutdents, whille the latter … never die or fade away, but just keep rolling along.”

The Sudbury Valley Experience, p 144

“[There are some] features of a planned campus… that are really inappropriate for the kind of school we’re thinking about. … There’s a planned use for each building, there’s a restricted degree of flexibility. You build a laboratory and that’s what it is. You build a library and that’s what it’s designed to be. … You program what can be done … so tightly that you lay the groundwork for channeling a student’s possibilities for creativity.”

Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School, p 99

(3) The view from Apple / Pixar / Steve Jobs

“Finally, he [Steve Jobs] decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. “I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says that Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”


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