BY BRIAN LIBBY
I arrived at Kraxberger Middle School in suburban Gladstone yesterday in a good mood despite the relatively early-morning hour and the pouring rain. This old brick mid-century school building with its long hallways of lockers and classrooms lit mostly by fluorescent lights reminded me of attending school in similar-era buildings in McMinnville during the late '70s and throughout the '80s.
I was there for Kraxberger's annual career day, in which I and seven other professionals (a nurse, an IT guy, an environmental advocate, others) spoke to rotating groups of 20 eighth graders for 20 minutes at a time, perhaps a bit like speed dating, about our careers: what we spent our time doing on the job, and how we got to where we were are. This was my second straight year being part of career-day festivities at Kraxberger, and although I'm not a parent nor would I call myself a kid person, it's such a delight to spend a little time with these kids.
Certainly not all of them care what I have to say. About every other time in these 20-minute sessions I would get one kid who appeared to be asleep. Then there are kids who seem to be curious about everything in the room except what I'm saying. But most of them listen politely, and when you realize you're especially reaching one or two of them, it's a powerful feeling: maybe, just maybe, the thinking goes, I helped plant a seed that could lead to this kid finding her calling and become a writer. I told these kids: there's perhaps never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist—our president has called free press an enemy of the state—and they won't get rich. But there's also never been a more important time to be a journalist, I told them: that is, a real journalist who follows ethical guidelines and tries to get both sides of every story.
Walking the halls of this humble middle school before and after career day, it occurred to me that usually the only K-12 schools I visit are brand new ones or ones that have been recently renovated. Last year I visited Franklin and Roosevelt High Schools, for example, to see their welcome and overdue yet praiseworthy renovations. All those projects seemed to have more natural light than little Kraxberger, much as I enjoyed its ambiance. And that's not just an aesthetic matter: studies have shown schoolchildren in naturally-lit classrooms get higher average test scores. Later that same day, for example, I happen to tour an under-construction medical research building that was all about filling traditionally windowless laboratories with sunlight and views. The scientists perform better in those naturally lit spaces just as students do. Though it's never fun to see a handsome old school get torn down, I couldn't help but wonder how long it will be until middle school students in Gladstone, like most communities, will wait before a 21st century facility gets built there.
Yet the experience I may come to remember the longest and most vividly at Kraxberger was what was known as a lockdown drill, and happened to be occurring right before career day activities commenced. I had been led into a science classroom with a big picture of Albert Einstein on the wall, but as I entered, students were all watching their principal via a live video feed as she explained the lockdown drill that was about to commence.
Then, at the sound of a school-wide alarm, I watched as all the 20 or so students in this classroom jumped to their feet and proceeded in a hurried yet direct, choreographed way to hide under the sinks and even in some of the classroom's lower cabinetry. It was shocking how normal it all was. Kids were joking and laughing as they went through the drill. But afterward, the teacher still felt the need to reassure the class: that it was extremely unlikely they would ever experience a real lockdown event with a live shooter. Yet everybody also understood the threat is now realer than ever. They had normalized the presence of school shootings in teenagers' lives.
Suddenly, those windows seemed smaller than ever, as if we were all trapped in one cage: more vulnerable than anyone could stand to dwell on for very long. Before I knew it, career day was underway and my cheeky little PowerPoint presentation felt a bit trite.
I don't want to dwell on a political topic like gun control on an architecture blog, but it occurred to me this afternoon as I reflected on the duality of career day and lockdown at Kraxberger that designers and design thinking really are essential voices in our society. A design mind understands that we have a problem in gun violence that has to be solved, then looking to best practices around the world and designing a solution. It ought not to be so difficult to design a compromise between acknowledging Second Amendment rights to firearms (despite the Constitution's ambiguous language here as it relates to individuals versus militias) and making it harder for crazy people and teenagers in meltdown to get machine guns meant for war zones.
Luckily this was actually the first of two days visiting school classrooms. Today I made a trip to the other side of Portland, to the new Faubion Elementary School in Northeast Portland, where I joined an Architects in Schools session led by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and volunteer Luke Arehart. Architects in Schools is a wonderful program that has grown from 800 to 4,500 students served since the Architecture Foundation of Oregon began administering the program in 2003. It places volunteer architects like Arehart in a host of schools around the state to teach kids about the basics of architecture and urban planning.
When I came to Faubion this morning, it was to listen to the presentations that kids had already developed, with Arehart's guidance, all related to the Broadway Corridor and, more specifically, the US Postal Service land being vacated in the Pearl District along SW Broadway. It was heartwarming and encouraging to see a succession of different students come to the front of the classroom and explain how they had designed a host of features for the site: two community centers, housing, commercial space, and an extension of the Park Blocks abutting the property. When I was 10 years old I probably didn't even know what an architect or an urban designer was (except maybe that Mike Brady was an architect on The Brady Bunch), and here were these kids engaging in thoughtful urban planning.
Besides myself, Prosper Portland's Sarah Harpole was there to talk to students about how the City of Portland is making real plans to redevelop the USPS site; coincidentally, Prosper Portland unveiled the group of finalists today. She talked about how her team has endeavored to bring a mix of jobs, open space and housing to this super-block along Broadway, and to improve connections with nearby nodes such as Union Station. I then followed Harpole and discussed some of the important sites just beyond Prosper Portland's Broadway Corridor effort, such as the stretch of Broadway just across the river, where major land parcels at sites like the Rose Quarter and the Portland Public Schools' aging Blanchard facilities building can be seen as equally significant opportunities. I also talked about the importance of historic preservation: not as it relates to the soon-to-be-demolished USPS structure itself, but instead regarding nearby structures like Centennial Mills just to the north, and Veterans Memorial Coliseum to the east. In both cases, we've let years go by without proper restorations that would have added as much vitality and opportunity as the USPS site itself. It doesn't mean Prosper Portland is wrong to focus on the USPS site and the Broadway Corridor, but just was a message to the students that all city planning is a puzzle we put together thoughtfully, thinking about both the future and the past.
The visit to this Faubion classroom was also a chance to see one of Portland's newest K-12 schools, which in this case represents an innovative partnership between Portland Public Schools and Concordia University; the new Faubion sits on Concordia's campus just south of Columbia Boulevard and includes CU's College of Education. Designed by Bora, the building is teeming with natural light, which penetrates deep into the interior thanks to an array of skylights and light wells. Sitting in that classroom this morning, there was lots of light coming in from the building's perimeter windows, but nearly as much light coming from the other direction: from atrium at the center of the building. Whereas Kraxberger is single-story in the midcentury tradition, Faubion is multiple stories stacked around the interior atrium spaces.
Inside the new Faubion School (Brian Libby)
Having kids is all about hope and worry, I suppose, which visiting these two schools on consecutive days reinforced for me. You marvel at how innocent these children are and what sponges they can be, cherishing the opportunity to introduce them to the world or even some tiny part of it. But you also fear for their health and their safety, and you don't want to miss an opportunity for them to grow and learn, let alone to be threatened by some shooting spree. It means the architecture of schools is very, very important.
What's amazing about these places is the relationships that teachers and students form, and the learning that then ensues. In many ways the architecture should be invisible: just a transparent, well-ventilated space in which class can take place. But it also needs to be an environment in which you feel safe and comfortable. The architecture can help with that, adding not just the ingredients of good learning spaces but also the built-in security (namely the ability to close off individual spaces from the whole) that can make it harder for a crazy gunman to wander the school unfettered — and, as I saw, lockdown drills to go with it, as depressing and creepy as they are to witness. Yet ultimately design of a physical space can't solve the broader societal problem here.
If we're to follow the recipe that all the other nations have successfully used to curb gun violence — namely stricter gun control laws, at least for automatic weapons — it will take precisely what is on offer in these buildings I visited, and what the design enables: education.