Architecture as a Metaphor for Education

By Pietig, Jeanne | Art Education, March 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Architecture as a Metaphor for Education

Pietig, Jeanne, Art Education

Architecture and education. Link the two words, and what comes to mind? Art educators might think of the challenges associated with teaching students how to appreciate architecture as a fine art Professional architects might think of the curriculum needed to educate future architects. School administrators might think of the more practical dimensions of architecture and education, namely, school design and its impact on learning. These are just a few of the issues-all worthy of discussion and debate-that come to mind when we think of architecture and education. In this article, I will explore another way of linking the two terms by showing how architecture is a useful metaphor for thinking about education: its nature, aims, and processes. After reflecting on the interconnections between architecture and education, I will turn to more practical matters by suggesting that architecture fS is ari effective way of integrating art education in the K-12 curriculum. Before turning to any of these issues, however, it may be helpful to ask what a metaphor is.

According to classical language theorists dating back to Aristotle (1969), a metaphor is a poetic expression having little to do with everyday language or systematic thought. Contemporary theorists like George Lakoff (1993) are challenging the traditional view by defining metaphors as "mappings across conceptual domains" (p. 239). He argues that metaphors are fundamentally conceptual, not linguistic, in nature and that they are embedded in our ordinary language and everyday experiences. The contemporary view of metaphors, adopted here, is more expansive and more powerful than the traditional view. It helps explain why we use metaphors. Like other forms of thinking, metaphorical thinking holds the promise of generating new insights.


Architecture is a fertile source of metaphors in education because the act of building is often compared to the acts of thinking and teaching. Our ordinary, everyday language reflects this well. As teachers, we create lesson plans, develop working models, and engage in curriculum building. We ask our students to support their views by buttressing their arguments. Why? Because we like concrete ideas, soundlybased criticism, and theories that are on a solid footing. After all, poorly constructed theories, like poorly constructed buildings, often fall apart.

As art educators, we try to inspire our students so that their works will tower above the mundane. We speak of frames of reference,foundational knowledge, and structure in disciplines. Occasionally, we bracket our thoughts, bridge disciplines, and deconstruct concepts. Finally, when advising students, we like to design their programs so that they include both survey courses and capstone experiences. Our language is so rich in words that mutually refer to building, thinking, and teaching that it seems as if the impulse to construct a building is the same impulse that impels us to construct a theory and teach it.

Perhaps the connection between constructing buildings and constructing theories is not one of impulses or urges at all. It may simply reflect the way we think. Rudolf Arnheim (1977) claims that all systems of thought take the form of architectural structures. When the human mind organizes a body of thought, it almost inevitably does so in terms of spatial imagery. Since all thoughts are worked out in the medium of perceptual space, architecture is the embodiment of thought because it invents shapes and builds structures.

The writings of Immanuel Kant (1929) seem to support Arnheim's claims. The 18th century German philosopher used the phrase architectonic of pure reason to describe the aesthetics underlying systematic thinking. A similar view is advanced by Jacob Bronowski (1973a), a Polish-born mathematician and cultural critic, who argues that the systematic thinking of science is a kind of architecture.


More than any other writer, Bronowski draws out the interconnections between the structure of architecture and the structure of thought In his book and 13-part television series, The Ascent of Man (1973a, 1973b), he traces the cultural evolution of the human species, concentrating on the history of science. …

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