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ARCHITECTURES OF EDUCATION—Sol Perez-Martinez, "Deschooling Architecture"


Sol Perez-Martinez
Deschooling Architecture

Notting Dale Urban Studies Centre, ca. 1974. Courtesy of Sol Perez-Martinez and The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Local Studies & Archives.


The late 1960s saw the birth of two radical ideas in the fields of education and environment. In education, the deschooling movement began with a seminar in Mexico entitled “Alternatives in Education.” For the scholars involved, schooling was an institution that perpetrated an unjust social order through a “hidden curriculum” and which had to be changed in order to achieve social justice. As a result of their meetings, two years later, Ivan Illich published Deschooling Society, where he advocated the abolition of schools and their replacement with “a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment.”

For Illich, the physical environment was a freely available resource where people could learn on their own terms. He loosely proposed an alternative system of entangled educational networks outside the remit of the school, combining educational objects, peer learning, mentorship, and reference services. His idea was to create a framework “which constantly educates to action, participation, and self-help.” The proposals of the “deschoolers”—including Illich, Paul Goodman, and Everett Reimer—were considered utopian and unscholarly at the time, but they became popular among progressive educators and the New Left, fueling a stream of libertarian educational practices worldwide.

Meanwhile, ecological disasters and the indiscriminate use of natural resources in the US inspired Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson in 1969 to organize an environmental “teach-in.” His aim was to encourage people, and especially youth, to become aware and involved in protecting the environment. Instead of taking a top-down approach, Nelson proposed that anyone could organize a meeting to teach others what they knew about the environment. A year later, in April 1970, Earth Day triggered a nationwide grassroots movement of peer-to-peer learning that brought millions to the streets, including 10,000 schools and 2,000 colleges and universities. An initiative that started as a local environmental education project created the first North American green generation and propagated the environmental movement.

The ripples of these two radical ideas reached Britain and materialized in the work of anarchist writer Colin Ward. With a background in architecture, education, and anarchist publishing, Ward combined the ideas of the environmental movement and the deschoolers, initiating a network of people, places, and pedagogies that used the environment as a tool for learning. However, rather than concentrating on the natural environment, as most projects did at the time, Ward advocated for the study of urban areas as a path to active citizenship.

One of the initiatives under Ward’s leadership, the Urban Studies Centres (USCs), triggered a grid of more than thirty self-organized urban learning centers across the UK to promote awareness of the built environment. Even though the USC’s main aim was to widen participation in the construction of cities and help people become “masters of their environment,” they also, as a side-effect, proposed a way to “deschool architecture” by making architectural and urban education publicly available.

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