School shootings are not a design problem

By Justin R. Wolf 5 minutes Lily

This one feels different, I said to myself. Arrested developingly troubled boy – legally an adult but not yet old enough to buy booze, armed with an arsenal of legally owned firearms – broke into an elementary school and murdered more than one dozen children. I was repelled by the carnage, that senseless evil act perpetrated on pure innocents. And yet, in the days that followed, I found a ray of hope that this time – this time! – Sensible laws would be passed at the federal level that directly target (apologies for the indelicate metaphor) the central issue: firearms.

It was 2012. The school was Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, his victims numbered 26, including 20 children under the age of 7. Last week, an 18-year-old named Salvador Ramos walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and murdered 21 people, including 19 children between the ages of 9 and 11. And like Lanza, Ramos shot a close family member hours before the shooting. This one feels the same, I thought.

What’s different this time is the public response, especially on the right. In 2012, we got the gall from NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre about a “good guy with a gun.” In 2022, we have Senator Ted Cruz and his ilk making bad faith arguments about the number of hotspots in school buildings. “Too many ins and too many outs,” Cruz said, eerily using the same words as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after the 2018 Santa Fe high school shooting.

Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022 [Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

The repression in a architectural community vocal subset was quick and resolved, with the consensus being: It’s not a design issue! And yet those in real positions of power, namely the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the major professional organizations for architects in the United States, seem resigned to the fact that nothing can be done about guns, so why not play with far-right talking points on school safety and security?

Spare us.

A recent statement from the AIA opened with: “Protecting the health, safety and well-being of building occupants is fundamental to what architects do”. I couldn’t agree more. But said in the context of school shootings, this is totally irresponsible. “As architects,” the statement continued, “we believe that schools are meant to be communities and should be planned without sacrificing the positive qualities inherent in school environments that we all want for our children.”

This is pure capitulation on the part of the AIA, precisely because it links the issue of mass shootings to design issues.

My own elementary school was a sprawling collection of building wings with little design continuity or navigable flow. My college was a curvilinear piece of mid-century brutalism with an interior that abruptly went from cavernous to claustrophobic. My high school was an open-air quad, surrounded by four-story neo-Gothic twin towers with double-stacked hallways. I wouldn’t characterize any of them as engaging or flexible environments. And from a strictly pedagogical point of view, it depends on them. Architectural errors, misguided renovations, poorly lit hallways, and similar design issues are all at the heart of discussions about learning, personal engagement, emotional health, and more.

But when the otherwise valid concern about school safety is raised alongside discussions of mass shootings, then we’ve already accepted the inevitability of the next school shooting, and the next, and the one after. It’s the architecture community saying, “This one feels the same and is now part of our code, but at least we can minimize the carnage by introducing flexible spaces and using loose design principles holding account of trauma.”

Not to be outdone, of course, design firm DLR Group (full disclosure: a former employer of mine) recently released its own statement on LinkedIn, which reads like a nuanced repackaging of NRA talking points, littered platitudes about “mental health and wellness challenges” and “caring for each other as a community.” In the same article, the organization refers to a lengthy interview Principal Todd Ferking gave to the publication. go&dpublished on April 6, in which he does not hesitate to link school design and preventive measures that could theoretically curb shootings.

I find these kinds of deterministic arguments about design informing human behavior to be negligent. But when linked to the issue of gun violence and mass shootings, they are repugnant.

When shootings occur at grocery stores, synagogues, churches, concert halls, movie theaters, military bases, health clinics, spas, restaurants, malls, public parks, and other places , all of which have happened several times in the past two years – not once has the question of how these places were designed and what role it might have played in preventing an act of mass murder been raised. Of course, it wasn’t because having this conversation would seem insensitive at best.

The environment I want for my children is a society in which owning a firearm more complicated than a single-shot shotgun should be as hard to come by as getting your pilot’s license. I take comfort in knowing that many in my industry share this sentiment, or at least some version of it. I am also discouraged by my belief that such a reality is unlikely; but that shouldn’t stop people (and companies) from drawing a line in the sand and talking about a social issue that, frankly, has nothing to do with their industry.

If the AIA does indeed fear alienating its more conservative members, which was suggestedso I would encourage the organization (and like-minded businesses) to refrain, rather than post outlandish statements about building safety and community unity.

The problem is guns and the remarkable ease with which they are legally acquired in this country — stop. If only more businesses, nonprofits, and businesses on all sides would take a strong stance on long-awaited gun safety measures, knowing that such stances have nothing to do with it. see directly with their business, then meaningful conversations could actually take place.

Justin R. Wolf is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor, and communications professional in the architecture and engineering industry. A version of this essay originally appeared on Common Edge, a nonprofit dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the audience it is meant to serve.

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