Where does education take place? Politicians would like us to believe that it happens in the cinder-box classroom where students can be organized into rows and regularly tested on the latest curriculum. Stingy bits of information being delivered like an intravenous drip -- that would be the taxpayer's money at work. Education has become so dull that it's hard to remember the thrill of enlightenment. What it was like to go for the first time to the seaside and discover the purple, diaphanous jellyfish.
This is the gist of a recent article in Harper's magazine, in which John Taylor Gatto argues that the American public system was born out of a desire to create a malleable and standardized populace. In this model of education, original, critical thinking becomes the enemy.
Architecture can play directly to the desires of an institution. You want mean and imposing? Try the residential schools for first nations kids built along Canada's West Coast. Or the dumb brick boxes built by the Toronto Roman Catholic School Board during the 1960s.
To be sure, we don't always get it right in this country. In fact, for the remarkable redevelopment of Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto, it took decades to right a terrible wrong. Before construction began on the new Thorncliffe, the school was an urban grid of portables -- 46 portables, to be exact. The elementary school sits in the heart of Canada's largest Muslim community in northeast Toronto. The area is one of the poorest in the city, with immigrant families newly arrived from Pakistan and India earning average incomes of $20,000. Kids in the portables would trek a few hundred metres back to the original school for library or gym, remove their boots in the winter and put on their shoes. "There's no way that a child should go through six years of elementary education in a portable," says Mario Manserra, the principal, now retired, who spearheaded the campaign to redevelop Thorncliffe. He took the issue of the inadequate facility to the Toronto District School Board, but it cried poverty. When he took the cause of Thorncliffe to the media, the board revisited the issue.
There are 1,520 students attending Thorncliffe. The redeveloped school, which adds an addition to more than double the space of the original facility, has been designed by Teeple Architects as a refuge of natural light, greenery and colour.
Every classroom in the two-storey school has direct or visual access to an interior courtyard or the playground. A series of crisply modern pavilions overlook a new soccer field. The scale of the new addition is residential and inviting. The windows punch out from the elevation as a series of dynamic bays. There's white stucco cladding set against thin vertical members of cedar and buff-coloured bricks. Thorncliffe communicates as a school that wants to delight and nurture its students. That's what separates it cleanly from all of the heavyset, oppressive institutions that have been constructed in this country.
For the refugee kids arriving from countries such as Afghanistan, everything about Canada is foreign. Some have never attended school. Most have never seen winter boots, let alone worn them on their feet. At Thorncliffe, the experience of footwear has been heightened through a small gesture. Teeple Architects have designed a stainless steel shoe and boot rack that can flip off the floor to allow the janitor to mop the floors. Of course, in this country of outrageous, drippy weather, every school deserves the same system.
Teeple Architects has made two major interventions, both of which are designed to nurture the young creative mind. The first is to return the urban child to nature, a Rousseauian gesture, to bring something tactile and alive to the children. The other is to bathe the children in diffused shafts of colour. Because all of this has been accomplished for $12-million -- which works out to $146 per square foot, the school board's standard -- Thorncliffe establishes a new benchmark for school design in Canada.
What drives the plan of the new school is the interior courtyard. Three small courtyards existed in the old school, the product of space left over during many ad hoc additions. Now there are nine courtyards in total. They're organized along the north-south axis as parallel worlds, with myriad personalities defined by the plantings, the furnishings or play structures. Most have been landscaped with trees and native plants with plenty of room for the children to contribute their own gardens. Volunteers from the Leaside Horticultural Society will continue to work alongside the children to create dense, inner forests over time. In an urban district where parking lots and the East York Town Centre are what has grown up on the ground, there's little to inspire kids to come down from their towers to play. The interior courtyards bring natural light and greenery into the library, the main gym or the kindergarten. Reading pits in classrooms connect to the courtyards. On the second floor, a glassed-in catwalk crosses over a long, airy courtyard to connect the more senior classrooms to the computer loft in the library.
Besides natural light, colour defines the school -- colour that soothes, that vibrates, that stimulates an appetite for learning. There are floating planes of colour dropped down slightly from the roof of the main gym and all of the classrooms. But the innovation at Thorncliffe is the coloured shafts of light that cut through the ceiling of the ground floor and rise up an entire storey. In this manner, Stephen Teeple, working closely with project manager Paul Hammond, has introduced inner towers of light that announce the entrance of most classrooms on the ground floor. Different colours have been chosen for different classrooms -- a deep, ochre yellow, for instance, or a sober teal blue.
On the second floor, the painted shafts have been cut through about three feet of ceiling -- typically taken up by mechanical systems -- and topped by rounded, economically priced skylights on the school's roof. Stand underneath and your friends can watch your face turn a different shade. Students can recognize their classroom or grouping of classrooms as a horizontal slice of colour seen down the hall. Watching the colour vibrating there is to recognize that education can occur in classrooms and, maybe more than we'd like to admit, out there -- in the spaces in between.