Post-Traumatic Design: How to Design Our Schools to Heal Past Wounds and Prevent Future Violence

Post-Traumatic Design: How to Design Our Schools to Heal Past Wounds and Prevent Future Violence
Rendering for the New Utoya Project in Norway, which will re-design the Utøya Island where the 2011 massacre took place. Image courtesy of Fantastic Norway.

Over a month has passed since the Sandy Hook tragedy. Its surviving students have gone back to school, albeit at another facility (decorated with old posters to make it feel familiar), and are working on putting this tragic event behind them. The nation is similarly moving on - but this time, with an eye to action.

The goal is obvious: to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again. The means, less so. While President Obama’s recent gun control policy offers some solutions, it’s by no means the only way. Indeed, opinions vary - from clamping down on gun control, to better addressing the root cause of mental illness, to even arming teachers in the classroom.

The design world has similarly contributed to the debate. A recent article in ArchRecord questioned how, in the wake of Sandy Hook, we should design our schools: “While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning.”Indeed, turning a school into a prison would be the design equivalent of giving a teacher a rifle. You would, of course, have a more “secure” environment - but at what cost?

As America and the world considers how we can move on after these traumas, I’d like to take a moment to consider what role design could play. If the answer is not to turn our schools into prisons, then what is? Can design help address the root causes of violence and make our schools less vulnerable to tragedy? If so, how?

The Amish school where the Nickel Mines shooting took place in 2006. The school was torn down and later rebuilt. Image via Patriot News 2006.

Designing Out Tragedy

Let’s first get one thing strait. Architecture can do many things, but it cannot stop someone bent on murder from accomplishing his/her aims. 

In truth, attempting to design a school that could do so (one imagines a  panopticon-type fortress only Foucault could admire) would completely subvert its primary function as a place of learning - and, of course, as a place of collaboration and social interaction. 

This leaves us with three viable options. The first being to erase any and all traces of the original site of violence.

Understandably, this is the approach that those most affected by the trauma often desire; the associations are too strong, too visceral to contemplate another alternative. As one parent, Stephanie Carson, said at a recent debate about what to do with Sandy Hook Elementary school: “I cannot ask my son or any of the people at the school to ever walk back into that building, and he has asked to never go back. [...] Even walking down the halls, the children become so scared at any unusual sound. I don’t see how it would be possible.”

The families of the victims of the Aurora Theater shootings in Colorado and those of the 2011 massacre in Norway similarly expressed that they would prefer the structures to be torn down and the sites “left in peace.” They point out that watching movies or holding summer camps at a place that witnessed such tragedy just “wouldn’t feel right.

Shoppers at the Safeway in Tucson where the 2011 shooting took place. A small plaque memorializing the event was placed out front. Image Courtesy of AP Photo via

The second, and by far the most popular, option is to design the tragedy out of the school.

A quick look at the list of shootings that have occurred in the US in the past 20 years reveal that the vast majority of the buildings where violence took place have been remodeled and returned to their original purpose, with little to no reference of their violent past. In one Safeway grocery store, where 6 were killed and 13 injured (including, famously, US Representative Gabrielle Giffords), the only indication of any past violence is a plaque that sits in front.

Perhaps in this case, where the shooting took place in a grocery store, the subtle response is completely appropriate. Moreover, you could argue that a building - and especially a school - should always be re-opened for the needs of the living - otherwise, according to common discourse, the murderers “have won.”

Erlend Blakstad Haffner, one of the architects at Fantastic Norway, the architecture firm in charge of the New Utøya project to redesign the site of the massacre, believes the project is the best way to honor the victims and send “a message that the perpetrator failed.” Haffner told me in an e-mail that while there will be a small memorial for family and friends of the victims on the southern tip of the island, the main memorial will be off-site (ensuring that the site doesn’t become a “shrine” or a destination for pilgrims). The existing buildings will be destroyed or remodeled:

Rendering for the New Utoya Project in Norway, which will re-design the Utøya Island where the 2011 massacre took place. Image courtesy of Fantastic Norway.

“In the case of Utøya we believe it’s important to keep the positive memories of the island and reduce the impact of the massacre by demolishing the buildings where most lives were taken. Today many see the actual picture of the island as a symbol of tragedy. As a part of the process of rebuilding the island we think it’s important to create a new image of the island, where some parts of the image remain unchanged but where new parts come in and redefine the image.”

Jack Swanzy, the lead architect on the refurbishing project for Columbine High School, faced a similar challenge, particularly in re-designing the library where the majority of the killings took place. As he told Salon: "The intent of the school district is to put this back as a high school. We don't want to make it a shrine to the tragedy."

However, is beginning anew (via demolition or extensive remodeling) the most appropriate response to a tragic act? Perhaps. But is it not also possible that, by attempting to erase the violence, it ignores the survivors’ very real need to acknowledge and recover from the trauma? 

And, thinking long-term, does designing out tragedy truly help to prevent violence in the future? Which leads me to option #3: design spaces of healing and engagement.

The YWCA Pierce County shelter, part of the Building Design project, uses artwork to mitigate the negative affect of security bars. Image courtesy of YWCA Pierce County.

Spaces of Healing

When it comes to re-designing schools that have experienced tragedy, there is very little architectural precedent. We must, then, turn to different models and different typologies - ones better equipped to mediate trauma and violence.

To help me in this quest, I reached out to Mahlum, an architecture firm based in the Pacific Northwest that has teamed up with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) to spearhead Building Dignity, a unique project to design domestic violence shelters that “empower parents, support children’s needs, and facilitate healing.”

While the correlation between shelters and schools may not be immediately apparent, I believe the comparison to be a rich one. Consider: in shelters, safety is a primary concern, since many abusers stalk their partners and attempt to force them home; secondly, coping and healing is an intrinsic part of the shelter’s program; and, thirdly, shelters must be designed to incorporate not just parent’s, but also children’s, needs.  

So how can we use Mahlum’s extensive research experiences with shelters to inform post-traumatic school design?In a variety of ways. First of all, and corroborating my earlier point about schools/fortresses, Mahlum has found that heavy-handed security measures and rules, which intend to protect victims from further trauma, actually do the opposite - undermining autonomy and “dignity to cope.” As Corrie Rosen, one of the architects at Mahlum, told me - “letting security and rules define the space results in environments that fail in their mission of healing and empowerment.”

The YWCA Pierce County shelter, part of the Building Design project, uses "away" spaces and individual interiors (designed by interior designers from the community) to create a sense of security. Image courtesy of YWCA Pierce County.

A recent New York Times article, written by architect Roger S. Ulrich, on design and violence in health care facilities, similarly described how a facility that’s “noisy, lacks privacy and hinders communication” can actually intensify trauma (and, consequently violence) for patients suffering from mental illness. Consider how many high-security schools, where students are shepherded into spaces where they must be constantly supervised, could be described in the same terms. Their noisy, invasive nature cannot help but contribute to student stress and, potentially, violence; but even if that weren’t the case, creating such an environment for students who are recovering from trauma would certainly be a grave mistake.

The means of reducing trauma (and preventing violence), then, according to Ulrich, is designing an environment that minimizes noise and crowding, allows for privacy (enhancing the ability to cope), and enables a “sense of control.”

Mahlum couldn’t agree more. The firm’s architects have become masters of non-invasive design strategies that encourage just these qualities in their shelters. For privacy: niches, benches, alcoves, and other “away” spaces that give residents the space to contemplate and occasionally separate from the group (a fact that, counter-intuitively, results in increased group participation). For noise and crowding: small scale facilities that limit the number of users; outdoor gardens. For control:  flexible spaces that allow residents to adjust the furnishings or the temperature; transparency and sightlines into communal spaces (giving residents the choice to join in or remain alone); and wayfinding signals that ease orientation and the sense of space. 

Almost all of these features could easily be applied to school design. Moreover, the sense of control can be imparted to students from the very beginning of the design process. Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told Salon that allowing Sandy Hook victims to actively participate in deciding the school’s fate would give them “a measure of control over a situation in which they have had very little,” a fact that would “‘be very important’ to the healing process.”

Virginia Tech's Center for Peace Studies & Violence Prevention was begun in response to the 2007 shooting which took place on campus. Image via VA Tech Center for Peace Studies & Violence Protection.

Spaces of Engagement

Of course, while all these adjustments address the immediate need for healing, to prevent future violence requires far more than thoughtful design strategy - it requires a network, a community engaged and committed to violence education and prevention. 

To refer back to that list of shootings that have occurred in the past 20 years, there is only one example of a re-design which conscientiously took the initiative to create such a network. Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed in a 2007 shooting, re-opened Norris Hall with one very important addition: a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

The student-centered, cross-disciplinary Center, which hopes to create a Peace Studies and Violence Prevention Minor, is in constant dialogue with the university community, converting Norris Hall into more than it ever was before: a charged space of education, communication, and collaboration centered around violence prevention.

This is why an increasingly important strategy for Mahlum is involving the community into the design of the shelters. As Mahlum’s Rosen eloquently told me, “when we do have successful communities they raise members who are less likely to be violent, and at the same time protect themselves by looking out for one another. [...] when shelters protect a woman from violence when she’s inside the shelter, but don’t provide a space that helps that woman build a new life away from abuse, then the shelter hasn’t really prevented violence, it’s only delayed it. We need shelters, and schools, that are able to do both.”

As Rosen points out, shelters must engage with the community to become a center of violence awareness and support in order to prevent violence in the future - so too must a school in a post-traumatic world. A school that aims to heal its past wounds and ensure that its students won’t suffer from future ones - that is a legacy worth aiming for. That is a legacy that would allow us to sincerely say: the killers have failed.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Post-Traumatic Design: How to Design Our Schools to Heal Past Wounds and Prevent Future Violence" 24 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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