Spaces of Distinction: Elite schools as architects of privilege

Year: 2012

Author: Prosser, Howard, Kenway, Jane

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


How do elite schools use space to mobilize, accentuate and safeguard their exclusivity and superiority? When there are major social and political upheavals how do such schools, predictably amongst the 'winners' of such changes, adjust their uses of space? And how, in their employment of space, do they mobilize the senses? We use image from two elite schools in Argentina and South Africa and draw on Lefebvre's (1991) notion of the 'spatial triad', particularly 'spatial practices' to address these questions. These schools signal the flavour of their preferred clientele through their location in expensive, expansive, fastidiously groomed, quiet, uncluttered hillside suburbs well above and well away from the cramped and noisy quarters of the poor where no space can be wasted. The schools' manual workers travel from and return to such places. Largely unnoticed, their long days are devoted to indulging the senses of rich; cooking, cleaning, primping the grounds. In the privileged places we call elite schools, spatial and social distancing happily coincide and ensure a sensual field unspoilt and undisturbed by the bodies, sounds and smells of the abject elsewhere.  Also, campus architecture, design, aesthetics and acoustics are manicured to reflect and provoke tasteful and tangible elite sensibilities. Stately old buildings, elegant gardens, deliberately hushed courtyards with soothing fountains, vast and pristine playing fields, impeccable state-of-the-art theatres, for instance, are solid markers and makers of distinction and entitlement. They feed alumni nostalgia, parental ambitions and student aspirations. They suggest power accrued over time and expressed over space; they even suggest the capacity to control time and space. But in periods of social tumult and transformation such elite affectations, expressions of control and pretentions of detachment feel less solid, less stable. The contrived coincidence of the social and spatial becomes more widely acknowledged as indefensible and as thus more in need of defending by its minority beneficiaries. There is a whiff of anxiety in the air. Barriers come down and go up simultaneously as some previously abjectified students from near and far trickle in and climb up and as security gates and guards fiercely protect the privileged and help fend off their fear.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, Blackwell