Architectures of Hiding

Dora Vanette

Happy Schools: The Sven Lokrantz School and the Architecture of Special Education

In the first half of the twentieth century, the American family of a disabled child was met with two options: to care for the child at home or to place them in a state residential institution, away from the public eye. In the 1950s, the special education school—positioned midway between the state institution and community integration of disabled children—became an increasingly appealing option for many parents. The special education school sprang from political and educational policies that sought to extend essential rights to a previously ignored population that was gaining increasing visibility. However, behind the seemingly progressive discourse of special education lay hidden anxieties about upholding the idealized nuclear family and protecting a coherent, healthful national body.

The Sven Lokrantz School in Los Angeles, CA, designed by Sidney Eisenshtat in 1961, was envisioned as the crown jewel of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the United States. Formally, the exterior of Sven Lokrantz fits inconspicuously into the surrounding community, presenting an image of aspirational suburban development. The architectural style of Mid-century Modernism offered the morphology through which Eisenshtat expressed ideals of rehabilitation and happiness. The open, airy classrooms took cues from the period’s progressive pedagogies and wellness ideologies, linking communion with the natural world with intellectual and physical development. In contrast, the innermost therapy room, placed at the center of the building but detached from the rest of the school, sought to contain, study, and abolish disability in a hospital-like, institutional setting. Lokrantz oscillated between rehabilitation and containment, care and control, merging the imperative of universal human rights with underlying anxieties about concealing and eliminating bodies that did not conform to convention. By joining together architecture history with disability studies it is possible to showcase how architecture became complicit in defining and representing disability and how, through the special education school of the postwar United States, the cultural imaginary of disability was given material form.

Keywords: disability, mid-century modernism, California, school architecture

DORA VANETTE is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History, University of Southern California, and a participant in USC’s Visual Studies Graduate Certificate. She works on twentieth-century design and architecture, with a focus on material culture of childhood and old age. Prior to starting at USC, she was a lecturer in design and architecture history at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, New York. She has designed lectures and courses for museums and design organizations, served as Managing Editor of Plot(s) Journal of Design Studies, and has written for academic journals and design publishers including the Journal of Design History and Phaidon Press. She holds MA degrees in History of Art and Education from the University of Zagreb, Croatia, and Design Studies from the Parsons School of Design, New York.