The Urban School and How it Adapts to Change

A Q&A with Dattner Architects on designing educational spaces in the urban context.

Brooklyn College’s new graduate school is housed within Steiner Studio’s 25 Washington Avenue building at The Brooklyn Navy Yard. The historic building, built for the Navy that sat empty for decades, was renovated by Dattner Architects and Steiner Studios. Photo by Chris Cooper.

For the past three years Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading Think Tank, a series of discussions with industry leaders on important issues surrounding human-centered design. Recently, Szenasy talked to Dattner Architects and educators about how 21st century schools integrate into urban centers. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, prepared by S.T. White.

Daniel Heuberger AIA, principal, Dattner Architects (DH): We have designed many public schools for New York. The School Construction Authority is one of the highest spending developers in the city right now. Their mission is design equity, such that schools are high quality regardless of their neighborhood. Since many school buildings here are over 100 years old, serving generations of students, and real estate is limited, these project often require creative solutions, including vertical additions and infill, to meet spatial and programmatic needs. We also work with  private K-12 institutions facing the same challenges.

Today we have a panel of educators from different schools in New York City. We’ve been working with Rabbi Beyda from Yeshivah of Flatbush which offers both religious and secular study. Their main building was built in the late 1950s; the new master plan brings it into the 21st century. Jonathan Wacks is dean of the Feirstein Graduate Film School, part of Brooklyn College, but located in a new campus on a working movie studio lot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Adena Dershowitz is the director of digital learning at the Lycée Français whose building was designed ten years ago. Peter Brown is an architect who consults nationally with owners and architects in school programming.

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine (SSS): In this new phase of urban living, designing schools is not just establishing a campus that houses all the needs of the school, but also using the neighborhood for resources and opportunities.

DH: Schools used to be civic landmarks, recognizable neighborhood markers and a source of identity and pride.  New schools tend not to look like that. They are often parts of larger developments, and the exterior isn’t recognizably a school.

Working closely with the Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Steiner Studios,  Dattner Architects designed the Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. The new program includes the facilities necessary for sophisticated digital film production – from early concept to finished product and affords students the opportunity to create in a professional setting. The interior architecture’s black and white palatte was inspired by early film.  The space is activated by the students and colorful moveable furniture. Photo by Chris Cooper.

SSS: How has the new generation of students evolved in the last five or ten years?

Peter Brown, AIA, LEED AP, director, Brain Spaces Inc. (PB): The conversation about learning styles is very robust, so the title “director of digital learning” is a great idea, Adena! Educational approaches are open to transformation. As designers, we are tasked with creating spaces that accommodate the range of learning processes that curricula offer.

SSS: Before we talk about the specifics of the buildings, I’d like to hear Peter talk about “asset maps.” How do you work with a neighborhood by looking at concentric circles of services, such as parks and restaurants?

PB: We look beyond the building to grow beyond the space limitations that can be useful programmatically. What is a 2 or 5 minute walk away? How close is the train station? We can use parks for additional P.E. space. The neighborhood around Yeshivah is across from a street of restaurants.

Rabbi Beyda, principal, Yeshivah of Flatbush (RB): When we visited other schools, we were impressed by their beautiful cafeterias, and wanted the same thing. Then we considered our unique location on Avenue J, where there are about ten Kosher restaurants popular with our student body. We realized that on-campus food service would be redundant, and that not having one would free up a lot of space.

The restaurants do more than feed us. A group of drama students making a playbill asked restaurants to sponsor it. The students are also talking about how to make an app so they can order food ahead of time to save precious minutes in their lunch hour.

Melding with our neighborhood is an important component of the school’s identity. Each year students are required to do 30 hours of community service. For 650 kids to fill that requirement, we need access to soup kitchens, hospitals, daycare centers, etc. The school forms relationships with those places, discussing what we can give them over the course of a year.

The Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema’s two levels at the top of historic 25 Washington at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are joined through a forum amphitheater, creating a spectacular gathering, meeting, and viewing space. Photo by Chris Cooper.

Adena Dershowitz, director of digital learning, Lycee Francais de New York (AD): We expand our physical education program from our own two gyms to nearby parks to enjoy the weather and the Asphalt Green pool. Our sports teams practice on Randall’s Island.

SSS: How do you connect to nature or the outside environment when you’re in the middle of a city? Is the emphasis on natural light?

DH: There is a movement called biophilia, which is relevant in discussions of healthcare facilities and the healing process. In schools, a sense of well-being is important in aiding concentration. Incorporating nature or some sentiments of nature in the urban condition requires creativity. Sometimes it’s just visual, but we are very conscious of daylight. New York City built a couple public schools as experiments with windowless classrooms. It’s a disaster and has not been repeated since.

A good example is at Adena’s school. There is green space in the middle that serves a programmatic purpose, but it also acts as a cloister, an almost surreal patch of green. Yeshivah in Flatbush does not have a lot of exterior space, but we managed to open up the library and the student commons area to the outdoors so you can step outside.

SSS: Let’s talk about a new development in school programs: makerspaces. What are they?

AD: Makerspaces are popping up in educational settings and in communities. They are places where you build all kinds of things, often incorporating coding and 3-D modeling. In our school, it’s open to students in the fourth grade and above. Middle school classes design timekeeping devices. There are robotics club meetings as well as an artist workshop on papercutting. The space accommodates high-tech and low-tech media: a laser cutter, 3-D printers, microcontrollers, plus glue guns, tape, saws, and hardware.

Students start with an idea and end up with a built product. Classes can create a project based on a unit of study. It’s part of our effort to gear learning towards a project-based real world environment, not just tests and papers. They use math to build models and implement technology to support a variety of subjects, like making scale models of the planets.

PB: Another phenomenon I’ve observed is students who hack machines to do something it otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. They figure out how to adapt the machine to their needs, like to build another tool or create a machine to build a specific thing.

AD: We’ve also seen faculty work with our media integrator to design and print a tripod for iPads that we use as teleprompters in the media lab. The makerspace inculcates a culture of making what you need instead of buying it, and looking at the educational environment through the eyes of a design-builder.

Jonathan Wacks, dean, The Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, Brooklyn College (JW): I have a somewhat different view on maker culture.  Interestingly, in the world of filmmaking, the pervasiveness of digital culture has enabled a generation of students to grow up as digital makers. They produce so many films throughout childhood that we’ve become drawn to students coming from a less technologically focused background, who might be unfamiliar with the filmmaking process.

As an idea-driven institution, we look for students who come out of an undergraduate degree maybe in political science, architecture, or art. In filmmaking there can be a strong pull toward equipment, but what do you want to say on screen? Accessible technology has diminished people’s need to think before they shoot and come up with ideas.

Following a multi-year master plan Dattner Architects developed with the Yeshivah of Flatbush, a series of renovations and additions are being undertaken to improve the academic and social environment of the Joel Braverman High School.  One of the key elements of this is an  expanded library, with connections to a new outdoor gathering space – allowing students to study individually or in groups with a strong connection to the environment. Rendering courtesy Dattner Architects.

PB: One educator I work with on a fantastic makerspace created an “ideation room,” where kids define the problem they want to solve before they can go to the next phase. There are any number of solutions, but to what end? What problem do they really want to solve?

SSS: Peter, what innovative elements of workplace design have come into schools? Where do designs for workplaces and schools overlap?

PB: In the broader culture, libraries, media centers, and food service, spaces are changing. Twenty years ago, Barnes & Noble bookstores revolutionized the discussion in school design because it opened up the possibility of having a coffee and reading a book at the same time. Retail culture altered people’s expectations, and changed the conversation with high school librarians about allowing lunch in the library.

At Yeshivah, we looked at how different areas could be co-linked, not just co-located. Creating a flow between the religious study area, library, and cafe would make the spaces more meaningful than keeping them distinct.

RB: Like employees, students deal with stress. We heard feedback from our students about how to reduce the stress of an intense schedule. They didn’t want to change the start or end times of the day, but preferred more breaks throughout the day, so we took that into consideration in the design.  We stepped back from solely focusing on the classrooms.

SSS: High school students love hanging out. Where do they do that in urban schools?

AD: At the Lycée there are spaces that are designed and then spaces students occupy. The most desirable space for our middle school students is under the grand staircase. I doubt that was part of the design, but the students huddle under the grand staircase sitting in circles and it’s fascinating to me. Students make their own hangout spaces. They sit in corners, and find places near the lockers.

RB: That was a huge part of what we designed for. The student commons is a basic common area with different ways for students to sit and congregate. It’s also considered one of the main arteries of the school.  One of the things we looked at was our use of the library. Our kids love our library. It’s about 2,500 square feet right now and the kids use it intensively. It’s always full.

One interesting moment was when our board said, “Get rid of the books. We don’t need books. No one’s going to need books in the future.” Our librarian said, “Not so fast. Let me show you how many books get taken out over the course of the year.” A huge percentage of a collection of 25,000 books were taken out over the course of a year. The kids are still using books. They love the library for reading, for working, and socializing.

So when we were designing the new building we said, “This is a strength, so let’s build on it.”  I think it’s around 6,500 square feet, two floors with breakout rooms. We have our open house in a couple of weeks and my sell for why to come to the school is the people. The productive and social spaces facilitate that. We want prospective students’ reaction to be, “I can see myself belonging here.”

The new lobby is a secure and welcoming space, designed to allow for informal gatherings of students and faculty. Rendering courtesy Dattner Architects.

DH: Architects know that at parties, at a certain time of night, everybody ends up in the kitchen. That’s the kind of space we want to design. At Yeshivah, it was called the student commons. We tried to marry these types of congregating spaces, which are spontaneous and voluntary.  Many features are meant to encourage this without seeming obvious.

For example, one corridor has no windows, but we bring in daylight through skylights. They work with the architecture to form a series of individual rooms. The seating area is off to the side, so like Adena’s staircase, the kids will find a niche that is more to their scale.

There is competition for space, which means that all spaces have to do several things. The word “multipurpose” conjures a space that doesn’t do anything properly. Maybe the word flexible is better. Over-programming is a given because schools will find uses everywhere, many of which we can’t even begin to anticipate.

The new 3-story addition is connected to the renovated high school through a sky lit passageway, or student commons, the heart of the new campus. Rendering courtesy Dattner Architects.

SSS: How do concerns for sustainability and security add to the constraints of designing a school?

DH: Sustainability doesn’t add any constraints because the marketplace has met the demand for healthy or recycled products. A LEED Silver building is fairly high performing, and the sustainable features amount to 2 or 3% of the cost, which probably decreases every year. Public schools are designed to their own internal green standards based on LEED. Sustainable design is now part of the design culture.

RB: As a prominent Jewish faith school, security is a concern for us. There have been instances of people taking pictures of our school. We’ve consulted with security organizations which influenced how we designed the entrances and exits.

PB: It’s a real challenge to have an open, inviting, welcoming culture but also provide a safe and secure environment. Both are paramount to successful school design.

Susan S. Szenasy and panelists take a question from the audience. Photo by Ari Burling.

Panelists included:
Rabbi Beyda, Principal, Yeshivah of Flatbush

Peter Brown, AIA, LEED AP, Director, Brain Spaces Inc.
Adena Dershowitz, Director of Digital Learning, Lycee Francais de New York
Daniel Heuberger AIA, Principal, Dattner Architects
Jonathan Wacks, Dean, The Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, Brooklyn College

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine.

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with DuPont Surfaces, KI, Sunbrella, Teknion, USGBC.


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