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Design, build, run!

Kuba Głaz
17 of February '23

The column is from the 11|22 A&B.

Every once in a while I dream of an expose. That I failed a subject in some class and my subsequent certificates and diplomas are worth a pound of feck. So I have to go back to the kennel and undergo the educational treatment all over again. I hate the alarm clock, but after these dreams I am ready to kiss it off.

After all, if I went to a Polish school again, I would leave it immediately and hide from school duty in a boarded-up wilderness, chewing moss, mold and woodpeckers. Had I become childish? Perhaps, but the attraction to perpetual truancy, revealed in my forties, is not only due to childish spite and revulsion before entering the wheel of so-called adult responsibilities. Especially since as a kid I was obedient and went to school willingly and with faith in the sense of the institution. So both being obedient and this faith in school can be considered childish. In my case, anyway.

I would get out of a public school once and for all (private ones are a different topic), because as many times as I find myself in such a tabernacle of education—on the occasion of elections, or, as recently, acting on professional matters—I get caught in a temporal loop for a while. It takes me back decades, and it's not a leap into the icing of childhood. Yes, there are details that catch the eye that contradict time travel (on the wall newspapers Charles no longer Swierczewski, but Wojtyla; the white boards are now white, not chalk), but essentially the atmosphere—similar. Punishing rows of benches, showcases of trophies, bland corridors, blue bulbs, concrete courtyards. And the sounds. Bells from the firehouse and the rumbling echo of student voices at breaks.

This is an exceptionally good indication of the durability of the concept called „19th century Prussian school.” For the sensations are not only of old buildings, but also of new ones—erected under the eminent "design, build, run" system. They often look as if they were created primarily by specialists in historical reconstruction, taking care to maintain the barracks spirit. Yes, there are sometimes exceptional examples, and we know them from the bimbalion of texts and photos with which we console ourselves in the architectural media. This joy probably comes from the contrast created by these cool specimens compared to all the rest. How good it is that editors don't have the money for a solid tour of Polish schools and a cross-sectional report on their condition. Immediately more cheerful.

Instead, school raisins were enumerated in September in these pages by Blazej Ciarkowski [cf. A&B 09/2022]. In doing so, he collected a lot of good advice and ideas for building a good educational institution, and in the process showed how much depends on a responsible architect. Only that in design-build tenders, and so on, companies are competing, taking on board designers with much weaker morale. In Poznań, after two lousy buildings, another school is about to be built, which will not be preceded by—according to Piotr Hardecki, quoted by Ciarkowski—"an intimate semi-public courtyard," but a parking lot on the scale of a suburban shopping center.

For theresponsibility of architects is one thing, and another is the awareness of the local government authorities that commission the projects. So far, only Warsaw has come out ahead of the pack with the guidebook "School Well Designed" (authors: WWAA), also mentioned by Ciarkowski. The publication is a must-read for local government officials, who should then pass a test on their knowledge of it—preferably at the desks of one of the average schools in their own city.

But it's also worth watching the hands of the Warsaw authorities. A guidebook is one thing, and life is another. Some time will pass, the economy will squeeze and—noble assumptions may succumb to gray realities. Not such examples have we seen in textbooks and the professional press. Silly sixty years ago, the monthly magazine "Architecture" (02/1961) approximated the principles of creating prefabricated pavilion schools. And aesthetically pleasing, and sensible, and quick to assemble—very timely today—in a situation where space must be found for Ukrainian refugees.

There is also another issue. When one looks at Polish schools and realizes what and how the young are being pumped into their heads, the question arises: what results from what? Do the shapes, appearance and design of the buildings help to perpetuate rigid forms of teaching, blunt evaluation and testosis, or is it the other way around? Or are the two phenomena driving each other? Such a Czarnek probably sticks to the ways that have been practiced on him and sticks an educational Frankenstein out of traumas plucked from his memory. This is how the curriculum is created, which translates into the organization of education. And this—through guidelines, strictures, norms—into the forms of school buildings, in which some new Czarnek cusses. The circle is closing and is so tight that no successful solutions from the rotten West(vide Finland) will get through today.

For now, Polish schools seem to have received a pandemic bonus. I can see how, after remote teaching, students usually enjoy real-world contacts and probably don't give a damn about these or other drawbacks of their shed. They sit on the benches, roaring to each other—and after covid grief—it's somehow beautiful. But these are just loose observations. Or is it the opposite: they look more critically and with detachment upon their return? A good research topic for sociologists, to be used later in the work of local government officials and architects.

Whatever, by the way, you don't research and come up with, you can't do without a cliché called money, in abundance, and not just for decent projects. For now, through lack of cash, as a potential truant, I am in good company. From the schools—pretty, ugly and such—the underpaid and underappreciated teachers are blowing away en masse, and, as the media reports, they have no intention of returning. The wilderness is calling. Somehow, I think we'll share that moss, mold and woodpecker.

Jakub Głaz

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