"New York City's Cool Schools," by Kira L. Gould, AIArchitect,
the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Washington DC, May 1999.

Bigger does not always mean better. It sometimes means innumerable complexities and few clear paths to innovation. Nonetheless, a partnership between two agencies with the largest school system in the country is promoting design excellence.
The light-filled, student-friendly Manhattan Village Academy,
by Beverly Willis, FAIA.
Photo: © Peter Aaron/ ESTO

"You hear many things about the New York City school system these days," says Pamela Loeffelman, AIA, of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer & Associates, "but few of them relate to the extraordinary collaborations between agencies, educators, architects, and others to create special places to learn." The lesson to Loeffelman, who serves as chair of the AIA New York Chapter Architecture for Education Committee, is that the city could create many such success stories.

120,000,000 square feet
New York City schools serve 1.1 million students in more than 1,400 buildings-more than 120 million square feet. From the late 1980s, nearly 150,000 additional students have entered the system, adding pressure at every corner.

"Some $10.9 billion is needed to eliminate overcrowding, make buildings watertight, expand technology initiatives, and upgrade building interiors," according to Rose Diamond, senior director for planning and capital development at the New York City Board of Education's Division of School Facilities. "New capacity requirements derived from current overcrowding and enrollment growth mean that more than 75,000 new seats need to be provided--44,900 of them in new-project construction."

The New York City School Construction Authority (SCA) was created in 1988 as a way to cut bureaucratic red tape by working closely with the Division of School Facilities. The division functions as the SCA's contractual client. The projects' ultimate clients, though, are the superintendents, principals, teachers, and students.

"This can be a challenge in a massive, decentralized school system," says Kenneth Karpel, AIA, SCA director of design. "The SCA, essentially the developer, is responsible for site acquisition, scope, design, construction, and postoccupancy evaluation. In-house staff executes 40 percent of design services, and consultant architects handle the remainder."

Pushing the standards
The vast number of stakeholders involved in the process are off-putting to many firms, and Karpel acknowledges that sometimes the group approach makes it difficult to clarify one vision and let it carry the project to completion. "But on the best projects, multiple stakeholders are an asset," he says. Some firms are also deterred by the multiple standards--information that can be difficult to digest. But "good design is born out of the limitations of a program," Karpel says. "At a Staten Island school that opened in September, the architects embraced, dealt with, and really pushed the standards creatively to generate an innovative design."

Those architects, at Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects LLP, report an overwhelmingly positive experience working with the SCA on three projects. Principal Paul Broches, FAIA, believes that budgets adequate to do good design have helped the SCA assemble "a mandate better than most public agencies I've encountered." The project Karpel cites, P.S. 56, was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The project was programmed and designed in seven months, and the SCA acted as its own construction manager, a fact that made a big difference, Broches says. The school's L-shaped plan separates community spaces (the short leg) and school spaces (the long leg), so the former can operate into the evening. Corridors are treated like village streets; classrooms boast windows "where the life of the classroom is displayed," Broches says. "We wanted to make the public spaces come alive for the students."

A partnering format was used with this project, with all constituents meeting regularly to monitor performance, share goals, and evaluate progress in order to acknowledge successes and problems and work toward early resolution. "This process put an air of commitment in the project that otherwise might not have been present," Broches says. SCA was so pleased with the results that they are trying to adopt the approach more broadly. Mitchell/Giurgola recently adapted the PS 56 design for nearby PS 6. Design was done in just four months.

Simplicity serves success
Karpel also mentions PS 54, a school designed by R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects, as a success story. The 82,000-square-foot, 5-story structure will accommodate 600 students in the Bronx on a tricky site. An emphasis on outdoor play space and light and air inside the building prevailed. This is a project that proves that simple materials, carefully selected, can create a sensitive design. Three colors of brick delineate the volumes and entrance porticoes.

Another complicated Bronx site, where Morrisania Hospital once stood, will be the home for PS/I.S. 235 for 900 students, designed by SCA staff architects. This has a complicated program, since it must accommodate kids of a wider age range than typical schools. According to Mashiyat Ashraf, an SCA architect, "a full-story grade change between these two streets allows two entries of the building to separate the different age population of the school." This project will be completed this summer.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Associates' New York office has several school projects under way, including PS 69, a new pre-kindergarten- though- fifth-grade school for 700 students in Brooklyn. This $27 million project, like many others, is on a fast track to meet the growing system's needs as quickly as possible.

According to Karpel, having architects in charge of the process makes a difference. "Whether we are dealing with consultant architects or in-house architects, our project managers are architects themselves, so we are all talking the same language. There's a common understanding about the value of good design." Karpel dismisses the use of "aesthetics" to characterize such efforts. "Function is not all that's important," he says. "But when you say 'aesthetics,' it sounds like something that's pasted on. The design architects we've been working with are doing something much greater and more integrated than that to take us to the next level of design."

Kira L. Gould is a freelance writer living in New York and a communications associate with Gould Evans Affiliates, a multidisciplinary design firm with offices in Kansas City, Tampa, Phoenix, and Philadelphia.

Architecture Research Institute, Inc.
The Institute is a non-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization,
Incorporated in the State of New York.