Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Concrete solutions: Architecture of public high schools during the “urban crisis”
by Wiley, Amber N., Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2011, 278; 3449192
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation documents and contextualizes the creation of fortified, yet programmatically innovative, high schools designed between 1960 and 1980 in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The striking nature of the school designs—avant-garde in materiality, scale, programming, and plan—are testaments to the high ideals of education reform for urban cities that were battling the damaging effects of suburbanization, urban unrest, and riots. In addition to examining a building type that has received minimal scholarly attention in discussions of the urban crisis, this dissertation situates architectural expression of the school building within major political, cultural, and educational paradigm shifts that inform how the schools are designed and the ways the built environment is interpreted.

During the late 1950s city officials, school administrators and alumni, and educational consultants were confronted with persistent de facto segregation that was exacerbated by the mass exodus of middle-class families to the suburbs. They juggled various approaches to create an encouraging and enlightened environment for students in the post-World War II era. Schools faced crises in the form of deteriorating building stock, declining public image, and limited financial resources in addition to segregation and a shrinking student body. Many of the urban crisis schools, designed by prominent architecture firms, were intended to aid in the social and cultural renewal of economically depressed areas. While local school boards initially championed the construction of large-scale urban schools as harbingers of integration, this rhetoric gave way to the reality of school siting that reified lines of concentrated residential and educational segregation.

Large-scale urban renewal plans of the 1950s followed by the riots of the 1960s left cities in shambles. Neighborhoods were physically cut off from resources and jobs. School construction attempted to alleviate some of the problems that the riots and urban renewal caused. Community involvement in later renewal plans, administered through the Great Society’s War on Poverty Model Cities program, included schools as important design components. This changed the meaning of urban renewal in African American neighborhoods from “Negro removal” to an opportunity for local non-profit and activist groups to restructure their immediate surroundings in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, the design of the schools revealed a sentiment of fear about the urban condition and youth culture as the schools physically turned their backs on the communities they were meant to serve through their inward orientation and lack of contextual response to the street. At that time, however, the schools brought about a new definition of monumental architecture as a result of their Brutalist aesthetic expressed through materiality and massing. The open-plan school, which created interior spaces that lacked walls, conflicted with the sculptural quality of the buildings that attempted to be secure and open simultaneously.

The dissertation concludes by challenging the historic preservation and education communities to reassess value systems established for the preservation of African American cultural heritage. Studying these schools creates contextualized records of their histories highlighting, a critical juncture in the Civil Rights-Black Power narrative. This connection melds the milieu of urban upheaval, architectural design, and community politics of empowerment during a period of major paradigm shifts in the historiography of the American city.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Longstreth, Richard
Commitee: Miller, James, Osman, Suleiman, Sies, Mary Corbin, Vlach, John
School: The George Washington University
Department: American Studies
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-A 72/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, American studies, Black history, Education history, Architecture
Keywords: Architectural history, City planning, Community politics, Educational policy, Georgia, Historic preservation, Pennsylvania, School architecture, Urban renewal, Washington, D.C.
Publication Number: 3449192
ISBN: 978-1-124-55742-7
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