School Buildings and Architecture

Anne-Marie Châtelet

Marta Gutman


Public schools in Europe notably increased in the nineteenth century. The establishment of democracy and the right to vote demanded that every citizen know how to read and write. Most of European states therefore devoted a large part of their effort to educating boys, and later girls. This went hand in hand with the secularization of education, with lay teachers replacing religious, placing church and school in a conflict that has left visible traces in some villages, where structures of each type face each other.

The construction of school buildings began mainly in the second half of the nineteenth century, once the educational system was in place and governments could ensure their Æ-nancing. Until then classes took place in a rectory or in a teacher's home. Discussions about school architecture began early, triggered by the new English educational method known as mutual education. Designed to handle the large number of children in growing industrial towns, the method trained more advanced students to become tutors, allowing a single teacher to educate hundreds of children. Mutual education required specific arrangements and furnishings that Joseph Lancaster, one of the promoters of this method, described in his pioneering work Hints and Directions for Building, Fitting Up, and Arranging School Rooms (1809). He launched a debate, which quickly spread to France, about the layout of a classroom based on the number of students and arrangement of furniture. Experiences in each country were showcased at the World Fairs which, starting with London's in 1862, devoted an area to the material aspects of teaching. Issues of HYGIENE were prominent, especially in regard to lighting, heating, and classroom furnishing.

Two types of structure were completed. Rural schools, with only one or two classrooms, showed modest and economic architecture, while urban schools, often vast and majestic, were criticized for being "school palaces." The urban schools were typically two or three floors high. Long central hallways featured high ceilinged classrooms on either side, making for buildings with depths greater than twenty meters. These dimensions, along with the jobs to be performed in the schools and the rules of hygiene to be enforced, were all defined by municipal or state laws that were ratified between 1860 and 1880, depending on the country. The schools were an affirmation of both the democratic ideal and the strength of the new institution. The most famous schools were among the last to have been built, and reflect the emergence of Art Nouveau: am Elizabethplatz in Munich (1900–1901, architect Theodor Fischer), the school on the rue Rouelle in Paris (Louis Bonnier, 1908–1911), and Letten in Zurich (Adolf and Heinrich Bram, 1912–1915). The schools were the pride of their towns, which often subsidized them and entrusted their construction to municipal architects. Some of their architects, passionate about the subject, published panoramic surveys of European school building architecture, including Edward Robert Robson (1835–1917), Felix Narjoux (1867–1934), and the Austrian Karl Hintrager (1859–?).

The growing concern with tuberculosis triggered a first wave of criticism. International congresses on school hygiene, the first of which was held in Nuremberg in 1904, exposed the mediocre ventilation and sanitary installations in school buildings, as well as the lack of any medical surveillance. Doctors asked that light and air flow in, embracing the goals of the architects of the modern movement, who, in Le Corbusier's words, were calling for "a new spirit," a house "like a receptacle for light and sun." Windows were enlarged, sometimes to the point of becoming sliding doors, rooftops were converted into terraces for heliotherapy, and concerns about ventilation led to recommendations for diminished thickness of the buildings. The hallways were to have classrooms on only one side. The first pavilion school was built in 1907 in Staffordshire, England. Later, some architects even proposed single-floor buildings, so that every classroom could open to the outdoors, like the Friedrich-Ebert Schule by Ernst May in Frankfurt (1929–1930). This permitted open-air classes, the development of group activities, and the improvement of the students' sense of initiative and autonomy, as advocated by the New Education movement. The general evolution of regulations guaranteed a significant improvement in hygiene in these buildings. The architecture had multiple aspects, evidenced by the schools built by Willem Marinus Dudock in Hilversum, Holland between 1920 and 1931; Fritz Schumacher in Hamburg, Germany between 1909 and 1933; Bohuslav Fuchs in Brno, Czech Republic between 1924 and 1928.

World War II interrupted this evolution of which Alfred Roth, author of noted works on school architecture, published a synthesis in 1950. At the beginning of the fifties, the destruction caused by the war and the emergence of a baby boom led to new construction to meet growing needs. England perfected a system of light-steel school structures that worked particularly well with single-home development plans, as evidenced by the many schools built in Hertfordshire. Jean Prouve developed similar structures in France (the collapsible school of Villejuif, 1957, for example) but no general system of prefabrication would ever be adopted for all schools. With the exception of some countries where buildings remained dense and elevated, as in France or in Spain, the individual home model dominated, particularly in Germany, Denmark, Holland, and Switzerland. It was interpreted in many different ways: terraced pavilions at the Munkegaard School at Gentoft, Denmark (Arne Jacobsen, 1954–1956), combined pavillions at the Asilo d'Ivrea, Italy (Mario RidolÆ and W. Frankl, 1955–1965), superimposed pavillions at the Riva San Vitale School in Switzerland (Aurelio Galfetti, Flora Ruchat, and Ivo Trumpy, 1962–1964). The desire to provide diverse activities to children and to encourage their autonomy transformed the school into a small village equipped with many communal spaces and rooms, for example Hans Sharoun's 1951 project for Darmstadt, completed at Marl, West Germany, in 1960. These schools were sometimes open to parents and often to the community. There are also cases, as in the small villages of the Grisons region in Switzerland, where the gymnasium is also a communal space, as in Mastrils, by Dieter Jungling and Andreas Hagmann (1991–1995). Monumental school buildings have disappeared practically everywhere, giving way to simplicity and openness. Today, schools are expected to be a living space for the students and a gathering place for the community.

See also: Children's Spaces; Open Air School Movement.


Robson, E. R. 1972 [1874]. School Architecture. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press.

Roth, A. 1957. The New School. Zurich, Switzerland: Gisberger.



Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, children have been educated in a variety of architectural settings in the United States, ranging from church basements and the parlors of private homes to purpose-built school buildings. Historians have considered the design of schools and recognized the importance of spaces to children, teachers, and the state, yet a comprehensive critical history of school buildings in the United States remains to be written. From one-room schools to multistory complexes, educational settings have represented power, order, and democratic aspirations to children and their families; at the same time, resources for education have been distributed unevenly to students throughout the nation's history.

With church-run ACADEMIES in place and HOMESCHOOLING common after the American Revolution, it took several decades for nonsectarian public education to take hold in the new nation, despite the enthusiastic backing of Thomas Jefferson and the gift of land from the Congress to the states for the purpose. As the nation expanded after the turn of the nineteenth century, one-room, ungraded public schools dotted the landscape, usually sited on low-cost plots of land, known colloquially as "waste grounds," at the edges of growing communities. Most often one-room schools were plain, gabled boxes, built of wood, brick, or sod. Layouts recalled the designs of small churches, with rows of benches facing the teacher's desk, which sat on a raised platform. High windows, inserted on the sides of buildings, prevented children from looking outdoors. Although steeple-like clock towers graced the most ornate examples, poor construction, inadequate equipment, and rudimentary sanitary facilities in most schools contributed to calls for reform.

Elsewhere in the new nation, especially in rapidly growing cities along the eastern seaboard, the frugal bankers, businessmen, and politicians who made up public school committees invested in multiroom masonry and wood-frame school buildings during the first decades of the nineteenth century. They expected didactic settings to impart the values of discipline, economy, health, and citizenship to poor children in need of free (or charity) schooling. In the monitorial system of education, worked out by Joseph Lancaster in England, one teacher supervised hundreds of pupils in a large common hall, assisted by older children (the monitors for whom the schools were named). Introduced in New York City in 1806, the system soon structured spaces in schools large and small in the United States, but many students and their families disliked its rigid teaching methods. As interest in a graded system of instruction developed in this period, urban school districts hired ushers to assist master teachers; students recited lessons to these assistants in separate rooms attached to large lecture halls. Frequently, independent masters opened autonomous reading and writing schools inside the same grammar school building, with each school placed on a separate floor.

In the 1830s, when HORACE MANN issued a call for universal education for all American children, he joined Henry Barnard and other reformers to argue that new COMMON SCHOOLS ought to be the building blocks of a democracy. As these critics endorsed centralization and a standard, graded system of instruction, based on Prussian models, they urged taxpayers to replace deteriorating wood-frame buildings with sturdier construction. Architects proposed ideal designs, notably one-room school buildings in the form of octagons (Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, 1842) and diamonds (Charles P. Dwyer, 1856), but these proposals were not widely used. In 1847, John D. Philbrick, an eminent New England teacher and school administrator, gave more practical physical substance to demands for improvement with a design for the new Quincy Grammar School in Boston, Massachusetts. The first three floors of the four-story, centrally heated, masonry block structure held the classrooms (four per floor, opening onto a shared hallway), and a meeting hall filled the top floor. Each classroom of about eight hundred square feet contained a sink and a closet, and all pupils sat in desks that were bolted to the floor in straight lines. With fifty-five students in each room, the design suited drill-and-recite instruction, and school boards embraced the scheme, dubbed the "egg crate plan," due to the rigid pattern of desks, fixed in straight lines within each classroom.

Nonetheless, poverty and prejudice constrained the use of the schools as a tool for building a more democratic nation. Gender divided the space in schools, where boys and girls used separate entries and sat in rows segregated by sex; working-class families could not afford to send children to school; Irish Catholic immigrants resented Protestant influences on pedagogy; and African Americans encountered racial segregation in the North and exclusion in the South. Schools were also plagued by crowded rooms; poor ventilation, heating, lighting, and sanitation; rigid seats; and scarce play space.

As school districts consolidated after the Civil War, imposing, multistory buildings differentiated by student age group set the standard for new construction. In these buildings, later called "cells and bells" schools, students walked down central corridors capped with tall ceilings to reach self-contained, graded classrooms of about the same size as those in the Quincy School. The order in the space complemented the discipline in instruction in primary schools and the new public high schools, which rapidly replaced private academies across the urbanizing nation. Gilded Age architects who specialized in school design used pattern books to endorse eclectic exterior decoration, which turned buildings into emblems of state munificence and local pride as well as instruments of social control. Standardization became the rule of the day, endorsed by architects, state authorities, and schools of education alike. In cities, crenellated massing (the E-and H-shaped plans were typical) brought light and air into big buildings, even on crowded sites. The pattern also accommodated bulky specialized spaces such as the auditorium, library, and gymnasium that became common after 1900. Outside urban areas, one-room schools, many poorly equipped, remained common, with 200,000 such schools in use in 1920.

After the turn of the twentieth century, when state legislatures passed laws restricting CHILD LABOR and compelling education through eighth grade, public schools structured the encounter of most children with the public world. As the philosopher JOHN DEWEY made the case for child-centered education and businessmen demanded educated, skilled workers, social reformers pressed for modern buildings. Influenced by calls for health, hygiene, and orderly city planning, they convinced districts to build OPEN AIR SCHOOLS (schools with outdoor classrooms and/or classrooms accessible to the open air), vacation schools (the term used in the Progressive Era to describe summer schools), JUNIOR HIGHSCHOOLS, and supervised playgrounds. Some new buildings, for example, the Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a Progressive boarding school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1901, and the addition to the Corona Avenue Public Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, designed by Richard Neutra in 1935, offered examples of the humanity possible in modern design. However, most new schools looked like factories, as architects (who were often public employees) reacted to building codes, national standards, and demands for efficient, economic solutions. The term school plant aptly describes the massive, masonry-clad, steel and concrete frame buildings erected in industrial cities and suburbs. In the South, philanthropists Julius Rosenwald and Pierre S. du Pont subsidized new public schools for AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN. Usually built of wood and domestic in scale, the schools accommodated programs put in place elsewhere during the Progressive Era: manual training and industrial education were required subjects in Rosenwald schools. Fresh air, natural light, coat closets, and moveable seats were found in the classrooms, and the larger schools contained community rooms, another feature typical of Progressive school architecture.

Prompted by the open-air movement which began in the early twentieth century, California architects experimented in the 1910s and 1920s with low-slung courtyard buildings, seeking to give students light, air, and access to open space from each classroom. In 1940, Lawrence Bradford Perkins and Philip Will, principals of Perkins and Will, together with Eliel and Eero Saarinen, took up the cause in the Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois. The one-story brick structure, divided into administrative and teaching wings, gave life to the concept of child-centered education and became an archetype for informal postwar school design. In 1960, when the same team designed another landmark, the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, they integrated new technologies, building materials, and the open plan into a sleek, urban block. After World War II, one-and two-story schools spread out across the suburbanizing American landscape, sited to encourage development and serve as social centers for new communities. Unfortunately, as the school-age population swelled, many districts elected to replace older structures with mediocre buildings, including sizeable, sprawling HIGH SCHOOLS, and used prefabricated assembly systems to reduce costs.

In the course of the twentieth century, the recognition that separate is inherently unequal opened school doors to African-American students and directly affected building design when the federal government instructed districts to give equal space to girls' athletics and accommodate children with disabilities. In addition, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the early twenty-first century, an interest in cooperative and self-directed learning prompted districts to replace lecture-style seating with tables and workstations, and the desire for smaller schools persuaded some to adopt what historian Jeffrey Lackney calls the house plan, which featured clusters of classrooms, offices, and resource spaces. Even so, limited budgets constrained architectural experimentation and building repair as the century drew to a close. Prefabricated classrooms set the standard for new construction in many suburban school yards; the physical decline of older school buildings persisted, most notably in city centers and minority communities; and some middle-class families retreated to private education. At the dawn of a new century, the effects of inequality continued to thread through and differentiate the landscapes of education in the United States as poverty, racial bias, and the reluctance of taxpayers to invest in infrastructure confounded hopes for constructing public architecture, including public schools, suited to and common to all children.

See also: Children's Spaces; Compulsory School Attendance; Hygiene; Progressive Education; Urban School Systems, The Rise of.


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Wojcik, Susan Brizzolara. 2002. Iron Hill School: An African-American One-Room School. U.S. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. Available from .