The Arts Council sounds off on … Redesigning education through art in architecture

In designing the Columbus Family Academy in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood, Barry Svigals incorporated a “Winds of Discovery” theme. Robert Benson Photography.


By David A. Brensilver

I spoke recently with New Haven-based architect Barry Svigals about his integration of art into building designs, something he’s been doing for years at facilities such as the Columbus Family Academy, L.W. Beecher Museum Magnet School, and Albertus Magnus College, among others.

Svigals, who’s always kept a hand in both art and architecture, talked about spending a year in Paris early in his career and discovering the work of Maurice Calka, whom he described as “one of the best and last of the figurative … sculptors.” Calka was also a teacher and a mentor, Svigals said.

The incorporation of sculpture into a building design, Svigals explained, enriches the architecture.

From a pedagogical standpoint, he said, it’s an “opportunity to express an inner meaning of a building in not a literal way but in an expressive way, hopefully a poetic way … to enrich the expression of the architecture.”

For example, Svigals used a “Winds of Discovery” theme in designing the Columbus Family Academy in the Fair Haven section of town, which decades ago was an Italian neighborhood but now is home to a largely Latino population. While Svigals and his longtime collaborator, graphic designer Randall Hoyt, weren’t interested (for obvious reasons) in extolling Columbus, “what they were interested in,” Hoyt said,” was the spirit of discovery.”

Svigals said he was interested in “introducing urban kids to their place on the planet” – giving them a visceral understanding of their place in the world.

The sculpture on that school building offers a “window into another world,” Svigals said, by “offering these different perspectives of the world that include the children.”

Hoyt believes the sculptures that are incorporated into Svigals’ building designs are entirely functional. That is, they play a role in how people feel in those spaces.

“I’m positing that the art work is as functional as any other aspect of the building,” Hoyt said. “This stuff is essential.”

In addition to enriching the architecture, the incorporation of art into a building’s design can only enhance the learning experience itself, which should be a welcome element of any school environment.

Pointing out that people haven’t become less creative over time, Svigals referenced a 2006 TED Talk in which Sir Ken Robinson argued that “all kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. … creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

“There is … a natural entropy in the world,” Svigals said. “What art is is an emphatic reversal of that … instinct.”

My conversations with Svigals and Hoyt have only scratched the surface of a larger examination the Arts Council plans to pursue. To that end, forthcoming editions of The Arts Paper will explore in depth how students are inspired and engaged by Svigals’ thoughtful inclusion of art into his architectural designs, and how those designs speak to and help create a place and sense thereof.

David A. Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper.

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