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What makes a good schoolhouse? New York City educators and school designers have been posing this question since the public school system was established in the mid-nineteenth century. There is no single answer. And while we might expect schools to provide classrooms, science labs, and libraries, a good school goes beyond the basics to inspire students and teachers through its architecture and art.
High school students asked by the national American Architectural Foundation to envision their ideal school described a welcoming and personal learning environment that encouraged social exchanges, views consistent with AAF’s articulated principles. The AAF recommends that schools retain and reflect the culture of the community they serve; incorporate flexibility; maximize natural light and ventilation; integrate technology; address sustainability; and engage school users and the community in the design process. Many of these objectives have long been central to school design in New York City, while others are more recent developments. Just as educator and self-taught architect Henry Barnard argued in the 1840s, there is still a crucial “connection between a good school-house and a good school."
This book examines—and aims to expand—notions of what a school building can be. Like a house of worship, a school is a symbolic structure whose purpose goes beyond fulfilling functional criteria, and art more than any other building element supports that aim. We build schools to educate children, but just as architectural styles have changed, the nature of that educational enterprise has shifted along with cultural attitudes.
The pages that follow will lead the reader on a journey of discovery to city neighborhoods and interior spaces hidden from public view, providing a glimpse of how public education in New York has defined itself by means of brick, mortar, and paint. Most people, even those of us who attended New York City public schools, are unaware of the variety and quality of public school architecture spread across the five boroughs and even less familiar with the art collection that schools house.
Initially referred to as “school-room decorations,” plaster casts of renowned sculptures stood next to teachers’ desks and reproductions of famous paintings hung on classroom walls. From this limited beginning, artworks in schools evolved from embellishments of functional elements into ambitious commissions executed in glass, steel, bronze, and painted plaster, moving from small classrooms to larger public spaces such as entrance halls and auditoriums. Today the Department of Education’s collection comprises over 1,500 artworks, approximating a small museum without walls.
Whether figurative or abstract, artworks add a visual and educational dimension to the learning environment, sometimes expanding students’ awareness in unconscious ways. Often art in schools mirrors our collective thoughts about education and what it can achieve. It is, as cultural critic Lewis Mumford observed, “the spiritual varnish that we lay on material things.”
Within the variety of styles and materials, several themes emerge as unifying threads. The art can communicate what often remains unarticulated in a building’s program of requirements, enlivening and enriching the school environment with symbolic content. Art inspires students and teachers and reaffirms the value of education. It can complement the curriculum, expanding upon history, literacy, science, or mathematics. Art can serve as a positive reflection of student identity and diversity. It can transform functional elements such as windows, fences, and gates into imaginary landscapes or heighten the school’s role as a beacon in the community. The best artwork provokes or engages even the most restless student.
We have come a long way from the one-room schoolhouse. New York City school buildings have been cast in Romanesque Revival, Collegiate Gothic, Art Deco, Modern, and Post-Modern idioms. The public art associated with them is just as diverse, ranging from inspirational stained glass to epic narrative frescoes, from biomorphic mosaics to interactive sound playgrounds. In the best examples from any era, school architects and artists have united pragmatism with creativity, giving form to the grand experiment that is American public education. The architecture and art of New York City’s public schools convey a sense that anything is possible in America, exemplifying the American belief that public schools are the great equalizer.