May 24, 2017
4|MATIV and BFDO Architects’ New Preschool a “Home Away from Home”
The design of an innovative Brooklyn preschool’s new digs imbues the classroom with a domestic warmth.
The word development in relationship to New York City doesn’t conjure up warm visions of altruism triumphing over profit: Real estate can be a brute instrument here, even when there are positive side effects.
So to find the Maple Street School, a cooperative preschool, on the sunlit second floor of the Parkline, a 24-story rental tower in Brooklyn’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood—rather than a doctor’s office or retail—is heartening. “It was very important to me to find a user that would enhance the neighborhood,” says Alison Novak, a principal at the Hudson Companies, the developer of the Parkline.
Founded by a group of parents in 1978, Maple Street has been in the neighborhood since 2001. With a long waiting list, the school wanted to open a second location but had trouble finding the right space. Designed by Marvel Architects, the LEED Gold Parkline was the perfect match.
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Design architects (and next-door neighbors) Alexandra Barker and Priya Patel won over Maple Street and Hudson with a proposal that approached the new space from the perspective of its true clients: kids, ages two through six. Barker and Patel were inspired by Maple Street’s curriculum, which connects children’s interests and curiosity with educational content, and treats the school as a home away from home. “The aesthetic was to use warm light wood, pops of color, and fun shapes, because we knew that the kids’ artwork would decorate the space,” says Patel.
Barker, who runs BFDO Architects, has a background in residential and retail design, while Patel spent 16 years designing schools before founding her architecture firm 4|MATIV with Esther Beke. (Marvel was an important third party, serving as architect of record.)
To fulfill Maple Street’s brief, the architects conceived three interconnected classrooms that all lead out into a multifunctional common area with a small kitchen housed in a food-truck-like pod. “Café time” is an important Maple Street School morning ritual, but the “truck” and its stabilized counter can also be used as a backdrop for performances or artwork.
Inside, Barker and Patel clad the multipurpose room and the pocket doors of the classrooms in maple, as a nod to the school’s name and for its natural warmth. The architects designed organically shaped, color-edged windows in the doors at both kids’ and adults’ heights. The entry to the school features a maple pegboard filled with colorful pegs to occupy students while their parents take care of admin needs.
Visibility is key in a preschool, both for teachers and for students, especially when it comes to bathrooms; potty training and personal hygiene are part of the curriculum. At Maple Street, Barker and Patel made the bathrooms a central part of the architecture of the classrooms, positioning two half-walled stalls in between them. Both pool-blue porcelain-tiled bathrooms have two interconnected sinks, one of which cantilevers out over the classroom floor outside the stall, making for a fun water feature and easy cleanup after meals and projects. “It’s a space that you don’t think of being a design element in an institutional context, but it’s so important in this age group,” says Barker of the bathrooms.
Another request from the school was for outdoor space. Here, Patel and Barker covered a roof deck with rubber tiles in a pixelated pattern. Perforated aluminum fencing provides a safe and visually appealing barrier around the exposed part of the deck, while allowing views out. School director Wendy Cole says that the roof has been used to its full capacity in all seasons— even for stargazing in the winter.
Maple Street now serves 112 children per day (60 in the new space), double what it was previously serving with its one location. The second space has also expanded the school’s capacity to provide an after-school drop-in program, for a total enrollment of 179 children.
For Barker, the project was an eyeopener. “It just made me think about the huge potential there is for designing educational spaces,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about having super big budgets, but the moments you put your energy into that reinforce the curriculum and agenda.”
Novak, meanwhile, fell in love with Maple Street while ushering the school into the Parkline. She ended up sending her daughter there: “I like to tell her Mommy built her school.”
If you liked this article, you may enjoy learning about Riverdale Country School’s campus design experiment.