Evolution of Educational Facilities

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“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Churchill

Though it may not seem readily apparent, the link between architecture and education is an old one, spanning back to the middle ages if not further. As Churchill once simply stated, the way we construct our environment depends on the necessities and cultural aspects of the time and thereafter a building’s inception, we are influenced by the way in which we use it.  Historically, education has come a long way in terms of who has access to schooling and the buildings in which it takes place.  Up until the Protestant Reformation, scholastics focused almost entirely on religious requirements for a small group of clergymen.  It was through small moments in history, like that of Martin Luther’s idea for expanded religious education for more individuals, the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment’s influence on education’s place in society, and the shift in teaching methods brought about by new realizations in learning methods that schools and universities have become one of the most integral architectural parts of society today.  Through the 16th to the 20th Century, educational facilities have evolved to reflect the changing socio-economic qualities of society as a result of religious power shifts in the Protestant Reformation, class structures in the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of need- based learning in the Technological Movement.


Religious Influence on the Architecture of Schools
Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
Casa Giocosa or “Happy House”, Italy, Vittorino da Feltre

 Appearances and styles of schools and universities in the 16th and 17th centuries were heavily determined by the religious power shifts among Christians, Protestants, and other denominations of the time.  Throughout the middle ages, education remained essentially non-existent for a majority of individuals who were not a part of or going to be a part of the clergy. Cathedral, monastery, and palace were both inhospitable and thoroughly unproductive in terms of curriculum structure and inflicted a negative view of education in participants.  Later on, medieval European colleges developed during the late 16th Century were and characterized by their monastic appearances and influences both in style and floor plan.  Much of education throughout the era was entirely tied with religion and therefore based on the absorption and interpretation of God’s word.  To contrast the persistent nature of religion in schooling, Renaissance Humanists began their movement to include mathematics, science, history, and more into the content of a liberal arts education with a more positive, enriching, and spiritualized attitude to learning.  In Italy, a school founded by Vittorino da Feltre, who’s name, Casa Giocosa, literally translated to “Happy House” based its initiative on a more cheerful approach to learning as a necessary, yet beneficial approach to education.  Humanist goals also incorporated physical activity into their curriculum and spaces for such games and exercises were incorporated into schools as needed.  Moving forward in history, religion surged once again to combat the more secular focus of the Renaissance Humanists and began to alter architecture in terms of public access to education and increasing use of establishments.  As an influential figure in Protestant history, Martin Luther declared that salvation depended upon each individual’s ability to understand scripture, requiring society to be able to read and comprehend the text.  During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and other leaders of the movement promoted public education as necessary for Christian salvation.  At this time in many of Germany’s states, law dictated that children must comply with mandatory schooling.  However, the church still dominated the state in the operation of these facilities, therefore continuing the cultural influence in the appearance and activity within such buildings like the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Upon first glance, the university appears to be heavily inspired by religious influence with a clear front façade reminiscent of Gothic and Renaissance churches. Materially, it is also similar with intricate brickwork as its main constructional component. Pointed arches appear frequently especially in the central atrium where they line its perimeter. Finally, ribbed vaulting is used as interior structure over what is now the library space within the university.  Evidently, schooling and its supporting architecture depended greatly upon the religious and cultural aspects of the time period and would begin to alter through the following industrial age.


Fig.1 Pointed arches in the atrium of Jagiellonian University
Fig.1 Pointed arches in the atrium of Jagiellonian University


Fig.2 Ribbed vaulting in the library of Jagiellonian University
Fig.2 Ribbed vaulting in the library of Jagiellonian University











Class Structure as a Definition of Scholastic Architecture
Madame Geoffrin’s Salon, Paris, France
College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1872, Thomas Webb Richards
Claudia Cohen Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia , Pennsylvania, 1873

Fig 3. High bay assembly space required for industrial production in textile factories.
Fig 3. High bay assembly space required for industrial production in textile factories.

Class structures during the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment informed not only the style of education for the poor in comparison to wealthy people, but also the architectural qualities seen in places of learning and their location in society.  While previous generations focused on the interpretation of religious texts and the Latin language, newer educational theories sprung up in the 1700’s and 1800’s to determinedly take over the youth and young adult students of the age.  With industry beginning to boom across the globe, skilled workers in a variety of areas were in high demand and therefore more specialized forms of education were required among different classes.  Poorer individuals of the working class were targeted to satisfy the practical needs of society that took precedence over religious concern.  Artisans, merchants, and seamen were some of the many jobs that had to be filled in this new and up coming society of machines.  Interchangeable parts, factory lines, and assembly construction changed the face of education in that students needed the facilities to learn any necessary skills in operation of factories and the like.  Thus one can assume the necessity of larger spaces for instruction in machine usage, hands on learning, and a change of location from education in the school to education in the field.

For younger children, a majority of learning took place in one-room basic schools that demonstrated the power relationship between teacher and student.  Anything more than one space for a school was deemed unnecessary for a child’s social level in society.  However, in higher social classes of the Enlightenment, learning in the liberal arts grew from its previous inception among the Renaissance Humanists to a mark of affluence in society as Europeans began to meet in Salons, like that of Madame Geoffrin in Paris, France.  On the Rue Saint Honore, Marie Therese Rodet Geoffrin invited some of the most influential and intelligent philosophes and public figures of her time into the walls of her home to stimulate intellectual discussion.

Fig 4. Madame Geoffrin’s Salon characterized by lavish and open discussion space in her home.

Fig 4. Madame Geoffrin’s Salon characterized by lavish and open discussion space in her home.



Fig 5. Campus plan of the University of Pennsylvania
Fig 5. Campus plan of the University of Pennsylvania. College Hall sits as the blue symmetrical building in the top middle of the image and is one of the first campus buildings, which is open and unspecialized to begin the university and support multiple studies.

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin founded his academy in 1751 that first competed with Latin schools in colonial America; his establishment is currently known as the University of Pennsylvania.  Franklin’s goal for education was to stimulate the mind in a practical, everyday-relevant way in which algebra, history, modern language, and astronomy could all benefit the students’ daily life.  Philadelphia remained one of the most dominant industrial cities of the time and Penn’s campus grew to reflect the encouraging growth of education in the booming city.  The famous College Hall, built by Thomas Webb Richards, resonates as one of the most interesting buildings within the entire campus.  Constructed to be entirely unspecialized, the Hall housed numerous departments and space for a variety of activities so as to invite all students in to share in the scholastic nature of the place.  However, as industry continued to grow, Penn housed a number of specialized buildings like Medical Hall, now Claudia Cohen Hall, which contained two multistory surgical amphitheaters at the time.  Overall, for the wealthy and middle classes at least, education was becoming much more available to the public and architecture began to reflect the widespread types of individuals and subjects included in schooling.  As the world moved into the 1800’s, compulsory public education took off first in Europe and then in America.  Prussia, France, and England, who gave primary education for free, each manifested a system of national schooling to better prepare the future of their countries.  Attitudes toward women in education were also sparking architectural change as secondary schools and even some select higher education facilities grew and were constructed to house females.  America began secular free schools for all children in the 1820’s and by the end of the 19th century the nation had followed Massachusetts’s example and a firm common-school system had been established.  Children were moved from one-room schools to larger institutions where they could be grouped by age into grade levels in order for teachers to successfully instruct larger numbers of students.  What used to be a private privilege turned into an expansive public opportunity for a wider variety of individuals and educational architecture grew along with these changing and expanding ways into the 20th Century.

Fig 6.  Claudia Cohen Hall, the original Medical Hall with its two high bay study labs for improved research.
Fig 6. Claudia Cohen Hall, the original Medical Hall with its two high bay study labs for improved research.



Rise of Need-Based Learning and Technology
Ørestad Gymnasium, Copenhagen, Denmark, 3XN

Fig.7 Ørestad Gymnasium Open Plan with Central Atrium
Fig.7 Ørestad Gymnasium Open Plan with Central Atrium

By the twentieth century, society began to realize that education no longer functioned effectively if it were to be taught in a robotic and mechanized way. The Industrial age brought about a lot of schooling taught in the style of rote memorization but this only provided a basic knowledge. Standards of education were changing, and it was no longer viewed as sufficient to learn without understanding. The modern era became a time to fix this and it brought with it a radical new idea of employing different teaching styles to complement children’s different learning habits. Education became individualized in its delivery, but cooperative in its method. This notion was especially prevalent in elementary schools where there was a need to improve the quality of education children received. ‘Interactive learning’ became a key phrase to describe this new shift in thinking, and technology and architecture shifted to accommodate this change. There became an emphasis on group work and ‘team teaching’, instead of traditional teacher-to-student lecturing. Instead of typical boxy classrooms with desks lined up in rows, open floor plans became the norm, allowing for easier facilitation of teamwork and collaboration. This freed teachers to organize students as they wished, instead of being hampered by the conventional gridded setup. Additionally, drawing knowledge from multiple subjects also became more common so large open spaces became key in aiding students with their new method of interdisciplinary learning. Many schools even adopted movable walls that allowed the teachers to create flexible and adaptable spaces. The general class unit could now be spatially divided into sub-units and foster new partnerships. A prime example of this would be the Ørestad Gymnasium by 3XN in Denmark.

Fig.8 Ørestad Gymnasium ‘Blurred’ and Merged Floors
Fig.8 Ørestad Gymnasium ‘Blurred’ and Merged Floors

It has no conventional classrooms but instead housed four study zones that take up a full floor each. Each floor is then cut and rotated in such a way to avoid creating distinct spaces in section too. This formally and functionally blurred and removed borders that might otherwise impede on creating flexible spaces for group learning. The rotation also created a tall central core, which acted as an informal meeting place to encourage collaboration and the trading of new ideas among students. This dovetailed neatly with the social idea of connectivity. This suggested that the school is a network for wider learning and connection. Thus the typology for the twentieth century can be characterized by its flexibility, the use of a common core, and the social idea of connectivity. No longer were schools characterized by their “egg-crate” boxy, identicalness, but they became moveable, changeable spaces that could adapt to academic needs. Next, the architectural idea of a common core or central atrium space served to further emphasize the new importance of networking and teamwork to learning. And finally, the notion of connectivity used to signify schooling as a symbol for collaboration, could be in fact, used to describe the overarching theme of educational architecture in the twentieth century.



Educational facilities have grown to reflect the varying socio-economic qualities of the society in which they are constructed and much of this change has taken place between the early 1600’s and modern communities.  While religion characterized the early 16th and 17th centuries, strides in making education more accessible were made in order for the rise of industry to pick up these successes and carry them into an age of specialization and expansion of learning in the Industrial and Enlightenment era.  From there, contemporary schooling has architecturally adapted to the changing technologies and instructional techniques. This has resulted in more open spaces that encourage teamwork and networking. Thus architecture and education are inextricably linked. What one does affects the other and as society and education change and evolve, so too does the architecture of learning institutions evolve with it.







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