The Architecture of Loss: How to Redesign After a School Shooting

How a building can pay homage to the past while helping people to forget it

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/The Atlantic

Good architects strive to balance design and function while listening closely to a client’s emotional needs for the space. Public projects often have the added layers of bureaucratic paperwork,  media scrutiny, and community outreach. But rebuilding a school after a shooting presents a unique kaleidoscope of intense feelings. Architects must create an environment that not only promotes learning, but also helps the students—and their towns—heal from tragedy.

Design teams face the monumental task of simultaneously honoring the victims and moving into the future—building both for the survivors and the generations who come after a shooting.  On the one hand, these schools are hallowed ground. On the other, kids need to be kids in classrooms and cafeterias and shouldn’t be constantly reminded of the trauma. Above all, students and their families need to feel secure— but not so secure that it overwhelms children’s daily sense of normalcy. Whether they like it or not, architects are branching out beyond the realm of planning and design and are entering national discussions about school safety.

While America is no stranger to school shootings, the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, stand out. The 1999 incident at Columbine—in which two students murdered 12 of their classmates and a teacher—was the first school massacre that played out on television in real time. The image of those teenagers, hands in the air as they ran from their school,  is seared in many adult minds. Thirteen years later, the Sandy Hook massacre—the second deadliest U.S. school shooting after the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech—took the lives of particularly helpless victims: 20 children, ages 6 and 7. Both Columbine and Sandy Hook have become synonyms for gun violence at American schools. Politicians talk about preventing another Columbine or Sandy Hook, as do parents and teachers when they discuss lockdown drills.

But the Columbine and Sandy Hook communities have taken different approaches to rebuilding their schools and commemorating  those who were lost. The latter  intends to construct a new structure from the ground-up; the former has, over the years, gradually weaved its tragic history into the daily life of the institution. Yet both schools illustrate how architecture and design can begin the process of healing.

In late October, nearly two years after the shooting and once officials decided to demolish the building where the murders occurred, Newtown broke ground on a new elementary school serving children in prekindergarten through grade four. This school will sit on the same property as its predecessor, but it won’t overlap the original footprint; instead, it is set off to the side. Patricia Llodra, who heads Newtown’s government board, doesn’t want the school or the land on which the original building stood to be a memorial. "It wasn’t appropriate to have a formal memorial at an elementary school,"explained Llodra, who’s lived in the community since 1970 and once taught in Sandy Hook’s original building. "We want to create a safe, welcoming, and transparent place for students and staff, and that isn’t consistent with creating open, public space." A special commission is tasked with determining the best way to formally commemorate those lost, though it hasn’t yet reached any conclusions as to what it will entail.  (The official memorial for Columbine didn’t open until eight years after the incident).

The state of Connecticut set aside $50 million to build the new Sandy Hook school. After receiving 17 design proposals, Newtown selected the New Haven-based Svigals + Partners—an architecture firm known for designing university buildings and medical research labs in New England, as well as high-end residences, including in the early '90s, Rolling Stones musician Keith Richards’s Connecticut home.

A perspective rendering of Sandy Hook's courtyard (Svigals + Partners)

"For any school project you try to listen well to the needs and desires of the community," explained, Svigals + Partners architect and Sandy Hook project manager, Julia McFadden. "But in a situation like this, you are certainly trying respond at a more profound or deeper level, because there is an extra level of concern and sensitivity for everyone involved in the process. It’s always there in the back of your mind—the reasons for rebuilding this school are colored by tragedy."

Understandably, the Sandy Hook community still has raw emotions about school safety. And the architects have tried to balance those sentiments with the practical and aesthetic needs of a school, implementing state-of-the-art security features that are unobtrusive, in some cases hidden to the naked eye. The design includes  features that buffer students from the outside without bombarding them with safeguards. For example, the site plan includes a bioswale, or "rain garden," sitting between the new building and the parking lot. On architectural renderings, the area looks like a shallow moat with stones in front of the school and acts as a first line of defense, guarding children if someone were to enter the property through one of the three entrances. It also harnesses natural resources and serves educational purposes. "The bioswale does triple duty," McFadden explained. "Yes, it ends up being an added security feature, but it also is a learning tool for children in front of the school about how water works and how we can mitigate pollutants that we contribute to our environment. The bioswale filters water by collecting rain from the roof that funnels into the garden plants and then goes into the aquifer."

Indeed, the structure includes an array of features designed to optimize security while retaining the area’s small-town feel. From the building’s proximity to the forest to the orientation of administrators’ offices toward the front of the campus, the new structure entails a natural surveillance system that blends into the school’s idyllic setting. "We want children and parents to feel like they are in this wonderful place of learning, surrounded by these wetlands and beautiful views," McFadden said, "not heading off to a space that feels oppressive."

The technology is subtle but ubiquitous, Llodra said. The building, for example, is "hardened," featuring glass that’s nearly bulletproof so windows can’t shatter completely. And there is a "sally port," or double entry, that prevents visitors from coming on campus without someone admitting them to the school. Whether or not these features would be effective in preventing a repeat incident—the front door of Sandy Hook was reportedly locked at the time of the massacre, and the gunman was said to have used an assault weapon to shoot an entrance into the building—together they contribute to a comprehensive security system whose objective is as practical as it is symbolic. And after all, every safety feature could, theoretically, fail unless teachers and staff follow the appropriate protocol, according to Llodra. "Ultimately, the bottom line is, all the design innovation in the world only works if people are on board, following the procedures every day to keep everyone safe," Llodra said.

Unlike Columbine, Sandy Hook’s shootings occurred in the middle of the school year, in December. The Colorado shooting happened in April.  Students had just a few weeks left of school before the summer and, after the incident, were bussed to the nearby Chatfield High School to complete the semester. Columbine’s principal at the time, Frank DeAngelis, who retired last June, recalls how strongly people felt about returning to the same building four months later. "I got input from parents who lost children and survivors who felt it was very important that we go back to our school," DeAngelis said. "I heard over and over again, ‘Mr. De, if we don’t go back to Columbine, the killers won.’ I received input from as many stakeholders as possible: parents of the students killed and injured, students, staff members, people in the community at large." He relates his students’ emotional reaction to the massacre to the post-9/11 rallying cry, "We will rebuild the towers."

So, over that summer, with the $1.2 million insurance claim proceeds it received, Columbine replaced hallway carpets that had been stained with blood, repainted walls and ceilings, installed new tables and chairs in the cafeteria—and switched the school’s alarm system so students would never have to hear the same sound again. The school also decided to remove Chinese food from the lunch rotation the following year because it was served on the day of the tragedy and the smell would be traumatizing.

A rendering of Sandy Hook's lobby (Svigals + Partners)

However, the library, where so much of the violence occurred, was still an official crime scene when students began the next school year and, ultimately, the community felt it was too sacred a space to simply remodel. Families and educators felt that, in order to honor the dead and move forward, it had to be demolished entirely. In the first phase of the school’s renovation, the library’s concrete floor—also the ceiling of the cafeteria—was removed to create a two-story atrium, with 13 hanging clouds to symbolize the 12 students and teacher who lost their lives. In the second phase, one year after the shootings, architects designed a new space—the Hope Columbine Memorial Library—that extends from the existing building, faces the mountain, and features a  wall with the names of the victims etched in stone. In 2007, the town of Littleton, Colorado, dedicated an official Columbine Memorial.

Over the past decade, people have called DeAngelis for advice when there’s a school shooting. Most recently, he spoke with Portland-area staff members after a student opened fire, killing another classmate, at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon. "I don’t tell them what they should do, if they should return to their school," DeAngelis said. "I can only say, you need to listen to your community—your students, your parents—and hear what they want and what works for them."

The reality is, trauma does lead to innovation in architecture and design. Many technological improvements and policy changes, for instance, have come after tornado devastation. Erika Doss, an American Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of "Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America," has studied the relationship between tragedy and architectural creativity. Experiences such as those at Sandy Hook and Columbine, she said, should inform school design moving forward, but America shouldn’t wait for tragedy to build better schools: "It’s great that these little kids get a new building and security features, but what about all the other children across the country who have to go to the same, run-down schools and deal with the same daily, safety concerns? We need better buildings for all students, as a matter of equity in American education."

When it comes to the architecture of loss, there are no right answers and there is no playbook, according to Barry Svigals, founding and managing partner of the firm designing Sandy Hook’s new school. "Architecture plays a role, but it’s not a panacea," he said. "We go into impoverished architecture and schools and we see how resilient people are. We can only create the circumstances for meaningful engagement. It’s the teachers and the students who make it joyful."

Disclosure: I was a high-school intern with the firm.