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Is the School a geographically-defined program?

Caption: Open air classroom circa 1920

Christine Fontaine 

If schools are thought of as worlds in themselves behind walls, generally spon-sored by the state, are they nevertheless detached from their geographical defi-nition?

Indeed, if the school immediately evokes the type and its built form as a para-digm, the variation of school models has always shown diversity and a contin-uous formal evolution.

From its beginnings, compulsory schooling was understood as an institution of assimilation, political and hygienic, for the teaching of writing and arithmetic, allowing a minimum of emancipation of the young person, but also intended to create reliable citizens.

If, during the 19th century, this model followed the momentum inspired by politics and produced many remarkable buildings that we know, such as the reformed schools in France Belgium , Great-Britain and America, we can note a number of variations on the same model - variations following available sites, materials, and prevailing styles. In parallel to these projects, the Freinet and Montessori pedagogies, for example, have also produced schools whose forms come from the original educational project and are even more adapted to their context.

The very existence of the building depends on its geographical area and on the encounter of a commission with an architect and a site. It must first adapt to a pool of recruitment of children of age to access education (local for nursery and primary schools, further away and in town for secondary schools), to the land available in the region, to its constructive materiality (materials available or produced nearby).

In Vorarlberg, for example, the number and shape of schools can be deduced from the altitude of the school. The higher in altitude, the fewer classrooms there are. On the other side of the world, in Mozambique, the conventional type is replaced by a single room, housing a school and other uses, designed through a participatory process and an understanding of the land, in the small rural vil-lage of Chimundo. A third progressive example would be that of learning in in-formal places, where school is a simple relay of knowledge acquired elsewhere in contact with its local geography, in a theater, on a farm, in a kitchen or in a workshop.

It seems that the school would have everything to gain by fitting into its ge-ography. What makes us fear this era of pandemic is that learning takes place outside the school, but also outside the context of society, preventing students from finding their place in the world and how to live together. If geography is concerned with the place of humans in their natural, cultural, social, economic and political environment, so too is the school curriculum, in creating links with its context.

[1] FOUCAULT M., Surveiller et punir, naissance de la prison, Paris, Gallimard, 1975, p. 18.

“Prisons are like factories, schools and barracks, hospitals, all of which look like prisons.”

[1] PINK FLOYD, Another Brick In the Wall, 11th studio album, released 30 November 1979 on Harvest and Columbia Records

[1] TOULIER Bernard, L'architecture scolaire au XIXe siècle : de l'usage des modèles pour l'édification des écoles primaires, in: Histoire de l'éducation. n° 17, 1982. pp. 1-29.

[1] DEMEY Thierry, Histoire des Écoles bruxelloises, Bruxelles, Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, Région Bruxelles-Capitale n°39, ISBN 2-9600502-2-3

[1] UPTON Dell, Lancasterian Schools, Republican Citizenship, and the Spatial Imagination in Early Nineteenth-Century America, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 238-253

[1] Example : The construction of the Suresnes Outdoor School (EPA) is due to the inspiration of its mayor Henri Sellier, who commissioned the work to architects Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods in a park preserved in its natural state.


[1] Vorarlberger Architektur Institut

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Das österreichische Schulportal [accessible online] : <>  (August 2020).

[1] SIXTEN Rahlff, Day care center in Chimundo, Mozambique

The Architectural review 31, January 2012

<>  (August 2020).

Christine Fontaine is an architect and a professor at UCLouvain-LOCI Brus-sels, teaching and researching in History & Theory.  She also organizes mul-tidisciplinary international workshops allowing to map the typo-morphologies and their uses in different contexts, in order to draw up a panorama of urban voids, edifices and architectural elements colored by the local cultures. Her practice with ZED architects covers the construction of public institutions and social housing.

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