Originally published on March 31, 2017.
We have a lot to learn from the built environment. Buildings designed for educational purposes convey meaning through structure and form, and none more so than the Embelgasse School of Administration. Located in Vienna City, Austria, this school was built by AllesWirdGut architects to educate future public administrators. I chose to highlight the Embelgasse School of Administration in this blog post because I think there is a lot we can learn as educational administration + leadership researchers about the aesthetic of our teaching and learning spaces.
I came across an article on this school on the architecture website ArchDaily while searching for an art exemplar from within the field of educational administration. With so few artistic representations in this field, architecture is one of the few aesthetic forms of expression that is cited in the literature around aesthetic administration - an interesting niche world I dove into and have never left. I searched for hours on architecture websites trying to find a building built for the purposes of educating future educational administrators, and found the Embelgasse School of Administration, a school dedicated to educating future public administrators, a closely-related field and one that I thought we could learn a lot from as educational administration + leadership researchers.
Form, Meet Purpose
What first struck me about the Embelgasse School of Administration is how closely the form and design of the building aligned with its purpose. The building’s large windows invite onlookers to view the activities going on within the building, emphasizing the importance of transparency and openness. The building truly sets the “stage” for the performance of administrative praxis.
Brief Review of Educational Administration + Aesthetics
There are a few contemporary scholars who have written extensively about how an aesthetic theoretical perspective can provide creative solutions to some of the well-documented challenges that promote dysfunction within the field of educational administration and leadership today, such as the serious disconnect between theory and practice. Perhaps one of the best known scholarly works in this niche is a collection of essays titled Aesthetic Dimensions of Educational Administration and Leadership, edited by Eugenie A. Samier and Richard J. Bates (2006), which posits that an aesthetic framework is an alternative lens through which we can better know and understand the field of educational administration and leadership.
In her chapter on charismatic leadership, Samier (2006) uses Weber's comprehensive Theory of Charisma to demonstrate the three forms of expression of administrative aesthetics: the architectural, the theatrical, and the literary. And while there isn't enough space here to discuss each form at length, the architectural is the most relevant in a discussion about this particular exemplar because buildings are "used as a popular stage" for the performance of administration, in this case, administering public policy (p. 169).
Architecture has a close association with organizational form. A city's buildings communicate messages, whether consciously or unconsciously, with the people of the city about who holds power and authority. This is clearly expressed, for example, by inaccessible government buildings layered with cubicles of protective staff and aimless telephone directories that defend policymakers from actually ever having contact with other people.
In a study of university campuses conducted by Dutton and Grant (1991), architecture was found to reproduce the dominant ideologies and social relations of society, which undermines diversity and reinforces disciplinary divisions (cited in Samier, 2006, p. 163). The researchers found that the design of open space schools in particular represented "an attitude predisposed against bureaucratic power and authority, designed instead to overcome the conventional isolation and subjugation of teachers in separate classrooms inhibiting their politicization" (p. 163).
A theoretical understanding of the field of educational administration is crucial in the examination of the construction of educational spaces, particularly administrative spaces, which tend to be more contentious. Even in a brief review of the literature, it becomes clear that buildings, including their furnishings "are never neutral, but carry social and political value, empowering some, silencing others" (p. 164). I have chosen the Embelgasse School of Administration as an exemplar of powerful and intentional structural design that re-imagines what a space for educating public administration could (should?) look like.
About the Embelgasse School of Administration
AllesWirdGut Architektur, the successful firm who won the commission with the City of Vienna to build a vocational school in which to train public administrators, was asked to build a school that would "make learning part of public life" (AllesWirdGut.cc). The open concept features of the Embelgasse School of Administration levels traditional power relationships between public administrators and the public.
The large, grid-like windows convey a sense of openness and transparency. The school is enclosed only by the natural perimeters of the block on which it is built; doing away with the physical (and metaphorical) walls that usually separate public administrators from the people they are supposed to serve. A shady inner courtyard and open access to terraces via the second and top floors of the school allows students to have constant contact with the outdoors, which also reinforces the connection between the students and the city. Furthermore, learning about public administration in an open and transparent environment prepares students to work under the constant gaze of the public eye. Each design decision made by the architect is intentional and the openness of the school invites a broader dialogue that renegotiates power dynamics between public servants and the public.
The Embelgasse School of Administration demonstrates the importance of context in the built environment. Though I could not find an example of a building dedicated to the training of educational administrators specifically, educational administration is a type of public administration that deals with many of the same criticisms, such as a lack of transparency and a lack of confidence by those of whom administrators are supposed to serve. The architectural has the potential to teach us a lot about the field of educational administration and leadership and how we can more consciously construct spaces that convey messages of openness and transparency to the public. The City of Vienna wanted to commission a building that would make learning a part of everyday life, and in my opinion, AllesWirdGut Architektur accomplished this difficult task by building a vocational school in which the building's form beautifully complements its function.
All photos © AllesWirdGut / Guilherme Silva Da Rosa and are displayed with the express written permission of AllesWirdGut Architektur.