Spotlight falls on design of schools

By KAMCILLA PILLAY and SOPHIA CLARK Time of article published Aug 7, 2014

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Durban -

While international architectural experts called for innovation and creativity in the design of schools, a local education analyst said the immediate focus of the government needed to be on basic infrastructure.

Patrick Lynn Rivers, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Kai Wood Mah, of Laurentian University in Canada, presented a paper titled “Architectural Standards and Education after Apartheid” at the Union of Architects Congress at the Durban International Convention Centre on Wednesday, which focused on values, specifically on education and practice.

With these themes in mind, different methods of building schools were discussed.

Mah began by welcoming the recent move by the Department of Basic Education with regard to the minimum norms and standards, announced last November.

Schools, whether built entirely of mud, or of asbestos, metal and wood, were given a deadline of three years to be rebuilt.

The norms and standards relating to the availability of classrooms, electricity, water, sanitation, electronic connectivity and perimeter security also needed to be prioritised and dealt with seven years from the date of publication of the regulations.

However, with these standards came challenges, Mah said. The solution, he said, was to create buildings that were expressive as well as efficient, highlighting the fact that unique buildings added value for students, community and the country.

He added that the purpose of the paper was to highlight the importance of architectural standards in South African debates about the quality of education.

“Precise standards become a baseline that can be used to hold the state accountable in terms of educational transformation as well as a means to experiment with what a ‘standard’ might mean.”

Mah and Rivers studied three Cape Town schools, all in informal settlements which had been started and completed in the past five years.

All the schools tried to include healthy amounts of light, cross-ventilation and sheltered areas for the summer heat and winds typical of the area.

He added that the schools also tried to have multipurpose spaces to include the community more, which in turn would foster healthier relationships between the people there and the government.

Although using a rectilinear design was expected for schools, he said, that need not be the architect’s only option.

He used the design of specialist private Waldorf Schools as an example: these used the buildings as an extension of their teaching, encouraging better performance and “play”.

But an educational psychologist at the University of Pretoria, Professor Kobus Maree, said Mah was both “absolutely right and absolutely wrong”.

“Yes, we do need to revisit the issue of building design. In fact, students should no longer even be sitting in rows in classrooms, but rather in a setting where all pupils are the same distance from the teacher,” he said.

“The problem is that the government’s collective response to global change has been woefully inadequate. We are still catching up in terms of the basics.”

Maree added that, for now, many schools – fitted with all the basics – needed to be built throughout the country, and that took precedence over inventive buildings.

“Aside from things like toilets and classrooms, we need to also focus on our teachers and training them. Those are the real skills that will help undo the legacy (left behind by apartheid).”

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