Making it Readable

Nov. 1, 2006
Legibility is an essential component of education facility design.

When my daughter was 10 years old, she left the comfort of her elementary school for the unfamiliar territory of the middle/high school building — a crazy quilt of pieces from the 1910s, 1930s, 1960s and 1970s. She was terrified and wondered how she ever would find her classroom, her locker or the restroom.

Her fears were reasonable. Students must be able to find their way through a school, and the building must be designed to help them.

In 1989, I visited the public high school in Scarsdale, N.Y. It was an enormous building — 230,000 square feet of incremental expansions that had been constructed over 80 years. Figuring out how to enter was impossible; it had 10 or 12 separate entrances. Inside, the array of finishes, surfaces and subliminal cues to navigation were mind-boggling. The building had sheet-rock walls, brick walls, fabric walls and walls of plywood paneling. Floors were rubber, vinyl, carpeted or terrazzo. Some areas had high plaster ceilings with old-fashioned pendant lighting; other spaces had lower acoustical tile ceilings and recessed fluorescent lighting. What paths led where? Just a look at the corridors was enough to confuse anyone.

To function well, a school building must be legible. Students, staff and visitors should be able to read it clearly as it explains itself — not with words on signs, but with intuitive signals that tell people where they are. Many school buildings are not at all legible. When people enter, they have no instinctive sense of where they are or which way to turn to get where they're going. They are lost, not just within the walls of the building itself, but often within the larger setting of the building — the school campus.

At Scarsdale High School, in each of the main architectural upgrades and in countless informal changes, architects paid no attention to what went before. When designers embraced Modernism after World War II, architects consistently ignored the ideas, motifs and finishes of earlier designers. But even architects of the 1930s, who designed in an eclectic style — Gothic Revival — ignored the work of the architects of the 1910s, who used another eclectic style — Georgian Revival.

Lost in translation

Legibility is concerned not only with stylistic consistency, but also with other design factors that help make a building understandable. Reconfigured interiors and multiple additions can create confusing paths. Illogical assortments of materials, finishes and colors compound the confusion. Rambling networks of corridors, stairways, and spaces arranged without clear hierarchies are difficult to comprehend.

Hierarchy refers to relative levels of importance; some things are more important than others. For example, a main entry is more important than a corridor. A great connecting stair is more important than a fire stair. This may seem simple, yet the idea of hierarchy often is ignored. If every finish is identical, every ceiling height the same, every staircase alike, then the user of a building gets no sense that he or she has moved from a side street to a main boulevard, or from a little courtyard to the main square.

Outside awareness — looking through windows that provide views to the outside — is another factor in legibility. A view of the outside helps orient people within a building, and absence of outside awareness can confuse them quickly. Using single-loaded corridors with windows on one side and using windows at important places are common ways to provide outside awareness.

The principles of legibility are well-established. Sever Hall at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. It was completed in 1880 and survives essentially unaltered. Visitors enter the building through a great Romanesque archway, and directly in front of them, lighted by windows, is an open ceremonial stair that provides access to all floors of the building. To the left and right are double-loaded corridors that serve classrooms and offices. At each end of the corridor are large lecture rooms. The doors to these rooms are plainly visible from the central entry point. There is a clear and consistent language of materials and finishes, and the hierarchical difference between the point of entry and grand stair in comparison to the corridors is instantly apparent.

White Hall, completed in 1869, is the second oldest building on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. It was designed as an elongated rectangle with two residence-hall wings flanking a central classroom wing; it had six virtually identical entries. With many modifications over 135 years, the interior became a hodgepodge of disconnected, misaligned spaces and confusing corridors.

In 2002, a new building was constructed within the shell of the original. It is based on a simple diagram similar to Sever Hall. An atrium in the central bay overlooks the Arts Quadrangle, and double-loaded corridors on the upper levels lead to both ends of the building from that atrium. On the first floor, the corridors are single-loaded with windows and views open to the Arts Quadrangle. Even the fire stairs at each end of the building have windows that overlook the quadrangle. The consistent language harks back to the motifs and finishes of the 1860s, but more important, the hierarchy and the outside awareness tell the story clearly.

Even a new building can have legibility problems. Blandness — a common problem — can be numbing; monotonous finishes, no changes in scale and endless repetition all help create an environment that can be illegible. The most exciting new spaces also can be difficult to navigate if they neglect hierarchies or incorporate unclear circulation patterns.

The Early Years Building at the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Mo., was designed and scaled specifically for preschoolers. The building, which opened in 1999, is organized by the simplest device — a central courtyard surrounded by single-loaded corridors. The window sills and glass in the doors are low so small children can see from place to place and see through the corridor windows into the courtyard. Opposite the corridor windows are the classroom doors. Directional clarity in the corridors is strengthened through repetitive elements, such as floor patterns, window patterns, regularly occurring stone pillars and wood trim details. Even the big spaces — the two entry foyers and the multipurpose room — are easy to find.

Overlooking the obvious

The basics of legibility may seem obvious, but often they are ignored:

  • A school is for students, faculty and staff, and the general public. Each group should be able to find its way around the building. The students are most important, and both the obvious and the subliminal clues should tell them about what is important.

  • The patterns of movement in a building should be simple and logical. These patterns can be made clearer with finishes and other clues.

  • The circulation spaces in a building should be hierarchical. Users respond intuitively as they move from one hierarchical level to the next.

  • Outside awareness helps the users understand where they are.

Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, is senior partner and design head of Peter Gisolfi Associates, an architecture firm in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.



The year that Sever Hall at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., was completed. A good example of legibility, the building stands today virtually unaltered from its original design.

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