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Aesthetics and Utilitarian Design

As a creative, yet industrial professional, utility is not far from my mind when assessing options, but in many cases, particularly where daily human interaction is part of the design scope, aesthetics is of equal importance.

My Old SchoolSimply put, in the age of technology, an object must be able to be easy to use, and it’s form should be visually pleasing. This goes, whether the design object is an iPhone, furniture, mountain bike or building. While some would argue that form has always been important, “just look at the Colosseum, Greek temples or castles and churches from around the world”, they say; but I would counter that the wealth of society and ability to design and deliver a beautiful product has never been easier than in the past fifty years. However, in this time of plenty, we have seen some of the most horrendous examples of purely utilitarian design imaginable, whether freeways, factories, or shopping malls; many of which have been the subject of ridicule and criticism. But the example that sticks most vividly in my head, and the issue that I raise today, is the difference between the cute little primary school that I attended in Australia, and the average cinder block box with a flat roof and a mostly asphalt playground surrounding it that passes as an educational facility in Canada, and North America in general. (Note: there are examples of beautiful schools out there, and my criticism is not directed at them!)

Schools should be places of inspiration, there are some basics that any architect or psychologist will tell you are important for good design.

Lighting – Preferably with a focus on natural lighting, the facility should be well lit, with high quality full spectrum lighting. There is something relaxing about a classroom lit by sunlight filtered through green leaves, or even bare branches in winter.

Nature – A connection with nature, through garden and play spaces can be inspiring. Even modest grade changes provide much needed variety in terrain for more imaginative play. This is in stark contrast to the usual practice of surfaces being paved or grass

Common Spaces – Most schools have poor common spaces, corridors are purely utilitarian, as thoroughfares and locker spaces, while in many Australian schools, verandas are used for locker space and classroom access, while providing outdoor rooms for eating lunch or socializing. Emulating that inside a building is difficult, and has traditionally been done poorly.

Overall, an institution shouldn’t feel like an institution; at least, in my opinion, there is no good reason for it to.

The Challenge

Old Orchard Primary School - late afternoonWith shrinking school age populations, and diminishing budgets, the chances of anything decent being done to address the horrible aesthetics of the average schools in all of our cities is pretty slim. The infrastructure deficit facing our communities extends to schools as well as roads and pipes. In communities where consolidation of facilities has occurred in the past decade, it is wise to remember that often the building in the worst condition was torn down, but the others just aren’t that much better, and it is likely that no where near enough money has been spent to keep the building in top shape.

We face a dilemma of funding priorities, we need teachers and we need buildings, but we can’t afford to pay enough for either in any serious way. If we value education of our children, we need to find new ways to achieve the same or better results, in my mind there is plenty of room to change, but we need to provide adequate funding, and that is the real challenge.

Beautiful, long lasting buildings don’t come easy, or cheap, but their value in providing a prominent community space for an institution should not be underestimated. As communities are discovering, the cheap schools that were thrown up to accommodate the baby boomers are easy to tear down, often to the detriment of the communities they were located in.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.