A dispute is currently raging between the UK Department for Education and the architecture profession. Famous architects such as Lord Rogers are demanding the right to design fancy schools, appealing to studies indicating that a well-designed environment can improve learning outcomes for schoolchildren. However, Michael Gove claims that school building costs can be reduced by 30% by reducing unnecessary space and eliminating "frills". A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "There is no convincing evidence that spending enormous sums of money on school buildings leads to increased attainment. An excellent curriculum, great leadership and inspirational teaching are the keys to driving up standards."
I haven't studied the detailed evidence myself, but I suspect the truth is somewhere between these two positions. The study identifies such factors as lighting, circulation, acoustics, individuality and colour. Politicians who spent their own childhood in stuffy or draughty classrooms with flickering flourescent lighting may imagine these factors to be character-building, but surely most people will think that children and teachers deserve a decent environment.
But surely a decent environment doesn't need to cost an extra 40%. Is white paint so much cheaper than a nice colour? Does poor lighting and inefficient air conditioning really save money? Or does the 30% saving really come from cramming more pupils into less space?
And to what extent is Lord Rogers's complaint really about these factors? Perhaps it is more about the architecture profession's desire to create exciting and iconic buildings, with lots of curves. Can a curve be cost-justified in terms of educational attainment? Conversely, is the banning of curves merely a symbolic gesture on Gove's part?
There are several problems with this kind of debate. Firstly, the people who have the greatest knowledge and expertise are seen as having a vested interest in expensive solutions. Secondly, other stakeholders sceptical that the expense can be justified (in terms of ROI) and tending to regard good architecture (whatever that means) as an expensive luxury. Thirdly, a tiny amount of genuine evidence gets stretched very thinly, through rival interpretations and extrapolations and opinions. And finally, the complex relationship between cost and benefit gets overlaid with politically motivated simplicities.
Well, that's architecture for you.
Robert Booth, Michael Gove faces rebellion over no-curves schools plan (Guardian 31 December 2012)
See also The Blind Design Paradox in Architectural Design by @WJMArchitect (I Love My Architect, December 2012) - although this is only paradoxical if you are trapped inside a visual aesthetic Weltanschauung. It's like "How can we get visually impaired people to appreciate all these wonderful curves?"