Schools, Hospitals, and Prisons

A few weeks ago we went to visit friends who run a children’s camp on the shores of Lake Tahoe, CA, to relax and spend some time on the lake. In order to get there we had to drive through Reno, Nevada.  Approaching Reno from the north, a significant building caught my eye.  Because I was driving, I could not really take my eyes of the road in order to give it a closer look, but I did catch a few design features of the building.

It was very large, perhaps 2 acres, and stood in the middle of nowhere.  There was no clear entrance or front door, nor were there lit up names or giant vinyl posters, indicating whose building this was.  It appeared to be no more than 2 stories tall. All around the building were black, reflective windows, about 2 feet high and 4 feet long. This would be a reasonable size windows for a regular house, but they were tiny for this huge building. I also suspect that they were non-openable windows.  On a previous trip to visit the same friends, I saw a similar building outside of Carson City, Nevada. My friend told me that it was a hospital.

My mind started to guess about this most recent building. I eventually narrowed it down to 3 possibilities: It was either a prison, a school, or a hospital. I think that all 3 were a good possibility as I have seen a lot of schools, hospitals and prisons that looked somewhat like the building I passed that evening in Reno…

This was a really disturbing observation for me. In my mind I started to analyze what this could possibly mean. On the positive side, maybe this meant that buildings and design don’t really matter. Whether you are a correctional facility, want to heal or educate, as long as you have a roof over your head and the right people and technologies on the inside, things will work out just fine. However, I highly doubt that this is true. On the contrary, the built environment touches us in every way. The qualities of sound, space and light influence how we feel, how we function and how we relate to other people.

A more cynical conclusion could be that the people who commission architects to design these buildings, as well as the architects themselves, actually do not know much about how buildings can influence people. Perhaps their primary concern is money or ego. In that case they are not doing themselves a favor as they are cursed with a building that does nothing for healing, educating or correcting behavior. The architects are doing themselves a financial favor but should feel no better about their work then a jet skier on a beautiful lake: They shamelessly influence the public space but get away with it because there are no legal ramifications.

We can even go one step further and move into the conspiratorial realm. Perhaps the powers at be are not only not interested in
healing, educating or correcting behavior, they actually hope it won’t happen. It’s hard to image that anybody would think that the average city school is a good learning environment or that teaching kids to pass a test has anything to to with learning. The government has always been interested in “schooling”, but never in “education”. The same could be said for prisons. We are imprisoning people, not correcting people’s behavior. And how about hospitals? Are they about health and healing, or more about procedures and drugs?  I think in many ways the buildings symbolize the inability of these institutions to be true to task.

Back to design. The dreadful thing is that we are now so used to this hideous form of architecture that we seem to not care anymore.  It is not just the prison, schools and hospitals; it’s all the strip malls, offices, malls, and so on, and so on. The fact that we are used to it does not mean that it does not effect us. On the contrary, I believe it is cancer for the soul to live in a world that is designed the way “modern america” is. The built environment as we know it demotivates us for life, sucks energy out of us and robs us from the opportunity to experience beauty and connection. Anybody who has visited an intact European inner city can attest to the stark difference with the American modern architecture. (Having said that, the modern landscape in europe is also rapidly changing to an unexplainable ugly “modernism”…) If nothing else, the American modern building style will create people that will design more of the same.

We can get used to things and experience them as not bothersome.  However, I believe that this is simply a mechanism of the body and soul to not have us deal with the offensive structures on a conscious level.  I think they eat away at us on an unconscious level.  This is often noticed by people who live in cob buildings when they enter a “conventional” building; They experience it as foreign and “wrong”.  The opposite is not true; people that walk for the first time into a cob building most often feel a sigh of relief; they experience a true “home coming”.

PS- Right after I had finished writing this article, a woman visited us who said that she used to work for a commercial architect firm. However, she quit because it was too boring. “All we did was design schools and prisons”, she said. How about that!

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