Lessons in Design

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Images courtesy of Chris Cooper 

Tucked along Manhattan’s celebrated High Line park, a 205,000-square-foot former warehouse now holds a very different kind of worker: pre-K through 12th-grade students. The building is the first campus for the innovative Avenues: The World School private school organization. Architects Perkins Eastman and interiors studio Bonetti/Kozerski joined forces for the ambitious transformation. Their respective project leads, Christine Schlendorf of Perkins Eastman and Enrico Bonetti of Bonetti/Kozerski, share how they turned yesterday’s industrial facility into the school of tomorrow.

DB: Avenues is a new school model. How does the design of its Manhattan school reflect that? 

Enrico Bonetti: The direction from Avenues was to design a school that would be custom-made to the teaching requirements. A big component of contemporary teaching is the use of technology, already underway, in smaller increments, in other schools. But most of the time technology is added as a retrofit, atop an existing structure based on a 1950s model of education.

In designing Avenues, we tried to start from scratch, repositioning every functional element one by one and cleaning the field of components that are obsolete. For instance, classrooms in most schools are loaded with visual clutter that pollutes an environment that should foster creative learning. We cleaned up the spaces by creating several hidden storage locations and plenty of organized displays. In this respect, only what is supposed to be seen—as a reference, model, or inspiration—is visible, while supplies and other logistics are hidden from view.

DB: What impact does that stream-lined design have on the students? 

EB: A lot of effort went into creating a calm and coherent space. We tried to keep all the details quiet; while every element is there for a specific functional reason we decided not to advertise its role. We are creating the settings for a great education and the architecture should be a supporting actor, not the main attraction.

Avenues’ direction was to have the students spend a little more time outside the classrooms every year. To this end, we created various configurations of public seating spaces. In the simplest layout we have a few desks and stools, in other locations we have armchairs and later banquettes with café style tables, evolving floor by floor into something more elaborate, since students move up the floors of the building as they progress from grade to grade.

DB: How does the design respond to the age of the students?

Christine Schlendorf: Since Avenues is pre-K through 12, we had to compose four different schools underneath one roof. We strived to give each school its own central space by subtracting from the existing historical building. We removed floor slabs in different areas, creating double-story spaces pertinent to each school. This is where students are able to congregate and sit informally with colleagues and teachers. The third-floor cafeteria brings all of the schools together in one unique place: Connected to the main entrance on 10th Avenue by a wide staircase, it doubles as a study common and opens directly to a balcony overlooking the High Line.

DB: How did the High Line and the Manhattan setting impact the design?

CS: The High Line was the inspiration for the grand entry stair connecting the lobby on 10th Avenue to the trees of the High Line at the third floor. The third floor has the tallest floor-to-ceiling height in the building. For this reason, it was the natural choice to locate the school’s dining and common areas. These facilities have views onto the park and access to the building terrace that runs along the High Line. This terrace is the old train platform for the building, which once operated as a wholesale grocery warehouse.

DB: How does the architecture speak to the building’s new use?

CS: Schools need to be built to last, but also built to adapt to changing pedagogies. The design needs to be flexible, allowing spaces to be used differently from year to year to accommodate population growth, curriculum changes, and technological advancements. Schools also need to be durable. Children are active by nature and a school needs to be designed to withstand that type of use. Schools are also public buildings that can serve as the center of the community, and so they want to be inviting, but still secure. Balancing these ideas, which at times can seem at odds with one another, is one of the wonderful challenges of designing schools.

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