School architecture Editorial
Stabroek News
August 13, 2004

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This must be a first for Guyana. Now we have a major Georgetown school painted in Courts-style hues. The newly reconstructed Charlestown Secondary School assaults the eye with its garish yellow-and-blue colour scheme, a far cry from the sober paintwork which traditionally has graced our public institutions. Exactly which official, if any, was responsible for this decorating fiasco is not clear, but the Ministry should look into how this particular violence against the canons of colour harmonization was committed.

Having said that, however, it must be acknowledged that an aberration in a colour scheme is something which in due course can be corrected, since at some point every structure needs to be repainted. In contrast, structural flaws in a new building are less easily remedied, since rectification often involves considerable outlays of money. The prime example of this is St Mary's High School on Camp Street, which the parents of children attending classes there had dubbed the 'cow-pen' school.

In 1997, the Ministry of Education had mistakenly let the US Air Force loose on St Mary's under the New Horizons project, and despite warnings from various quarters about what was planned, it persisted in allowing the work to go ahead. As it was, a fairly attractive, if dilapidated school building, which was in architectural consonance with its surroundings and which was always cool (those old contractors knew a thing or two about the circulation of air in tropical conditions), was torn down to be replaced by what looked little better than a jumble of modified Nissen huts.

And were they ever hot. As we reported in our edition of Wednesday, August 11, only weeks after the new building had opened, pupils and teachers began complaining about the poor ventilation. Approximately a year ago, staff and students were finally transferred to another city school, and now the Ministry of Education is having to spend $5M to raise the roof and replace all the wooden windows with louvres, in order to improve the circulation of air. While it is true that some of the money will also be spent on rehabilitating the sanitary block which was vandalised, much of this expenditure was eminently avoidable.

Well it seems that the Ministry may not have learnt all the lessons from the St Mary's experience that it could have done. Leaving aside the matter of Charlestown Secondary's tawdry colours, the building has another drawback: it has no windows. It is not the first school, of course, to be erected without windows; there are others around, including St Margaret's and St John's. What these buildings have is immovable wooden slats to provide air, but from an aesthetic point of view, they look from the outside more like prison blocks, than light and airy structures boasting an atmosphere conducive to learning.

One can well appreciate the advantages that wooden slats will have from a bureaucrat's point of view. First and foremost, they are cheaper than windows both to install and maintain. In fact, there will be few maintenance costs, if any, associated with them. Secondly, from a security point of view, they are an official's dream. And lastly, no errant cricket ball from a budding Clive Lloyd or Rohan Kanhai will make much of a dent on them, while they would probably constitute a deterrent to even the most determined of vandals.

All of that notwithstanding, are aesthetic and security considerations really so incompatible with one another? While one can understand in this age of vandalism that the Ministry will want to shy away from glass windows, what is wrong with shutter windows containing wooden louvres? The whole idea behind rehabilitating schools is to create a physical environment which stimulates learning among our children, and which will lift the spirits of our underpaid teachers and perhaps do something to encourage them to stay. Buildings which are entirely closed in, however, are likely to depress the spirit, rather than cause it to soar.

There is another more serious consideration as well, and that is the safety issue. In the event of a fire, is it really the best of wisdom to have no windows at all in a building? The powers-that-be will unquestionably have satisfied themselves that there are sufficient exits in such schools should there be an emergency, but psychologically speaking, a panic response would be more likely in an enclosed edifice where the perception (as opposed to the reality) is that there is no escape route, than in one where it is perceived that many possibilities for egress exist.

Considering the long experience we have in this country of institutional building for the tropics, and considering our unique architectural traditions, it is truly amazing that we can forget it all so quickly, and erect structures which are both impractical and unaesthetic. Schools are long-term edifices, which are intended to be used by generations of pupils. That being so, couldn't we really have done a little better than some of the claustrophobic boxes now dotting the landscape where our children are destined to spend so many of their formative years?