Alternative Learning Spaces in New York City

Children’s educational experiences in New York City and the spaces that accommodate them are becoming increasingly diverse. Large monolithic schools are being broken down into smaller, more differentiated administrative and physical units. Locations for additional classrooms, for play yards and for new facilities within existing schools are becoming ever more creative as available space dwindles. And proposed locations for new urban schools are becoming more unexpected as land with appropriate zoning becomes more expensive and difficult to find.

In our work with the New York Public School System, Macrae-Gibson Architects has encountered many of these problems and developed a variety of solutions. In the following six projects I would like to give some examples of how to make architecture out of abandoned, unused or under-used spaces. These spaces are often unusual, and can lend themselves to alternative learning spaces that look at education in new ways.

Miniature Manhattan

A rooftop of PS 40 in Manhattan was the location for a new K-5 play yard. Built at the time of the 9/11 disaster, it provided a means for the children to express their anxiety and confusion about tall buildings during the design process. The play equipment and roof spaces were developed as became friendly and accessible versions of well-known tall buildings and urban places. The play yard helped to make the city as a whole (visible from the roof with its real world tall buildings) seem less threatening. The buildings are used for classes about the history of New York and its buildings and people. Plus, it’s a lot of fun!

Aerial Courtyard

Truman High School is part of the Northeast Bronx Education Park, a campus of six buildings at Coop City. The central building — the high school — is a very large rectangular building built around a central void. Unfortunately, this space cannot be accessed from the school and is unused, forming the roof over various facilities. To ease the circulation problems caused by excessively long corridors without windows, a series of“bridge corridors” will connect across the void. Lockers will be taken out of the interior perimeter and relocated in the bridges, freeing up room for eight additional classrooms. The aerial courtyard created by the bridges will give the school a new sense of social and physical wholeness.

Athletics Center

The plaza deck between Truman High School and the other buildings of the campus is a large flat space that has been gated, locked and unused for many years, despite the lack of open space for physical activity throughout the campus. Our roof structure is light and airy to contrast with the over-heavy and imposing surrounding buildings. It provides 40,000 sq. ft. of covered area for basketball courts and bleacher seating for students. The structure can be used either for athletic facilities or for large-scale outdoor events. It takes a barren space and transforms it into a new ceremonial campus center.

Water World

The 1925 swimming pool at PS 70, adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway, had been abandoned for 15 years, and was in a state of near collapse surrounded by emergency shoring. The facility for K-5 students is currently under construction and will be a skylit space in the center of the U-shaped building. Protected from noise by the enclosing arms of the building, it forms an oasis of color and calm in the gritty urban context. The facility will provide classes for the handicapped, for whom water can be a uniquely empowering medium, as well as programs to help combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. We recently completed a similar facility at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. Early Learning

Our new 125-seat Early Learning Center at PS 234 in lower Manhattan will be completed in early 2007. Proving that school facilities can be built almost anywhere, it occupies three floors in the wing of a new condominium building at West and Warren Streets adjoining an existing school. The abstract interior design of primary colors gives the school a strong but playful identity which helps it to hold its own in the 45-story building where it is located. The kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classrooms face lower Manhattan and offer light filled South facing panoramas of the city in a protective and nurturing environment.


In historic New York City schools built between the 1880s and the 1930s, the imagery of Elizabethan country houses and Tudor or Classical palaces is often evoked, with large mullioned windows, terracotta cornices, towers and crenellations at the parapets: this is one strong shared mental“image” of an urban school. Another image, however, is of a school, built between the post-war years and the early 1980s, which is all too likely to be glancingly mistaken for a prison, and where the apparatus of security, the utilitarian materials and the mindlessly repetitive design are, in fact, strikingly similar to our institutions of incarceration.

We are now in a third period of school design, which is closely related to changing ideas of how children learn, and the role of new cognitive techniques and revolutionary technologies available to educators. In this current state of rapid change, more individualized teaching will be offered, and more alternative learning methods will be developed.

The overall effect of this process on school facilities will be to completely reverse the monolithic imagery of the post-war school, and to develop a new imagery for learning. In these buildings and spaces, the high civic status of the earlier edifices will be recalled, but the symbolism will be of individuality, creativity and change.