Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Sense of Entry: Designing the Welcoming School

One problem with many school designs is that, like many homes, there is a front door that is rarely used by the people who use the building everyday. Students, teachers, and staff often enter the building by a back door off the playground or parking lot. Those entry areas often are drab and unadorned, leading them past garbage dumpsters and loading docks. Is it any wonder that students often are not eager to come to school? The real places people enter the building should be inspirational and inviting, not just the ceremonial front entrance used by visitors.

There was a similar problem at Walt Disney World in Orlando because employees actually enter underneath the park through a long underground corridor. That entry, however, is designed in such a way, with pictures, displays, uniform pickup spots, etc. that by the time the employee is ready to enter the park through a hidden doorway, they are fully "in character" and have forgotten any troubles with which they might have arrived.

In a book entitled A Sense of Entry: Designing the Welcoming School, authors and architects Alan Ford and Paul Hutton show exemplary entryways that embody basic principles of design that have been influential over the centuries.

After providing a history of the entryways of iconic structures such as the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the 1958 Seagram Office Building, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the authors demonstrate their theory by looking at successful entryways of schools. A brief text introduces each of the projects, describing the elements of design they believe are vital to a welcoming entryway: "identity"--telling the building's story, "wayfinding"--helping users understand where the main entrance is, "influence of streets"--the school's relationship to the surrounding area, and "procession"--creating layers of entrance that transition users from exterior to interior spaces.

Exploring 25 unique design solutions by Denver-based firm Hutton Ford, this book is a visual celebration and analysis of the role of entrances in architecture. Entrances serve many purposes. From defining the character of the architecture to the more practical aspects of the transition from outside to inside, they momentarily protect us from inclement weather as we launch between exterior and interior, like an environmental buffer to mitigate temperature changes, even allowing our vision to adjust to light changes. In the book, the architects illustrate the important role that successful entrance and movement design can have on creating a positive architectural experience.

Since most architects have not yet learned principles of user-friendly design they offer few design options for the real users of schools. Students and teachers, however, can learn the principles outlined for how to create an inviting front entrance and apply these ideas to making small but important changes to the back and side entrances students and teacher actually use.

Challenge the students to design elements that would make entering their school welcoming and motivational. Christopher Alexander's book "A Pattern Language" also provides a description of key elements of successful entryways.

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