Three years after the Henderson-Hopkins School’s opening—a K-8th school in East Baltimore, Baltimore Sun reported, the operators were planning to implement major changes in the building. The article mentioned impending plans to partition some of the multipurpose spaces in order to form conventional classrooms. Citing declining achievement rates, the Sun emphasized, “the building's open spaces, meant to spark creativity, proved more distracting than helpful for teaching.” The reporting invoked conversion episodes of open-classroom buildings into traditional configurations, a widespread practice in the 1980s. Yet, Henderson-Hopkins was the result of a deliberate and participatory decision-making process, a compelling alternative to typical commissioning practices. What went wrong?
To address this question, the paper provides a history of the complex decision-making mechanisms that preceded the design of the school and situates it within the current debates on flexibility. Discussed in the shadow of the postwar school facilities, the concepts of flexibility and open plan are often muddled and schools of the 1960s and 70s are viewed as products of misguided architectural thinking. This stale framework overlooks that many of the underlying design ideas of these facilities were articulated collectively by educators and architects to address postwar reformist anxieties. What started as a procedurally and ethically justified tool increasingly came to be considered an asset for better learning, a problematic claim that continues to reverberate in school design today. I argue that school design debates are indeed plagued with such displaced architectural concepts that contemporary reformist movements and architects continue to embrace uncritically.
Urban Renewal and School Reform in East Baltimore
Presented at the Critical Practice in an Age of Complexity: An Interdisciplinary Critique of the Built Environment Conference, University of Arizona