Design For Learning

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Architect Steven Bingler wants to retire the traditional brick-box schoolhouse and connect students to the real world.

The Louisiana Superdome looks like a giant concrete mushroom that has somehow sprouted in the middle of New Orleans. Home to the Saints and the site of five Super Bowls, the dome, like most sports stadiums, merely takes up space--in this case, a great deal of space--when it's not being used for football games or the occasional Celine Dion concert. So when architect Steven Bingler, whose 43rd-floor office overlooks much of the Crescent City, gazes down at the massive arena, he sees...potential . "Why not put a school in the Superdome?" he asks, quite seriously. "Do you know how many kids could be turned on by a really innovative sports and fitness curriculum that could be developed there?"

He points to another building below. "That's City Hall," he says. "Why not put a school there? How about in a zoo? Or a farm? We've got some empty space right here in this building. I like to ask, Where is a place that is not good for a school?"

Bingler is a leading proponent of taking education out of school buildings-and a chief critic of the factory model, which has long influenced the way schools are designed. According to Bingler, most new school buildings--even the ones with high-tech media centers and movable walls--are simply modified versions of the schools built in the early part of the century. Those buildings, many of which are still in use today, were known for long corridors and self-contained, one-size-fits-all classrooms. They were extremely efficient-and extremely alienating.

"What we have today," Bingler says, "is mostly an enhanced version of that. The space inside may be more flexible, but the school still has a chain-link fence around it. It's still isolated from the community."

Bingler isn't the only one thinking about how schools can be better designed. It's a hot topic these days among architects and educators. The American Institute of Architects even has a Committee on Architecture for Education. Innovative school buildings are popping up all over. Newsweek recently reported on the proposed redesign of Carl Sandburg High School, in Orland Park, Illinois, originally built in 1954. According to the magazine, "The new Sandburg will incorporate some of the hottest ideas in school design: a central library that resembles a Barnes & Noble superstore, a gym with updated amenities like a rock-climbing wall, and a food court to replace the cafeteria, where long lines stymie students who have 23 minutes to get in, eat up, and get out."

Bingler, however, wants to move beyond the schoolhouse altogether. "What I keep hearing educators talk about is connections-about connecting learning to real-life experiences," says the 50-year-old architect, who wears bow ties and speaks in a Southern drawl. "Yet the schools we're building now--and we're spending $15 billion a year building and fixing schools--create an atmosphere that's just the opposite of that. They exclude the community. In most cases, the community can't get in, and students can't get out. And that isolation is augmented and supported by the facility."

In Iuka, Mississippi, Bingler and his firm, Concordia Architects, designed a high school that doubles as a community center. Its gymnasium is used as a public fitness center, and the cafeteria serves as a town meeting hall. In Hurricane, West Virginia, Bingler conceived the Museum in the Community, which houses art classes in the summer. For a charter school at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, Bingler took over a space on the museum floor, right next to the agriculture exhibit, and put up a glass wall. Visitors to the museum can peer into the classrooms; students, in turn, can look out at the exhibits. Indeed, the museum, with its vast collection of historical documents, artifacts, and buildings--including Thomas Edison's laboratory--is perhaps the ultimate setting for a school.

"Putting a school in a museum is practical because it costs a lot less than building a brand-new school," Bingler says. "But it's also good for educational reasons. I'm not saying we don't need to build new buildings. But whenever we do, we need to build something that does more than one thing. We simply can't afford to have buildings that do only one thing anymore. If we're building a museum, we need to try to figure out if it could also be a school. And if we're building a school, then we need to try to figure out if it could also be a museum. Or whatever. There's a 20th century way of thinking, and now it's time to move on to the 21st century."

Bingler is on the cutting-edge of school design, but many of his ideas can be traced to an architect born in the 18th century: Thomas Jefferson--not surprising since Bingler is a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson in 1819. "I could see the rotunda from my bedroom window," says Bingler, who grew up in a working-class family. "But the university was always so far up on the hill, inaccessible to me. Nobody in my family had gone to college."

In high school, Bingler loved working on cars and thought he would become an auto mechanic. But his career aspirations changed one night when he and his father, a plumber, went searching for night crawlers on the University of Virginia campus. Walking through what Jefferson called his "academical village," with its pavilions, colonnades, and rotunda, Bingler had an epiphany.

"I'd been wondering about architecture for a while," he says. "You know, like, Who makes these buildings? Somebody must design these things. But I didn't realize how important design was until that night. I was awed by the power of the place. I said to myself, Maybe I could be one of those guys--an architect. Why not?" So Bingler, whose grades were mediocre at best, began to apply himself, and after graduating from high school, he entered the University of Virginia with the intention of becoming an architect.

Naturally, Bingler drew inspiration from Jefferson and his buildings. "Studying architecture at the University of Virginia, what you do is live and breathe Jefferson," he says. "When it was time to learn the classical orders of architecture, you went to the lawn, not to a book, because Jefferson designed each one of those pavilions using a different classical order of architecture. And the gardens behind each pavilion weren't just formal gardens; they were also botanical and horticultural laboratories." In other words, Jefferson didn't simply build structures in which learning was to take place; rather, he viewed the entire campus as a sort of living textbook. "His thinking was very systemic. He said, 'You can't disconnect. You can't have a building that holds education--the building is education.' The curriculum was the design determinant."

From Jefferson, Bingler also learned the importance of collaboration. The idea for the rotunda, the university's most prominent architectural feature, actually came from another famous architect, Benjamin Latrobe. When Jefferson asked his younger colleague to critique his plans for the university, Latrobe suggested that he add a central library. "And Latrobe drew a little sketch of the Pantheon in Rome," Bingler says, "and Jefferson copied that sketch exactly. So the campus was a wonderful collaboration between Jefferson and Latrobe and a number of engineers he consulted, to say nothing of the artists who actually carved the capitals."

Bingler graduated from the University of Virginia in 1972 and took a job with a New Orleans architectural firm, August Perez and Associates. For one of his projects, the Hotel Inter-Continental, Bingler took his cue from Jefferson and hired a sculptor, an artist, a mathematician, a physicist, and a composer to help create an outdoor courtyard. "We worked together to design the courtyard from scratch," he says. The result is a tranquil space with giant "trees" made of steel pipes and wind chimes that play sympathetic notes when the wind blows.

The effort inspired Bingler to start his own firm, which he called Concordia, as in concord, or harmony. "It seemed like the right name because I wanted to emphasize teamwork and collaboration," says the architect, who founded the company in 1983. Bingler now employs about a dozen associates in two separate but connected entities: Concordia Architects and Concordia Inc., a research and planning firm.

One of Concordia's first projects was the renovation of an old brewery in the French Quarter, the neighborhood where Bingler lives with his wife and three children. The project won numerous design awards, and suddenly his fledgling firm had plenty of work.

Bingler had vowed to stay away from designing public buildings. "In Louisiana," he says, "such projects come with a very clear set of rules, and those rules have a lot to do with patronage, and I've never been interested in that." So, in 1988, when two school board members from De Soto Parish, in the northwestern part of the state, called Bingler and asked if he would design a school for their district, the architect said no. "But these guys seemed very sincere, and somehow they presented it in such a way, with so much enthusiasm, that I decided to do a proposal for them. And if they went for it, OK. And if they didn't, that would also be fine."

Bingler had never designed a school before, so he began by asking a simple question: What is a school? "It seemed to me that things were different from the way they were in the 1950s," he says, "yet all the schools I saw looked like they were designed 40 years ago. So I told the board members, 'Here's my proposal. If you want me to design a school, we will go and find out what's going on in education right now, and then we will design a school that meets those requirements.' And they said, 'Let's do it.'"

Bingler organized a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famed Media Lab. Among the participants were the educators Howard Gardner and Seymour Papert. (Since 1996, Concordia has had an ongoing alliance with Project Zero, Gardner's educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)

"We discussed what a learning environment would look like if we started from scratch," Bingler says. "And a lot of good ideas came out of that." It was Gardner, he says, who first suggested using museums for learning spaces. Although that idea wouldn't find its way into Bingler's designs for several years, the architect seized immediately upon another concept-the notion of opening the school up to the community. And when Bingler's blueprint for De Soto's new school was complete, it included a gymnasium to be used by both students and the public.

"The school itself wasn't one great big building," he says. "It was very horizontal, with wings for different grade levels, and courtyards. Each grade had its own identity."

Such innovation didn't exactly win over the De Soto Parish school board. "It wasn't a traditional brick box," Bingler says, "so it came under a great deal of attack." It turned out that some school-board members had wanted to award the project to a local architect, so when projected construction costs for Bingler's design were more than anticipated, opposition swelled. Bingler was fired, and the local architect got the job after all. "And he came back and designed for them a brick box, a factory-model school, and they went and built it. And we were smarting for a while from that failure."

Bingler quickly realized some of the mistakes he had made. For one thing, he had failed to involved the community in the project. "We designed it with those two board members, the superintendent, and a few teachers. It was a fairly small group. And that was a fatal mistake." It didn't help that some of the design ideas came from pointy-headed academics at Harvard and MIT. "That didn't play too well in northern Louisiana," he says. "But you live and learn."

Bingler might never have designed another school, but the proposal for that aborted project was published in the journal Educational Facility Planner . As a result, Bingler got a call from the Mississippi governor's office, which had agreed to help finance a low-cost school in the town of Iuka, in the remote--and poor--northeast corner of the state. Now hooked on education, he took the job.

This time, he involved the community right from the start. He formed a steering committee of 100 local leaders, educators, parents, and students--he calls them "stakeholders"--and solicited ideas. "We asked them, 'What do you need?' instead of telling them, 'Maybe the school should serve as a community center.'" In the end, however, that's exactly what the citizens of Iuka wanted. At one meeting, someone said the town needed a YMCA, but there was no money to open one. Someone else said, "You know, I'd be satisfied if we could just have a nice place for a wedding reception. My daughter just got married, and we had to have the reception at the roller-skating rink." Others wanted the new school to reflect the area's Chickasaw Indian history.

So Bingler took these ideas and created the Tishomingo County Educational Complex, which opened in 1991 and now serves about 900 students. The school, which features Chickasaw Indian design motifs, doubles as a community center, with all its common facilities located around an open circular court for complete community access. The school auditorium, for instance, is also a community theater, and the gymnasium serves as a community fitness center. The library, too, is open to the general public. After the school opened, one student told Bingler, "It doesn't feel so much like a prison, with all of these grown-ups hanging out here."

If opening schools up to the community sounds a little wacky, consider this: In the 1890s, there was a movement devoted to that very idea. Ac cording to Joel Spring in The American School: 1642-1993 , "It was believed that the neighborhood school could be a means of organizing urban populations into a corporate body of specialized tasks and lifestyles cemented together by common allegiances....An article by H.E. Scudder in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 suggested that the school could attract more people by improving the beauty of its buildings, attaching a public library, organizing a museum and conservatory, and using its walls as a public art gallery. The author states, 'The common schoolhouse is in reality the most obvious center of national unity.'"

Oddly enough, since 1991, Bingler has designed few new schools. He collaborated with several other New Orleans architects on the city's Aquarium of the Americas, and he worked with local artists to create the Contemporary Arts Center, an award-winning renovation of an old brick warehouse. He also designed a prekindergarten prototype for the New Orleans schools and a learning center for schools in Gulfport, Mississippi. But Bingler has spent much of the past eight years working as a planning consultant to districts around the country.

School officials in Putnam County, West Virginia, for instance, have hired him to help develop a comprehensive growth plan. A rural area that has evolved in recent years into a bedroom community for both Charleston and Huntington, the county is quickly running out of room in its schools. "We've got about 56 portables," says school superintendent Sam Sentelle, "and many of them were added in the last six years. We've got some schools that look like trailer parks." Yet many longtime residents don't want to pay higher taxes to build new facilities. When voters failed to approve a mill levy increase, Sentelle sought Bingler's help.

"His idea is to bring people together who usually don't talk to each other but have the same interests," Sentelle says. As he first did in Tishomingo County, Bingler created a committee of 100 stakeholders and hosted monthly meetings. "We try to help communities create their own future," Bingler says. "We don't come in with a silver bullet. Every single community is radically different."

Concordia's master plan for Putnam County is not yet complete, but Bingler and his associates generally suggest how districts can make better use of existing school buildings to accommodate growth while also serving the needs of the community. Sometimes they also recommend building new schools. Sentelle hopes Bingler's plan for the Putnam County schools can pave the way for a bond issue to fund new facilities. "We've got people talking who have never talked before, and that's good," he says.

Two years ago, in Hayward, California, Bingler was hired to grapple with similar problems, including overcrowded schools and aging facilities. "We now have a pretty strong consensus for what the community wants," says Bruce Jackson, who was the district's liaison with Concordia. "One of the major threads that runs through the plan is to have schools that can be easily used as community centers when they're not being used for classes. An awful lot of people in Hayward like that idea. They want better links between the schools and the community."

Bingler's plan calls for upgrading every school in Hayward. But the centerpiece of his proposal is a new visual and performing arts center that would be open to the public and also used as a school by about 400 K-12 students. "This is sort of his trademark project," says Jackson, "and it would be a major addition for Hayward." Bingler could end up designing the facility--if and when the district and the city come up with the money for it. As in Putnam County, Jackson and other school officials hope to use the master plan as the springboard for a successful bond election.

Bingler--part idealist, part pragmatist--is smart enough to know that most existing schools are not going to simply disappear, so he's more than happy to help districts improve their traditional factory-model institutions. "Whether the school becomes more a center of the community or whether the community becomes more the center for education is a moot point," he says. "The trick is to move more toward an integration between school and community. So sometimes we're figuring out how to take an existing school facility and make it more accessible to the community, and sometimes we're trying to figure out how to take an existing community facility and make it work as a school."

It's the latter model that excites Bingler the most. And his design for the Henry Ford Academy is one of the best examples of how a public facility--in this case, a museum--can be used for an innovative school. "It's the 'school as hermit crab,'" the architect says. "They don't create their own shells-they just find an empty shell and move into it."

Henry Ford devised the assembly line in 1909, and his Model T's were cranked out by the thousands at his company's massive Highland Park factory, just outside Detroit. Eventually, Ford opened the even bigger River Rouge plant, billed as the world's largest industrial complex. It was Ford's factories, and others like them, that inspired the very factory-model schools that have become as ubiquitous as cars on the highway.

Ford was a collector, not of art but of commonplace items like toasters, kerosene lamps, and steam engines. Legend has it that he attempted to acquire at least one of everything ever made in America. He even collected famous buildings, like Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory and Orville and Wilbur Wright's home and cycle shop. In 1929, Ford opened the Edison Institute--now called the Henry Ford Museum--to house his collection, and several years later he dedicated Greenfield Village, a re-creation of small-town, pre-industrial 19th century America, where workers in period costumes demonstrate glass blowing, pottery making, tinsmithing, and the like. Located in Dearborn, next to the Ford company's research and development facility, the museum and village--now a nonprofit institution and no longer directly affiliated with the automobile company--are popular tourist attractions.

From the start, Ford saw his collection as a giant classroom, so he created the Greenfield Village Schools, a private system that operated in one-room schoolhouses--including the very one that Ford had attended as a boy--and other village buildings. The students learned by doing; Ford had little use for strict "book learning." According to Ford biographer Robert Lacey, "the children of favored neighbors and employees were educated in harmony with the old traditions that he thought were best." In 1937, nearly 300 students-from kindergarten through college-attended the schools. The last operating school at the village closed in 1969.

But Ford's idea was recently resurrected. Open since 1997, the Henry Ford Academy of Manufacturing Arts and Sciences is a grade 9-12 charter school sponsored by the museum and the Ford Motor Co. and chartered by the Wayne County Regional Educational Services Agency. Located in both the museum and the village, the school currently serves 200 freshmen and sophomores, but 200 more students will be added over the next two years. All are selected by lottery.

Fittingly, Bingler was hired to design the school. Several buildings were considered, but Bingler and others involved in the planning believed that at least part of the school should be located in the museum itself. After all, the massive neo-classical building contains 12 acres of exhibition space-why not give up a few thousand square feet for the purpose of educating children? "They had more exhibits than they needed anyway," says Bingler, who initially wanted to put the school smack-dab in the middle of the museum. When that proved unworkable, the planners decided to place the school's central office and 9th grade classrooms in a corner of the museum and the other grades in the village.

In the museum, the architect's challenge was to differentiate the space allotted for the school from the exhibit area. Bingler considered using chain-link fencing-the very material that he objects to when used to surround schools--but he ended up designing a glass and aluminum curtain to create a sort of school within a museum. Students enter the school through a separate entrance, where two large banners announce "Henry Ford Academy." Yet once inside, they can see the museum and its visitors clearly through the glass walls. And vice versa. Museum patrons can look into the classrooms and watch the education process. Even the classrooms themselves are separated by glass walls. (For privacy, Bingler designed large foam panels that can be placed over the windows, but they rarely get used.)

The school may be separate from the exhibits, but it takes full advantage of its setting. Students and teachers have complete access to the museum's vast holdings. Just outside the school is the agriculture exhibit, which contains, among other things, a 1938 Ferguson-Brown tractor and a 1975 Sperry New Holland combine. Nearby is the museum's extensive automobile collection, including the 1961 Lincoln Continental limousine in which President Kennedy was assassinated. There are numerous historical artifacts, like a folding camp bed that George Washington slept on while commanding the Continental Army and the rocking chair that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in at Ford's Theater when he was assassinated. (The bloodstains are still visible.) And, of course, numerous light bulbs, lamps, radios, clocks, sewing machines, printing presses, stoves, typewriters, and other examples of America's technological ingenuity.

Says academy principal Cora Christmas, "When you can talk about things in history and then actually take a firsthand look at them-we call those primary sources-or talk to a person in the village who may be dressed in the attire of the era, it just kind of brings learning to life. What you don't hear kids say here--and what I used to hear all the time at other schools--is, 'I'm bored.'"

The 9th graders eat lunch with museum staff in the employees' cafeteria. "Their halls are the halls of the museum," Christmas says. "They pass the car that Kennedy was assassinated in on their way to lunch." (What that does to their appetites is unclear.)

Bingler, Christmas says, "did a really nice job of integrating the academy with the museum. The glass walls have to be the most innovative thing here. I mean, that was a very courageous thing for him to do. In all my training as an educator, I probably would not have done that. But what do I know? I'm not an architect."

Science teacher Charles Dershimer, dressed in a white lab coat, with safety goggles perched on top of his head, says, "In my first year of teaching, I had two pieces of glass to see outside my classroom. I had a little sliver on my door, so I could see the hallway, and I had a little sliver to the outside, so I could see if it was raining. Here, you really feel a part of what's going on around you. You don't feel isolated. You can look through the glass into the museum, or you can look over and see what the other teachers are doing. The glass walls help build a community in the school."

The architect is currently working on plans to convert a nearby building that once housed a carousel into four 11th grade classrooms.

Dershimer says he can't think of a better place to teach science. For physics lessons, he takes students over to the museum's steam engine exhibit. For chemistry, he takes them to something called the "Wall of Plastic." For a recent lesson on polymers, he even brought in some engineers from Ford, who came armed with car parts made from the material. "The kids really got a chance to see that plastics is not just a topic in a book-it's something that's part of their everyday lives and of people's careers."

Economics teacher Christopher Marek says, "When I first started teaching here, it felt a little bit like working in a fishbowl, with all the glass. I was more the traditional teacher-shut the door and do my own thing. But I really like it now. And the kids are pretty immune to it at this point. It's no big deal to have people walk by or peer in. Once, we had a visitor come in and sit right down at one of the tables and talk to the kids. He had gone to the school that was here originally, and he told the kids about his experience."

The rest of the school is located about a mile away, in a former conference center in Greenfield Village. Students walk through the tranquil village every morning on the way to school, passing by the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop and other historical buildings. Next to the school is a lagoon where a replica of the steamboat Suwanee carries passengers during the summer months. Inside the 10th grade building, which contains four classrooms, Bingler put a glass door on a storage closet so students could see what's inside. (A hot water tank.) He also used glass drain pipes under the sink in the science classroom for the same reason. Light switches are covered with Plexiglas rather than metal. "I wanted the students to see how things work," Bingler says. "I wanted the building to be like a three-dimensional textbook." Surely Thomas Jefferson would approve.

The architect is currently working on plans to convert a nearby building that once housed a carousel into four 11th grade classrooms. And what about the 12th graders? "We haven't figured that out yet," Christmas says. "It's a work in progress."

It's clear that Christmas, who was brought in as principal at the end of the school's first year, is now on Bingler's bandwagon. "I think this school could be replicated elsewhere," she says. "You could have a school on the floor of Congress. You could have a school on Wall Street." (In fact, the High School of Economics and Finance, a public magnet school, is located in an office building just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange.)

"Schools don't necessarily have to be in rectangular structures. I think the question Steve had in mind when he designed this place was, 'Where can learning take place?' And it really can take place anywhere."

Others are reaching the same conclusion. Four years ago, school officials in the Minneapolis suburb of Apple Valley opened an alternative high school in a building adjacent to the Minnesota Zoo. Its formal name is the School of Environ mental Studies, but students and teachers call it the Zoo School. It offers a thematic-based curriculum that uses the zoo as a primary resource.

Students at the New York City Museum School spend three days a week at participating institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Jewish Museum. The school draws on exhibits to shape its curriculum.

In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, there's talk of starting a charter school at the Experimental Aircraft Association's Air Adventure Museum. "I challenge somebody to come up with subject matter that couldn't relate to aviation," EAA Executive Director Chuck Larsen said recently. "History, communications, chemistry, weather, reading, math. It all fits."

Even the Mall of America, the world's largest shopping center, located just outside of Minneapolis, has its own school.

So maybe the idea of putting a school inside the Superdome isn't so strange after all. As Bingler points out, "The factory model of education didn't just happen over night. Massive amounts of creative resources had to be brought to bear to make it work. For instance, a whole transportation system had to be developed just to get kids to school. So systems don't get created without a huge amount of effort."

Which is why the architect spends so much of his time trying to get people to think differently about the notion of "school." He frequently lectures on the topic, and he's written numerous journal articles. Recently, he completed A Citizen's Guide for Planning Schools as Centers of Community for the U.S. Department of Education. It's a step-by-step guide to creating the kinds of schools Bingler is so passionate about.

"Steve's a visionary and a bomb thrower," says Steve Hamp, president of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. "He's considerably ahead of where most of us are in thinking about schools and education."

But his ideas are catching on. So when Bingler is accused--as he sometimes is--of being too idealistic about the future of American schools, of having his head in the clouds, he has a ready response, a quote from John Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Pages 34-40

Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as Design For Learning
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