The heterotopia of the snack bar at the local playgroup.

Heterotopias and jurisdiction

Foucault said ‘we live inside a set of relations’. In his book ‘Of Other Spaces’ he highlighted marginalisation in society, naming his categorization of spaces on the fringe of the norm as heterotopias explaining them as ‘absolutely real but absolutely unreal’ and comparing their presence in the city against a reflection of yourself in a mirror. Highlighting the reality of what you see, yet heightening the self-awareness that the reflection presents – even confronts – your gaze. It affects your personal identity, but the image itself is beyond physical existence, visible, but unreal.

Heterotopias have meaning expressed as ‘otherness’ and ‘outside of normality’. They are defined by their accessibility and the inclusion/exclusion you may encounter once present with the occupants of the ‘other place’.

Foucault defines Heterotopias of crisis (prisons), places of the accumulation of time (museums), juxtaposition (gardens), festival (temporal), illusion (theatres) and compensation. He gives examples in quite stark terms, citing brothels and graveyards, implying a sinister element to these other places that require a conditioning of behaviour.

Foucault also talked about the influence of jurisdiction and the positions of power in the formation and occupancy of places. Education reform has been the headline for election campaigns and the political dilemma remains of the influence the government and related legislation should have on the education of children. Conflicting opinions – directives and legislation is being replaced by guidance and ‘freedom’, in Scotland, this occurs under the heading of the ‘Curriculum of Excellence’.

Accidental Conditioning

With this in mind, I realised there is a problem emerging in the contemporary perception of ‘city life’. It occurred to me that there might be sinister heterotopias unintentionally being created in seemingly innocent environments, such as a new school, for example. This occurs by conditioning behaviour that is outside the norm for that environment. What has happened at my former playgroup, where my mum now works, is a perfect example of conditioning of behaviour is happening from earlier and earlier age ranges…that shall be explained later.

Following our meeting with JM Architects, I applied Foucault’s theory to the context of the proposed Portobello School. My personal observations suggest modern school designs hold several conflicting environments that can be defined as heterotopias, through the conditioning and behaviour. School computer suites, for example, present an illusion an office and might suggest that unless a pupil is coached to perform in what the legislator suggests is the ‘correct’ way (as an international networking/consumptive/capitalist) the working world will be inaccessible. The tools and methodologies within education are also conditioning the pupils to behave within a judicial framework, that frames the vision of the government figures who attempt to mould their idealised contemporary society.

School design, faux-creativity

This is transmitted into the proposed plans for the school and language the architect used to describe the building: The communal areas will have ‘café areas, break-out spaces, clusters, pods’ and spaces for ‘showcasing, sculpture, galleries of artwork’. I have deemed words such as these ‘faux-creative‘ words because all to often they are used to express ‘dynamic environments’‘ that actually imply a vacuum of knowledge about how the space will be occupied and how the lead user will interpret its function.

The architect talked about providing space for ‘activities’ to happen, but the labeling  of the activities that can go in these spaces exemplifies social conditioning through the misconceived concept – ideals that stem from consumerism and the everyday routine of the so-called ‘diverse’ city centre that, as Koolhaus pointed out in the Generic City, is more commonly becoming a homogenised street of non-descript cafés, with business men in pin-stripes spending their disposable income. ‘Café’ implies Starbucks, ‘gallery’ and ‘showcase’ implies exclusivity, and ‘pod’ describes nothing…It is ‘Junkspace’! When architects don’t know what to draw, they draw a ‘blob’ – which implies a creative solution, but similarly means nothing. Do creative thoughts really occur within a pod?! Pod implies separation, an inclusion/exclusion relationship. A zone where a conditioned and contained type of ‘creative’ behaviour is deemed appropriate when within the pod. These are the heterotopias in the school!

This can be demonstrated again in the ‘Airport Lounge’ that has built in my old school. Thankfully, it remains a canteen, which rescues it from its contrived title. ‘Airport Lounge’ implies the glamorised yet standardised retail environment of perfume shops and duty free, that Rem Koolhaus rightly criticises as offering the same experiences all around the world – losing the identity of the airport as a gateway to a country. Monotony is present in the airport lounge.

This is not what should happen in the school. They need to be a place of learning and expression. Thankfully, as I mentioned, the ‘Airport Lounge’ has creaky tables on which to play cards, a drinks machine and on my recent visit to the school, still smells of chips. This is its saving grace, but I believe it says a lot about the mentality schools have to even give the school canteen a name like that in the first place.

Education and Curriculum

The old curriculum (GCSEs and A levels) has been criticised for coaching students how to pass exams. However, coaching is a natural progression of education, and although the Curriculum of Excellence deals with practical and group work, providing a stimulating environment that broadens the Zone of Proximal development, to learn and recall information. However, from my interpretation of the new Curriculum of Excellence in Scotland,  it seems to possess the same flaws of modern school design. The curriculum has in fact done much worse than replace coached or processed learning; it has gone further, to in fact coach behaviour. The examples that I have seen on the CofE websites, the classes demonstrate a mimicking an office environment, fuel my concerns that interaction and engagement between pupils will become conditioned behaviour, associated with a perceived ideal of the adult world.

Curriculum of Excellence website. 

I worry that this could accelerate the process of maturing, replacing the beauty of school as a site for the development of genuine creativity and fun that isn’t prescribed. The curriculum of Excellence opens the door further to the Time, Space compression that David Harvey talks about. By letting the compression of information, time and space overrule our sense of childhood by prescribing social interactions, could quench the diversity and exuberance of youth as they are expected to behave like adults sooner. If everyone is special no one is…similarly, if everyone is coached to be varied and ‘creative’, would anyone be? Wouldn’t everyone be clones like those disturbing characters portrayed American Psycho!? If you condition students into a formulaic creativity based on contemporary system of consumerism, how can we break free and stem the encroachment of monotony?

Does a school have a capsular condition? Heterotopias, or spaces of flows and places?

To consider Castell’s Network Society, how does the space of flows, places, hetrotopias and capsules relate to the world, locality and people involved in the inner workings and design of Portobello School and the surrounding community?

The project we are working on, a modern school being designed to accommodate 1200 pupils seems to accommodate what I would critically describe as a ‘technologically based’ layout. Computers are at the centre, they have their own space that dominates the ground floor. The hierarchy of the computer is clear. Networking is undoubtedly important. However, the computers have been forced upon the communal spaces of the school to represent a ‘dynamic’ learning environment, where open floor plans and ‘break out spaces’ sustain the implications of a fictional aura of creativity.

It seems that the plan for the school has become a conflicting battleground that forces a hierarchical emphasis towards media, business and IT. Important subjects, yes! But is the school plan becoming like a commuter, or day at the office? Café’s, break out spaces, banks of computers. It suggests that to be successful and to learn the correct skills you must mimic the adult world. This can not aid creativity but must surely limit by attaching blinkers to the pupils who must engage with the office world and 9-5 routine.

Conditioning behaviour from earlier and earlier

To return to the point I implied earlier and the title of this entry – my arguments are compounded as the heterotopia has extended in to the playgroup. Firstly, more and more administration is required to record children playing. Forcing the transformation of learning naturally by interaction and engagement through play to having to be told to play then assessed on how you’ve played! Having to jump through these curricular hoops isn’t what the playgroup supervisors signed up for either! In fact, it takes their attention away from the children in order to complete the paperwork ‘albums’ that record the child’s ‘progress’. Directives like this are controlled by outsiders, one of the playgroup teacher’s relations works in the government department whose job it is to legislate on education affairs (if they didn’t legislate then they would get the axe). But these directives apprar to arrive with minimal consultation and common sense into their consequences.

Could the same be said for Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence? Teachers I’ve spoken too still haven’t managed to get to the bottom of what it entails, but advocates of the system, like the teachers interviewed on the CofE website suggested that they can teach the pupils in the same way they teach their own children, in a natural, incremental way. The difference is that you teach your children through experiencing the real world, not a forced role playing activity that mimics the actions of grown ups. It seems to me that adults require children to get older faster, to prove their getting older, and to prove their maturity and creativity. The legislators forget that children are naturally curious, perceptive and manipulative. The success of a nation is that it is full of varied people. There is a whole life ahead of these children in which they will be assessed and have to work…just let the toddlers have fun and they’ll be fine! Didn’t we end up alright!?

The snack bar

The children in my mum’s playgroup are toddlers. They actually need a structured environment and don’t know any differently. They didn’t ask for the snack bar that has been enforced because a legislator identified the ‘need for choice’. So now the toddlers can choose when they have a drink and a biscuit and it is provided on demand. However, most are actually happy sat around a table with milk and a biscuit, where they learn good manners and how to share. These are important life skills and I fear that manners will disappear if ‘choice’ continues be enforced. The snack bar at the local playgroup is a heterotopia because it is an unnatural environment for a toddler, and a conditioning of behaviour – maybe readying them from an early age about how to prop up a bar!?

If this continues unchecked there could be a danger that schools will become like The City of London, renowned for being a place of individuals moving without noticing others or surroundings. Is this what we want to instil in our youngsters? What will the communal areas of the school be like with the ‘commercial’ concept engrained in its design and functionality? What can I propose to help?

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