January 1, 1970
Rockwell Group Blue School
Every classroom in the new Blue School has its own, brightly-colored stage—or at least, I thought they were stages. The nomenclature varied, depending on whom I asked: architect David Rockwell calls them “urban porches” while Ashley Hughes, the school’s director of operations, simply referred to them as “niches.” In any case, these variegated platforms are simple […]
Every classroom in the new Blue School has its own, brightly-colored stage—or at least, I thought they were stages. The nomenclature varied, depending on whom I asked: architect David Rockwell calls them “urban porches” while Ashley Hughes, the school’s director of operations, simply referred to them as “niches.” In any case, these variegated platforms are simple but adaptable classroom elements: they can be used for group work, presentations, or quiet individual reading. “Teachers will think of ways to use [the platforms], but the idea behind it…is just that it adds that layer of flexibility for different types of instruction,” says Hughes. The stages/corners/niches are indicative of a thoughtful, back-to-basics approach that New York City–based Rockwell Group for the grades four-through-eight school.
This wasn’t the first time Rockwell Group had worked with the Blue School, a private school that prides itself with its progressive approach to education—one that promotes self-expression, play, activism, as well as an almost meta awareness among students of the teaching process itself. In 2010, the school’s cofounder Matt Goldman sought out Rockwell after learning about the architect’s Imagination Playground system; both Goldman and Rockwell shared an enthusiasm for the importance of play in education. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: the same year Goldman and Rockwell connected, the latter commissioned the former’s firm to adapt an existing structure to house the school’s first purpose-designed school. (Previously, the Blue School’s classrooms had been spread throughout several buildings.) In 2011, Rockwell Group completed the renovation of the school’s Manhattan building, a Polshek Partnership–designed structure near the South Street Seaport that previously housed a religious institute. However, with its attendance burgeoning and possessing little room for its future middle-school-grade students, the burgeoning Blue School opted to adapt another structure nearby—former medical offices in the Financial District—again tapping Rockwell Group.
While the architects were familiar with the school and its values, this expansion posed fresh challenges: How could the space be best adapted to these older students needs? What could be improved from the last school? Rockwell Group embarked on interviews with students and teachers headed to the new expansion, as well as administrators and select parents. Students had specific demands for a playground and gymnasium, the latter two of which the architects could provide. “Kids certainly want more of a sense of independence in this middle-school range,” says Rockwell, and the firm responded with personal lockers and hallway benches for more personal, private student hang-outs. Teachers wanted closed-off offices for solo work, as well as open workstations where students could easily find them outside regular classroom sessions.
Both students and teachers were united on a particular point: in the old building, the arts studio was a sunlit penthouse, but the STEM room was tucked away. Both groups wanted these classrooms adjacent in the new school, a request Rockwell was happy to grant: the two rooms are side-by-side, with sliding panels that can divide their programming or combine them for combined art/STEM classes. (For example: one lesson involves building robots and circuitry paired with studies on the history of electricity; another uses art and STEM tools to build model cities.)
However, the STEM room and studio are just the start to the school’s amenities. The ground floor features perhaps the most important shared space: the ground-floor common area, a TKTK-square-foot gathering space that features multiple seating options, a kitchen, and LED-lit garden planters, the latter of which was a collaboration with Brooklyn Grange. (Growing food in the planters will be used in the school curricula; the resulting produce will be used in school meals as well.) “The cafeteria really is like living room of the project,” says Rockwell, and its street-adjacent location makes its the school’s social nexus. That need for informal gathering spaces was an essential takeaway from the school’s first iteration: “People want to perch, which is sort of in-between standing and sitting for a full meeting,” he says, adding that the common area furnishes multiple seating options, from TKTK to TKTK.
CAPTION: Other amenities include a below-ground gymnasium that doubles as an assembly space. Adjacent the gym is a music/dance studio as well as a large flexible space that can serve as apre-event lobby or, thanks to a set of angular foam furniture, a de facto playground.
The emphasis on multiple seating options certainly recalls contemporary trends in open offices, a comparison that the school embraces. “There’s this whole concept of giving students multiple ways to sit down, multiple ways to be in the space,” says Goldman. Like employees in the modern creative office, students are expected to find the workspace that best suits the task at hand. “Collaboration is one of the pillars of [the] Blue School, so the idea that the environment can actually support a collaborative feel collaborative environment,” adds Goldman, is essential. Nowhere is this idea more evident than the school’s library, which features ample options, from cushions to lay down upon, to a large communal work table and personal reading niches. (Like any high-end office, the library features Maharam fabrics, Rockwell-designed Knoll furniture, and custom millwork.)
The classrooms don’t necessarily feature the same diversity of workstation options, but they do have a different kind of flexibility: custom-designed desks that can be easily reconfigured for multiple classroom formats. Their irregular trapezoid shapes make let them configure for multiple group working arrangements, such as TKTKTK. A whiteboard, projector, and, of course, the colorful niches mean that teacher and students will have a multiple ways of working in one room: “I’m really excited about those classrooms and I can’t wait to see how that unfolds and lives,” says Hughes
The school’s design is really predicated on the idea that teachers and students will find their own ways to use the space. “It has, I guess, been the through-line of our work as a studio, that places where people gather together in some way or another are collaborative,” says Rockwell. That position is reflected in one more way, one that’s both obvious and subtle: color. The school’s hues aren’t blazing primaries, but rather the kind you’d see in an adult setting. “The use of color is something that I think we were interested in doing in a way that was not child-like and wasn’t sort of speaking down to kids, says Rockwell. “Color is used in a way that I think just makes the whole environment feel brighter and more optimistic.”
Caption: Rockwell lucked out in that the former medical offices were cut-off from the wider building, possessing their own distinct access and egress points, a fact that smoothed construction and school security greatly.
Caption: David Rockwell: “The use of color is something that I think we were interested in doing in a way that was not child-like and wasn’t sort of speaking down to kids, but color is used in a way that I think just makes the whole environment feel brighter and more optimistic.”
Caption: David Rockwell: “One of the things we learned is that the entire school ultimate is going to be a kind of gallery, so we might as well build that in where we can. They’re constantly displaying work, so we found many ways to make that easier to do here.”
Caption: Michael Fisher on the pre-performance lobby: “Then during the day, all those blue blocks get strewn around, and kids are draped all over them. The kids are at that point, in charge of making the space a flexible space, suited to whatever they’re doing.”
Caption: Library, Dot Dash
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