Schooling Without Schools

I must admit that I had only a passing interest in the 2020 Matric results. I was busy with other things and refused to be drawn in by those who would have liked to entangle me in pointless political discussions and develop an opinion on whether these results serve as evidence that the government is doing a good, bad or average job.

I can tell you though, that what did catch my interest, is what I did not see. What struck me, in fact, was the absence of a widespread collapse of the matric results, in spite of the fact that for the most part of the 2020 school year, those preparing for Matric were not able to make use of the very expensive buildings we have come to think of as essential to the education system.

Rather, what we saw was the incredible resolve of ordinary learners and ordinary parents and ordinary teachers as they did whatever they could with whatever they had to overcome what was by all measures and extraordinarily terrible year.

School buildings during COVID-19

Architects (and others in the construction industry) found, to their dismay perhaps, that the sad fact that school buildings could not be used for the most part of 2020 did not seem to devastate learning and teaching. As architects it is hard for us to come to terms with the fact that the buildings we commit our lives to creating are not the centre around which the universe revolves! Additionally, I am still reeling from the blow to our sense of worth dealt by the #FeesMustFall campaigns of 2015 and 2016.

Let me explain. At that time, I was an external examiner for an incredibly talented group of final year students at the Nelson Mandela University (NMU) Master’s degree in architecture. These students, when preparing for the examination, could not get to campus. They could not access the library, the studio or the laboratories.

When it came to the exhibition and examination, the supposed climax of their year, the students were prohibited from using the architecture department’s studio space at NMU’s south campus by those threatening violence.

Seemingly unperturbed, the leadership at the NMU architecture department made arrangements to transform the Port Elizabeth City Hall in Govan Mbeki Avenue into an extremely comfortable (and in fact memorable) examination and exhibition venue.

I found to my surprise that other departments and faculties had made similar arrangements in public buildings throughout the city to ensure that their students were able to continue with the examinations programme safely and comfortably.

Do we still need physical buildings?

I was left wondering if the successful response by the NMU leadership to the #FeesMustFall campaign’s attempt to deprive students of access to the campus meant that we no longer needed university buildings. In the same way, I spent some time wondering if the acceptable Matric 2020 results (achieved despite COVID-19 related disruptions and students learning online) mean that we no longer need school buildings.

I don’t think so. We do need these buildings. But I do think that the events of 2020 (and the #Feesmustfall campaign aftershocks) have helped us see that we have significant spare capacity in our building stock. There is spare capacity in middle class houses, which has allowed schooling to continue in the case of a COVID-19 lockdown.

There is also notable spare capacity in civic buildings throughout Nelson Mandela Bay that will allow even large institutions like the NMU to run a complicated and sophisticated examinations programme without the use of its campuses.

We need to design and plan for the inevitability (not just the possibility) that our buildings will need to be re-purposed many times over in their lifetimes.

Designing for flexibility

So what is this truth telling architects and the construction industry?

The message is not that we don’t need any new schools ever again. It is that we need to design and plan for flexibility. We need to design and plan for the inevitability (not just the possibility) that our buildings will need to be re-purposed many times over in their lifetimes. The one thing that we know about the next crisis is that it is very unlikely that we will be any good at predicting it and therefore very unlikely that we can make any specific plans for it.

What we do know though is that we can make ourselves ready for change. What this means practically in the built environment is that we need land use management systems that allow repurposing to happen effortlessly and organically. These systems should be used to promote the ongoing tweaking of buildings to meet what is likely to be the almost continuous environment of change that we will face for the foreseeable future.

Gone are the days when we could cut and paste the zoning schemes, by-laws, and regulations that limit and give shape and form to our city. That kind of cut and paste thinking will not do in politics, it will not do in business and it certainly will not do in the built environment.

Our future success demands that we re-purpose our political institutions, our business institutions, and our schools. This is one of the key ways we can ensure that our economy and our society will continue to evolve and survive the next crisis that we know will come.

The school pictured in the header is located in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina.