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School shootings are not a design issue

Why is the nation’s preeminent professional organization for architects playing along with far-right talking points about school safety and security?

School shootings are not a design issue
The rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2019. [Photo: Nathan Klima/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

This one feels different, I thought to myself. A troubled boy in arrested development—legally an adult but not yet old enough to purchase alcohol, armed with an arsenal of legally owned firearms—stormed into an elementary school and murdered more than a dozen children. I was repulsed by the carnage, this senseless act of evil perpetrated on pure innocents. And yet in the ensuing days, I found a sliver of hope that this time—this time!—some sensible laws would be passed at the federal level that take direct aim (apologies for the indelicate metaphor) at the central issue: guns.

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That was in 2012. The school was Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, his victims numbered 26, 20 of them children no older than 7. Last week, an 18-year-old named Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, and murdered 21 people, 19 of them 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, specifically on the right. In 2012, we got NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s bile 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 access points in school buildings. “Too many entrances and too many exits,” Cruz said, eerily using the same words Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick spoke after the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022 [Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg/Getty Images]
The pushback within a vocal subset of the architectural community has been swift and resolute, the consensus being: This is not a design issue! And yet those in real positions of power— namely, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the primary professional organizations for architects in the United States—appear to be resigned to the fact that nothing can be done when it comes to guns, so why not play along with the far-right’s talking points about school safety and security?

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Spare us.

A recent statement from the AIA opened with, “Protecting the health, safety and welfare of building occupants is fundamental to what architects do.” I couldn’t agree more. But said within the context of school shootings, it is grossly irresponsible. “As architects,” the statement continued, “we believe that schools are intended to be communities and should be planned without sacrificing the inherent positive qualities of the school environments we all desire for our children.”

This is pure capitulation on the part of the AIA, precisely because it’s tying the issue of mass shootings back to questions of design.

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My own elementary school was a vast composite of building wings with little design continuity or navigable flow. My middle school was a curvilinear piece of mid-century Brutalism with an interior that abruptly shifted from cavernous to claustrophobic. My high school was an open-air quad, bookended by twin four-story, neo-Gothic towers with stacked double-loaded corridors. None of these I would characterize as engaging or flexible environments. And from a strictly pedagogical perspective, that’s on them. Architectural blunders, misguided retrofits, poorly lit corridors, and similar design concerns are all central to discussions about learning, personal engagement, emotional health, and so on.

But when the otherwise valid concern over school safety is raised in tandem with discussions about mass shootings, then we’ve already conceded the inevitability of the next school shooting, and the next one, and the one after that. This is 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 employing loose principles of trauma-informed design.”

Not to be outdone, evidently, design firm DLR Group (full disclosure: a former employer of mine) recently issued its own statement on LinkedIn, which reads like a nuanced repackaging of NRA talking points, littered with platitudes about “mental health and wellness challenges” and “caring for each other as a community.” In the same post, the organization links to an extensive interview Principal Todd Ferking gave to the publication gb&d, published on April 6, in which he doesn’t hesitate to connect school design and preventative measures that might theoretically curb shootings.

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I find these types of deterministic arguments about design informing human behavior to be negligent. But when tied to the question of gun violence and mass shootings, they’re repulsive.

When shootings take place at grocery stores, synagogues, churches, concert halls, movie theaters, military bases, healthcare clinics, spas, restaurants, shopping malls, public parks, and other places—all of which have occurred several times over in just the past two years—not once was the issue raised of how these places were designed and what role that might have played in preventing an act of mass murder. Of course it wasn’t because having that conversation would appear callous, at best.

The environment I desire for my children is a society in which owning any firearm more complicated than a single-shot hunting rifle should be as hard to come by as earning one’s pilot’s license. I’m heartened to know that many in my industry share this sentiment, or at least some version of it. I’m equally disheartened by my belief that such a reality is unlikely; but this shouldn’t stop people (and corporations) from drawing a line in the sand and speaking to a social issue that, frankly, has nothing to do with their industry.

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If the AIA is indeed fearful of alienating its more conservative members, which has been suggested, then I’d encourage the organization (and like-minded firms) to sit this one out, rather than issue mealymouthed statements about building safety and community togetherness.

The issue is guns and the remarkable ease with which they are legally acquired in this country—hard stop. If only more corporate outfits and nonprofits and businesses of all stripes would adopt a firm stance on long overdue gun-safety measures, while content in the knowledge that such stands have nothing directly to do with their trade, then meaningful conversations might actually happen.

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 public that it’s meant to serve.

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