Consider the role aesthetics plays in attracting customers to a restaurant or in creating appealing retail establishments. A healthcare study found that surgical patients housed in hospital rooms with a view into a landscaped area had shorter hospital stays, used fewer narcotics and needed less nursing care than patients who had a view of another building. If beautiful surroundings enhance the healing process, encourage appetites in a restaurant and tempt people to purchase products, it is reasonable to conclude that aesthetics will enhance the teaching and learning environment.
The word “aesthetics” is derived from the Greek “aisthetikos,” meaning “of sense perception.” Aesthetics is the quality that gives pleasure to our senses. Architecture encompasses science and art, intellect and emotions. Aesthetics involves balance, order, integrity and meaning, which include scale, proportion, symmetry, asymmetry, light and shadow, pattern, texture and color. “Gingerbread” architecture is elaborate ornamentation that is superfluous or tasteless embellishment. The value of aesthetics has been demonstrated in studies showing higher student achievement in beautiful spaces compared with ugly spaces. If children are accustomed to exciting and stimulating environments at the mall, theater, video arcade or fast-food restaurant, will they react favorably to a school they find boring?
A corridor in one middle school was designed as a historic main street. Facades replicating old storefronts are entrances to the academic clusters. Distinctive ceiling forms and lighting, brick floor pavers and historic storefronts increased costs beyond those of a typical school corridor. A cupola housing the bell from a school built 130 years ago may appear extravagant, yet is a significant historical statement for students and the community. Cafeterias designed with informal, relaxing eating environments and unique serving areas require more space and decorative features beyond the standard cafeteria. Schools should decide whether these unique aesthetic features are worth the additional costs.
A vocational-technical school was designed with a variety of floor and wall coverings. Visitors might see that as extravagant, unless they knew the school offered courses in building operations and maintenance. These surfaces not only enhanced the aesthetics, but also were a training tool for students. And often, schools find that materials that have a higher initial cost are less costly to maintain over the life cycle of a building.
A two-dimensional floor plan that has balance, order, scale and proportion with a good functional relationship of spaces translates into three-dimensional forms using materials that can be aesthetically pleasing without adding significant costs. Beware of the costly gingerbread embellishments that don't have meaning. Compare the gingerbread ornamentation of the Victorian period with the simplicity of the Bauhaus principles, which emphasized classical architecture without ornamentation.
Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at Jrydeen@atsr.com.