If it’s shaped like a school ...
Visitors to Little Yarra Steiner School remark on the beauty of its site, its buildings and the surrounding hills. But what of that? We think it is important that a school is beautiful.
Questions arise. Does the physical beauty help the school in any way that is relevant to the education of children? How does the space give form to what happens at the school? How does the school’s architecture make it a school?
In order to grapple with such questions the mind naturally seeks after comparisons. What does it mean to be struck by the beauty of a place? Where have I encountered this before? Perhaps we first think of beauty of place in terms of natural locations – the Great Barrier Reef, the Alps, the Grand Canyon in America. Perhaps built spaces are more relevant – Mt San Michel rising out of its Normandy sands, the square of San Marco in Venice, the Acropolis.
About the secret of beauty
Imagine, if you will, visiting one of the great cathedrals for the first time. You approach the richly decorated facade, pass through the arched doorway and enter the bright gloom of the interior where the light of day makes its way through the great windows in the massive stone walls and where sound seems both amplified and lost in the vaulting space. Dismiss any religious associations, what you know of the illustrious dead buried here, any history the worn stones speak of, any martyrdoms committed within its precinct. You are left with a powerful sense of place. The cathedral draws you into its presence. It was designed as a holy place and it lifts your spirit. You are aware of its beauty and you will remember.
Beauty insists on its presence. It can jolt you awake. Little Yarra is not a great cathedral, but it does have, in some measure, this ability to take your mind off the cares of present business and awaken you to being present in this place at this time.
That is how it strikes many people when they first come. But those of us who work here do not float about all day in a monk-like calm imbibing the spiritual nourishment the very walls emanate. Nor do children spend thirteen or so years at the school in restrained attitudes of awed wonder. But the beauty does count, not least in retrospect.
Along with the private nooks and crannies of our childhood home, the school we attended is the intimate scene of our coming to be as conscious adults. The foundations we lay, not merely of skills, but of understanding who we are, come to be laid down in this context. If our years of coming to understand the world are spent in a place where the world is beautiful, then, for us, the world really is beautiful. The richness of our founding places will be carried with us and nourish us throughout life.
Those of us who went to school in the state system may well have experienced visiting another school later in life and recognising the same buildings – the same school and not the same school. This is not when we first learned the institutional nature of our schooling however. Each year the repeated pattern of the rooms brought the easy comfort of exact repetition, and the dull revision of what we should have learned the year before endlessly delayed progress towards our release as rough-formed widgets ready to take our place in the industrial machine.
Anyone who has visited other Steiner schools will recognise something “Steinerish” about the buildings at Little Yarra. But for all that, the place is strongly individual. Each room is individual. Those who come to reflect on having been students here will know it for its own unique quality of place, a particular strand in the warp and weft of their own being.
Wisdom of architecture
But being unique and being beautiful is not enough – it must be a school. In this regard the play between interior space and the world outside is crucial. The purpose of a classroom is the focus on what happens within the classroom. They are not essentially rooms with a view – not vantage points to look out from. This is no reason for classrooms to feel cut off from the outside world, but their architecture can support focussed attention on the activity within the room. For this reason windows, especially in the lower school, tend to be relatively high and capture sections of sky or vegetation growing around the buildings. Any human activity in the grounds is not easily seen, except where we have mistakenly raised a mound of earth that will in time be levelled.
Thresholds are also important, with lobbies acting as transition places allowing children to put off more boisterous outdoor behaviour along with their hats and shoes. The fact that lobbies provide an airlock to help maintain the warmth of classrooms is another element in the wisdom of the antechamber as architectural motif.
One of the more unusual features of Little Yarra is the pavilion layout. Classrooms are isolated from one another in two-room blocks. From kindergarten to class six (and in the master plan until class eight) these rooms are stretched out in a curvilinear progression. Cohorts of children move through the stations of that progression from year to year. At graduation, year twelve students recapitulate that journey by visiting each of the rooms. In this way the school embodies their growth through childhood: its fabric is the framework of their personal narratives within the life of the school.
The series of smaller buildings make this progression clearer than it would be if students moved from room to room in a single large building, or along corridors of a wing comprised of a repetition of featureless spaces. The recapitulation of the journey at graduation helps to bring the school together as a single place. It allows the school to be held in the mind as an individual, as Little Yarra Steiner School. The individual classrooms are seen for what they have always been, transition points, spaces to be occupied for a while and then left for going into the world...
The individual and beautiful aesthetic of a school pitches itself against the aesthetic of the consumer society. It establishes a point of contrast to the dominant commercial spaces in our society. These spaces, especially where they are likely meeting places for children and young adults, are designed defensively. They have hard surfaces and are brightly lit to resist both casual destruction and deliberate vandalism. The meanness that results is perhaps a provocation that invites at best a lack of caring and at worst an active impulse to mark and deface. The high levels of sound that often populate youth spaces seem designed to prevent conversation, as though any group of young people talking together in a public place is likely to be plotting trouble.
Against this the school offers calm, softness and opportunities for privacy. The school’s aesthetic can be read as showing some vulnerability, but the vandalism and graffiti we do suffer comes nearly always from outsiders.
In thinking about the fabric of the school in this way it is evident that it operates as a sustaining background. It cannot determine behaviour, merely add its influence to the many other factors that are in play on any school day. Nor are its boundaries clear. The style of furniture falls within its realm, but what of the disposition of the furniture within the room? Desks can be moved at the whim of the teacher, but the positioning has as much influence as the shape and colour of the room – serried ranks lined up to face the teacher speak of one set of values within a classroom, a circle where the teacher may not even sit at the front of the class speaks of another, desks arranged as individual work stations and the teacher having no fixed position speak of yet another. It is more than appropriate that there is room for some free play here; it is essential. So, we build the school to be functional and to be beautiful, and the life of the school takes on its own dynamic.
Developing an aesthetical judgement
Evidence of the way the aesthetic plays out can be gleaned by studying how the students in the upper school dress. On the one hand it is possible to detect individual styles emerging as the students in the higher classes experiment with clothing that suits them and expresses their individuality. At the same time there is a Steiner look that they are aware of and comment on. This look allows them to be part of the school and to mark themselves as different from the dominant styles prevalent among youth in the street. At the same time the Steiner look is sufficiently open to allow for individual interpretation and response.
To make this more concrete we can consider the work of the school’s music department. Among their aims is the intention to develop in students a sufficient appreciation of music so that, as they are exposed to the barrage of musical experience that saturates contemporary culture, they can appreciate musicality and discriminate quality in whatever style of music they choose.
But beauty has its negative associations that must be given recognition. In poetic imagination death and beauty are often allied. We can be uncomfortable in the presence of beauty as though constrained by stiff collars and Sunday clothes too good to be soiled. Beauty needs its perfect nose tweaked, but we dare not. The restraint here is not the restraint we might feel about challenging authority, because if we recognise beauty and deface it we demean only ourselves. Beauty is otherworldly and not fit for the compromise, the turning to use, the practical necessity of everyday life.
These constraints in the presence of beauty perhaps inform the apprehension about the school that is felt by a number of parents. The school, they worry, is a haven that protects students from the world and risks leaving them naive, vulnerable and unprepared to cope once they leave.
It is not enough to say that the school is neither so perfectly a playground of innocents within itself, nor securely cloistered from the world, as this apprehension suggests. It is important to see how the school’s aesthetic works positively as a preparation for the world. The concept of the pharmakon may be useful here. This is the word from which we derive “pharmacist”and “pharmaceutical” but which meant for the ancient Greeks both medicine and poison. It was also connected with the notion of a scapegoat (pharmakos).
The aesthetic of the school may be seen to operate as a pharmakon. If this aesthetic was so strong that social sanctions against deviation resulted in a slavish conformity, then it would be evident in its poisonous aspect. Slavish conformity to anything is a state of death. If, however, the aesthetic works strongly enough to provide a basis for discrimination and builds a self confidence to make personal choices, rather than market driven responses, then it is manifesting as a prophylactic.
To do this the school must not determine aesthetic choices but enable them. The ancient Greeks also had the notion of the mere sight of something being able to turn the observer into stone. That is why Perseus took aim by using the image of Medusa reflected in his shield. But he did need that much of a look to take aim at all. It is possible to reflect on the aesthetic of the school when confronted with images projected by a sometimes malign world. There is strength and some protection being able to reflect on the world from a basis grounded in the aesthetic of the school. To be able to do this is, like Perseus, to have a play in a game where the forces marshalled against you might well be dooming.
The school’s aesthetic is not Beauty with a capital “B”, but the school does have beauty. As such it provides a context for the exercise of a developing aesthetic sense in the children. They are thus armed with some defence, a shield that can be used as a mirror, in the wider world. Avoiding anything set in stone, a developed aesthetic sense allows for the play of imagination. Within the space created by that play, the possibility for discrimination arises.
If the curriculum of the school aims to deliver an education towards freedom, then the school as a beautiful place makes its own contribution.