In the days of alternative schools and changing curriculums, rethinking education and school systems has certainly become a relevant, and at times, political, topic of discussion. In his book School, author Roel Krabbendam draws from his years of experience as an architect to present a new vision of what a school should be – and do.
Here, Roel discusses the process behind his visually stunning book, how architecture and writing relate, and how a philosophy can have a meaningful impact on not only readers, but on a society.
Before Pen Hits Paper: The Inspiration
Charlotte: What inspired you to write School? Did it come at a particular moment of inspiration? Had you been planning to write the book for a while?
Roel: This book felt more like a dike giving way than a moment of inspiration. What do you need school for, when we have the internet? Why do we have schools if they fail? What’s with all this testing? Are public schools so bad we need charters? If charters are better, why stick with the standard version at all?
I did OK in life: what’s wrong with the kind of school I went to? Why do schools after millions of dollars in investment still feel so emotionally hollow?
Designing and building schools is very demanding: shouldn’t I be feeling far more satisfaction at their completion? What’s missing? What’s missing? That’s the question, the catalyst for this book.
I’ve been involved in schools and school design for decades. And in all that time the fundamental building blocks of a school have rarely deserved scrutiny. Classroom, gym, auditorium, cafetorium, office, library: this was what defined school.
Yet when I tried to document what I remember about school, it was the action, the outdoors, the emotion and the girls that I remembered. School itself felt like an impediment to an emotionally fulfilling life. Should school feel so un-inspiring?
I believe in the power of place and the potential of architecture: why can’t school be captivating? Why can’t it be rich, diverse, active and emotional?
These questions are cracks in the façade, but they reach down to the very foundations of education. How do we learn, and how can school support learning? What do we teach, and how can we fulfill that mission with integrity? Which kind of student are we trying to nurture: an independent thinker, or someone also trained for action? What is the point of school? Isn’t it to nurture activists instead of “passivists”, participants instead of recipients? Not just to “know”, but to affect change: isn’t this the “point”?
That’s how deep this book goes to get to the heart of school.
Did I intend to write a book? Not at all! This started off as a slide show, an effort to help a private school client define their mission. I simply asked “why do we have classrooms,” and offered some alternatives to suggest that we could do something far more inspiring and effective with their master plan. I kept asking “what if…” though, and each question spurred me to keep reading and writing.
The Architecture of Writing: Structuring a Book on School
Charlotte: How did your background as an architect inform how you wanted the book to be structured and look? Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to look before you started writing? What did your writing process look like day-to-day or long-term? Did you find the process was similar to how you would work on an architecture project? If so, how?
Roel: Architectural projects are a well-choreographed dance, and book-writing might be that as well to an experienced author, but I had no clear idea of what I was doing and made it up as I went along. This was never supposed to be a book, but as I dug deeper into the research, the importance of the problem and my sense of urgency around it became overwhelming.
Politics has made education a tug of war. Our kids are the rope. In all the abstract and specialized rhetoric around the problem, I rarely hear the simplest of questions: What is the emotional experience of our children? Can attention to that simplest of issues bridge our fundamental divides?
Charlotte: What are some of the similarities you found between writing a book and creating a piece of architecture–particularly for such a structural and visually capturing book like School?
Roel: Writing, like architecture, is a creative process: try a lot of different things, ask a lot of questions, build a vision, throw it out, build another vision, put it on paper, refine, critique, refine, critique, refine, critique, pull in all sorts of other ideas as you work, fundamentally change your thinking as you develop some understanding, and finally achieve some sense of completion.
Beauty in the Book: Make Your Writing Visual Tweet This
Charlotte: This book is so visually striking – it’s absolutely beautiful to just look at! What effect do you think having such a visual prominence has on the reader and how they engage with the text? You mention that “that space and activity together create our experience.” How do you think that can apply to the space of a physical book and how the reader experiences the book?
Roel: I’m fascinated by beauty, by how challenging it is to create, and lately by the evolutionary question: “what is the purpose of beauty”? I think it is an invitation to be curious at the very least.
Regarding the book, I knew I couldn’t offer readers just an abstract intellectual experience when my message focused on visceral engagement. I did everything short of scratch and sniff to make engaging with this book memorable and emotional. It is heartening that you find it striking: I hope only that it will be received as an irresistible invitation.
Charlotte: There are so many different aesthetic points in the book – from the fonts and text layout, to the definitions and pronunciations, to the images and graphics, to the shifts from black and white backgrounds. How did you decide on all of these different aspects? Did these come together after writing, while working with the publishers? Did you come up with these aspects while you were writing?
Roel: The cover design alone went through 38 unique options, and the images inside changed constantly as I won or didn’t photographer consent. There were definitely moments or even months when this felt more like boxing than writing.
Of course, good books are rarely a solo effort, and I’m also blessed with a family of artists who constantly challenge me creatively. I was also supported by a host of scholars who offered questions and critiques. As one professor stated, “If we couldn’t quote each other’s work, we’d rarely have anything useful or interesting to say.” I’m decidedly in their debt!
In the end, intuition, artistic sensibility, rules you make up for yourself about type and color use and spacing and wording begin to help. I wanted this book to be as strident as I felt.
The Place: Where Design and Narrative Meet
Charlotte: I love how you discuss student engagement through visceral involvement and the school as a Place. The way you’ve designed the book, the reader becomes viscerally involved, going through chapters like rooms in the Place. The book you’ve created is the physical manifestation of your philosophical school!
Can you tell us about how you developed the physical aspects of the book to align with the content within it? How do you want readers to engage with the book as a physical object, while engaging with the content and philosophy?
Roel: That’s a beautiful metaphor: my book as a series of beautiful, enfilade chambers. I’m reminded of Invisible Cities, that beautiful collection of poems by Italo Calvino in which he conjures up cities from his imagination. I only wish I shared his poetic sensibility!
My mission was advocacy however, so that research leavens the lyricism. I strived to convey the sensual, the emotional, the intellectual and the physical qualities of the spaces and experiences I believe could revolutionize schools committed to 21st century learning.
My intention was to open a dialogue however, not to close it: to leave the door of possibility wide open. So while architecture is always by definition definitive, this book is speculative. Architecture offers answers.
This book offers questions and possibilities and a way of thinking and doing that invites further exploration and creative effort. If you care about students and the student experience, if you are thinking about school and what it means to serve both students and society, then I think this book is a good place to start or test your thinking.
Building the Text of School: Background and Research
Charlotte: Education and rethinking how we teach has certainly been a relevant topic in recent years as alternative schools and programs like Common Core become more prominent. You mention that you worked on school building projects. How did you get into that area of architecture? How did you get interested in rethinking how teaching and education itself is approached? What drew you in to write a book on the topic?
Roel: I started working in education when I was literally and unexpectedly handed the opportunity to redesign the schools I attended as a child. It was an immensely rewarding experience, making these somewhat broken facilities whole, but I slowly realized that the process really didn’t attend to the student experience except in the most inconsequential ways.
After years of school projects, that niggling concern flowered into profound dissatisfaction, and finally this manifesto.
Reality and abstraction, experience and concept, each has always paled for me personally in isolation. Crossing the Sahara with a bicycle is actually boring in the absence of research and information and writing and engaging with people along the way. Engaging mind and body fully: this is how I’ve found meaning in my life.
Why would we imagine that school could succeed without that? I started with immense dissatisfaction, but end with a sense of powerful possibility and real hope that we are on the cusp of a revolution in education.
Charlotte: You incorporate quite a lot of academic and scientific text. Could you talk about what your research process was like to write this book? How much did you incorporate from your personal experience and knowledge and how much additional research did it require?
Roel: They say every book you write is really about yourself, and this book was certainly motivated and inspired by my personal experiences. This only offered ideas, however, not facts. They offered a place to start the research, and one test of what I uncovered, but the book offers a vision, a pattern language, firmly built on research.
I was also inspired by the book Making Learning Whole, by Professor David Perkins at Harvard University. He shares both research and personal anecdote in a way that brought his message to life, and I tried to learn from his approach.
Personally, I can’t think of anything more uninspiring than a book devoid of personal experience, but neither am I interested in pure fantasy. It’s in the simultaneous engagement of thinking and feeling that I feel a book finds its potency: its power.
The Philosophy Behind the Book School
Charlotte: How did you develop your own philosophy on education and schooling? What influences made the most impact in how you thought about education? Did you find it difficult to translate that internal philosophy to something written? To make it accessible to and understood by a wide audience?
Roel: I was a decent student in elementary and secondary school, but flunked out of college within 2 years. I went to Cornell University College of Engineering, following I thought in the footsteps of my dad who was a self-taught engineer, but I found the experience painfully arid. I could find no emotional engagement.
All I really wanted to do was sleep with girls and make art, but I felt trapped and tried to do it all, engineering and art, and the result was a total disaster. That was painful, but also liberating.
Getting kicked out of school forced me to find peace and meaning in my own way. I found it in a simple statement: live life fully. That statement has led me to Europe, to the Amazon, to the Sahara, to the Himalayas, and it led me to a life as an architect.
Only those activities that engaged me physically, emotionally, and intellectually ever fulfilled me, and that understanding truly drove this book. It’s the foundation of my philosophy on education. It’s the absolute least I believe we owe our students. As a culture, I believe it’s the least we owe ourselves.
Know Your Reader: Writing for Your Audience Tweet This
Charlotte: Who did you envision as your audience for this book? Did you envision mostly teachers, people involved with education reform or similar experience as your main audience? Or did you want to engage with audiences with no previous experience in education as well? How did you engage the audience you envisioned, such as using a particular vocabulary, visuals, references, etc?
Roel: There are so many stakeholders in education, everyone talking at each other with different agendas, specialized vocabulary, and wildly different priorities. Parents, teachers, administrators and politicians don’t understand each other and they’re all getting in each other’s way.
I thought, by prioritizing the experience of the child, that we could transcend all these differences. And by offering a lexicon of experiences and environments, that I might offer a simple tool to facilitate conversation and consensus building. I thought that a vision of school inspiring enough for someone like me might also inspire others. Who is my target audience? No less than everyone invested in education. Without irony, I believe this could change the culture and even the world.
Charlotte: Did you write School envisioning that you would change the opinion of the reader, broadening how they viewed education? Or did you expect your readers to have similar mindsets and opinions as yourself? Were there any particular decisions you made to support your approach; for example, if trying to change the reader’s mind, using a particular argument or reference?
Roel: My sense was not that minds needed to be changed, but that there was too much turmoil and confusion and misunderstanding about what K-12 education should be about: what was missing was clarity and hierarchy. I thought, perhaps naively, that a clear vision, well-articulated priorities, and a compelling delivery might be a potent antidote to the predatory economic and political forces dominating the conversation. I thought that this clarity might actually come as a relief.
Our kids have unnecessarily become the rope in a cultural tug-of-war: my mission was to present a much more compelling game.
Charlotte: The book is on the expensive side compared to a typical book. I assume it was important to you to have a book that was visually appealing, beautiful and special—and that you didn’t want to sacrifice the experience of the book’s beauty and “architecture” for the sake of price.
What was your decision making process like and how did you weigh that decision? Do you have plans for a kindle version for a broader reach? Or how does this pricing fit in with your marketing plan?
Roel: I tried to create a cheaper book. It costs $20 to print a 280 page color book, and only $3 to print one in black and white. The black and white version printed as gray upon gray upon gray, sucking all the life out of the experience. So I decided the book had to have color.
From there, I simply decided that the publishing, printing and distribution mechanism could not earn more on my book than I, so that I wouldn’t feel exploited or diminished by the machine. I also thought this: I spend between $4 and $6 on a simple latte almost every morning. Truly, price and value are two very different issues.
I’m conflicted about Kindle. The book works as 2 page spreads, but Kindle serves up one page at a time. If I do prepare a Kindle version, it will be a significant reformatting effort. Lost will be all the tactility, and delivered will be only the concepts. My top priority is to impact the conversation about school, however, so an E-book is ultimately useful…but it will come at an unfortunate price.
The Post-script: The Impact of Writing a Book
Charlotte: Has writing School and rethinking how education should be provided given you any new insight into your architectural practice? Has it changed how you approach or view architectural projects?
Roel: By looking deeply and creatively into education with this book, I’m uniquely empowered to offer educators an alternative to the standard school typologies and an alternative to the experiences they present. I can be not just a passionate and useful form giver, but also a trusted advisor on an organizational level. Instead of assembling schools from standard formulas and outdated models, I can offer a way of thinking and debating and building a vision from more basic principles.
The promise is real and scalable innovation. I’m not interested just in designing a few more schools, though that would be an excellent start. I’m interested in fundamentally changing public education and educational discourse.
Charlotte: How can our readers reach you?
Roel: The site www.futureofschools.com offers links to me and to the book. I’m truly interested in conversations about school, in stories about other efforts at innovation, and in critiques of my own thinking. There’s a blog there that I hope will gradually become an inspiring source for ideas and debate. Thank you so much for inviting me to this interview and for letting me share my thoughts!
Roel Krabbendam was born in the Netherlands and raised in the United States. A graduate of Southern California Institute of Architecture, he works all over the world, with projects in the Amazon jungle of Peru, the Sahara desert of Algeria and the Himalayas of Bhutan as well as Europe and the United States. His book, School, speaks to the intersection of experiences and environments, specifically in education. With 35 years experience as an architect, Roel offers a vision of school that transcends politics to focus on the children; a compelling, research-backed alternative to conventional wisdom and the status quo.
Readers, do you have any questions or comments about writing? Share them here! If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy this author interview on the business of being a writer with Jane Friedman or Lisa Tener’s article on how to start writing your own book.