"Visionaries in Exile - NYC's Small School Movement,"



This headline introduces the cover page story from the September 1994 issue of Metropolis magazine, which in part compares New York City Board of Education's traditional corridor plan with Beverly Willis's innovative Manhattan Village Academy Locus Plan Concept, and discusses other extant examples of "small schools" in New York City. The following article, "One Size Fits None," was written by Glenn Thrush: For full article contact Metropolis Magazine.

(Editor's Note: This is an example of how ARI, as a non-profit, can make a difference. A non profit organization has privileged access to another non-profit by being able to offer highly skilled, professional and financially disinterested services.

"One Size Fits None," by Glenn Thrush, Metropolis Magazine, September 1994.

Just as one type of boot was made to fit all in the former Soviet Union, so too must one design fit all schools at the New York City Board of Education's architecture department. When principal Mary Butz set out to establish her new, small high school in a Chelsea loft building early this year, Board of Ed bureaucrats handed her a set of blueprints that were too bland, thoughtless, and ill-suited to even be described as utilitarian. Butz, stunned and despondent, encountered a pack of design defects she perceived would haunt her school from the day it opened: a rat's maze of corridors, a dank fire-exit stairwell custom made for knife fights, and tiny classrooms fit to be holding pens in a county jail.

"I had no choice - you submit your plan and they spit out the design," says Butz, who will open the new Manhattan Village Academy this fall. "Response to my suggestions was minimal - hostile was more like it."

In fairness, Board of Ed architects rarely have much cause to summon their design muses. They're mostly accustomed to drawing up administrative annexes and add-on rafts of classrooms. But as more small schools spring up in rental properties around the city, the demands on their imagination are increasing. What Butz and other small school founders need is a design partner: someone who will take the time to create schools according to idiosyncratic specifications.

With the Board's blueprint crinkled in her fist, Butz turned to Beverly Willis, a New York-based architect whom she knew to be interested in small schools design. Willis called an immediate face-to-face meeting, where Butz outlined her requirements for the space. Willis produced a preliminary plan to challenge the Board of Ed's. (See illustration)

Floor Plan "Educators don't really think like architects, and architects hardly ever think like educators," says Willis.

In Willis' plan, her classrooms are formed in a quartet of clusters spaced over the building's two floors - one each for grades nine through 12. Unlike standard school floor plans, which link classrooms by corridors in an assembly-line array, Willis' rooms are organized in an L-shaped suite of three or four connected classrooms. The open space is bounded by a huge, crescent-shaped bench on which students can read, work quietly, or hang out. "You can see what your kids are doing at all times from any part of the cluster," explains Butz, who left a high-paying policy research job in Washington to assume her current post. "In a small school, teachers are given a lot more responsibilities, so there's no way I'm going to give them the added responsibility of being security guards. I need design to help alleviate the discipline concerns."

Floor plan Willis also attacked the notion that a rented-space school need to look as though it could be de-camped, like an army field hospital, at a moment's notice. She redrafted the Board of Ed's humble design for the entrance of the building - which was to be located at a freight exit in the rear, separate from other tenants. Rejecting the "backdoor" treatment, she created a grand high school facade in miniature. Just inside the doors, 18" deep steps ascend to a spiral staircase, leading to the school's second-floor lobby.

This practice of exalting space that other designers give short shrift to goes back a long way with Willis. In the 1950s, the Army awarded her a commission to rebuild a bombed out men's club in Pearl Harbor. The officer in charge of the project wanted bolted stools and a sturdy, plain wooden bar so that nothing would have to be replaced after the soldiers got down to the obligatory business of brawling. Surprising her colleague, Willis championed a design that was a virtual replica of the carpeted, glass-accoutered salon she had previously completed for the nearby officers' club. Appealing to a sympathetic general, she prevailed. "When it opened, the officers were shocked," Willis recalls. "An amazing thing happened - the guys started wearing ties. They lowered their voices. Basically, they responded to the trust the design invested in their behavior."

Willis believes that high school students should be treated like officers, too. Reform guru Deborah Meier was so impressed by the school design, she plans to use it as a template for the raw spaces the Board of Ed will be putting its new smaller schools into.


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