We shape our buildings, some have said, and then our buildings shape us.1 If true,
architects who design schools also help design the education that happens within them. “The
architect,” wrote one of the most influential school architects of the post-war period, Lawrence
Perkins, “must fashion a tool for the teacher.”2 But the right tool for the job is not a simple
choice. Even as educators debate the methods and purpose of education, architects must fashion
tools that are fixed in concrete. Buildings constrain class size, teaching style, and curriculum.
Spaces of different size and shape accommodate lectures, discussions, group work, or private
learning. Some spaces, like wood shops or science laboratories, enable the study of subjects that
cannot be fully studied otherwise.
The schoolhouse, however, is more than a tool for teachers and students; it is an
instrument for political communities who seek to project their civic character and strength.
School buildings signal to parents, neighbors, and potential newcomers the values of a place.
Across two centuries of economic and political change, school buildings have resembled
churches, factories, and corporate office parks. An outmoded schoolhouse suggests a community
that is either proudly traditionalist or simply well past its prime. In the utopic vision of modern
architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, then, the final “agent of the state … in matters affecting the
harmony of the whole, is the architect.”
These two demands, that the inside of the school building work for students and that the
outside work for citizens, are difficult to satisfy in a single work of architecture. Trusting a
single architect to satisfy student and community interests risks leaving both unsatisfied. If
schoolhouses truly shape learning, and civic buildings truly shape citizens, perhaps teachers and
citizens should have a greater role in making school architecture. And if problems in educational
achievement and civic commitment are indeed so complex, perhaps we should be satisfied with
renovations that make knowable and modest improvements to the school buildings we already
have before attempting new masterworks with unknown consequence.
New Haven presents an opportunity to compare two historic efforts to improve schools
and communities by improving school buildings, and to see how the constraints of the design
process mattered for the success of the design in both respects. These comparative case studies
show how the pursuit of a utopic vision takes place in a political economy that can exploit,
compromise, or reject that vision, but in all likelihood never realize it.
This paper begins with an overview comparing the school construction efforts of Mayor
Richard C. Lee (1954-1969) and Mayor John D. DeStefano, Jr. (1994-Present). Each mayor
undertook the most expensive per-capita school construction project of his respective era, and
each undertaking raises questions about how political economy shapes schoolhouse architecture,
and how the schoolhouse then shapes students and communities.
The next section of the paper introduces the disciplinary tools of schoolhouse design theory through a brief history of
schoolhouses in New Haven until 1947. Now prepared for our case studies, we begin with Mayor
Lee’s program of schoolhouse construction through urban renewal. The financial and political
regime of renewal encouraged total, rather than incremental, design undertaken by exclusive,
rather than inclusive, designers for the benefit of multiple and conflicting clients. The resulting
buildings were superficially and substantively at odds with those who worked in and lived
around them. A close look at the design of Conte School reveals these problems in detail. We
next turn towards Mayor DeStefano’s program of local school renovation and magnet school
new construction. Whereas the renovations disciplined the design process by encouraging
incremental improvements undertaken in consultation with those who used the buildings, the
new construction of magnet schools recapitulated many of urban renewal’s problems. It led to
total design undertaken in service of competing clients (the distant students who would attend the
schools, and the local communities who would host them, sometimes unwillingly). Returning to
the site of Conte School reveals some of the benefits of renovation work; even when a relatively
exclusive design process goes forward, its results are at least no less offensive (and often better)
than what was there before.
This paper argues that all design work presents two major problems identified by political
science: information and agency problems. Designers have imperfect knowledge, and designers
are imperfectly responsive to the sometimes multiple clients they serve. This paper’s case
studies suggest that renovation solves these problems more readily than can new construction,
and that policymakers might consider incentivizing renovation over new construction in grant
programs. Renovation enables designers to make knowable improvements for educators inside
the building, and compels them to preserve continuity with civic communities outside the
building. Further, a citywide building program biased towards renovation will maintain the
number of schools near present numbers, a conservative approach that prepares the district for
future years when it may be difficult to fully fund schools if budgets or demographics shift
beyond expectations. The paper’s case studies also suggest that political economy drives these
design choices. Future state or federal policymakers convinced by these arguments might
consider making grants for school demolition-and-rebuilding and for new construction relatively
less generous than grants for renovation. This cost burden would internalize in local decisionmaking
bodies the risks of designing new buildings given human fallibility and hubris.