Unlike other independent school children who expect top-notch facilities, special-needs students typically get hand-me-downs. The thoughtful design of the Cooke School & Institute demonstrates that good design has the power to inspire all who encounter it and elevate the experience of the special-needs students who call it home. The school incorporates color, dramatic bay windows, and specialized amenities that enhance the learning process as well as the surrounding neighborhood. It provides thoughtful, equitable design that is a model for all New York. This premier, purpose-built school consolidates three locations scattered around NYC into a central learning hub. The design serves a diverse age range and provides a dignified place of learning for this unique student population. The building is a split campus that maintains the distinct identities of the grammar and high schools and limits interaction between the oldest and youngest students. Larger shared spaces occupy the lower floors. The upper floors are divided in half creating a vertical campus for each school, each with its own dedicated classrooms and stair tower. Located in East Harlem, the site is surrounded by public housing towers. Architecturally, with abundant glazing and colored glass, the school is a bright and vibrant addition to the neighborhood. Channel glass lining the first floor illuminates the pavement during the evenings while providing privacy to the interior spaces. Although much smaller than the adjacent buildings, the school reads prominently along the street wall. Evocative bay windows break down the long façade into a more human scale. Because of its prominence along Madison Avenue, the bay windows were sculpted in multiple directions creating visual interest and movement across the façade. The projections create special spaces in the classrooms. Used as reading alcoves, they are furnished with millwork benches with integrated book storage. Perched in the bay, students have open views up and down Madison Avenue, where they can feel like they are floating above the busy street below. The large windows with floor to ceiling glass allow classrooms to feel spacious and open, despite having compact footprints. Color playfully articulates each classroom and joyfully enlivens the front and back facades. In the classrooms, it is strategically balanced with neutrals to create a bold impact and individualize the classrooms without overwhelming occupants. Unique to the program are the instructional spaces that are specific to Cooke’s pedagogy. To accommodate the variety of learning spaces needed, the design takes advantage of the deep site. Classrooms are positioned to maximize daylight and views, and each has its own adjoining break-out room where therapists work with individuals or small groups without the distractions of the larger classroom. Nestled between the classroom and corridor, these secondary teaching spaces are evenly distributed throughout the classroom floors enabling therapy to be seamlessly integrated into the daily routine. A limited number of classrooms per floor keeps corridors orderly and quiet. Carved with colorful alcoves and benches, the architecture encourages informal social interactions between students. The school is designed to enhance the students’ wellness and independence. Students are encouraged to use the stairs to strengthen their mobility and coordination. With ample glazing, wide flights, and frequent landings, they feel inviting and safe. Signage is color coded to facilitate independent wayfinding. Since many of the students are neurodivergent, special design considerations address their sensitivities. Enhanced acoustics control exterior and interior noise using unbalanced curtainwall glazing and specialized interior finishes. Classroom storage was designed with open and closed configurations to limit visual distractions, while providing opportunities for students to independently access supplies. Mobility limitations are accommodated by extra maneuvering space around furniture, and power assist at the stair doors which are heavier than others The school gives back to the community in many ways. It is reserving spaces for qualifying children who live in the adjacent public housing complex, and student internships have been established in the surrounding neighborhood as part of the high school curriculum. The gymnasium is offered for community use during after-school hours. By seamlessly incorporating specialized program elements, including daily living labs and sensory gyms, with thoughtful building design, the school provides an equity of design for historically marginalized students. For the users, the building provides a learning environment that accommodates their needs. Teachers and therapists no longer adapt programming due to building limitations. Students now learn without having to expend energy to compensate for physical and environmental challenges. Although rare for special-needs students, Cooke consistently achieves an 87% success rate and serves nearly 300 students annually, who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the city’s education systems. Because of Cooke, their graduates are employed, taking continuing education courses, and participating actively in their communities.
For more than 50 years, PBDW Architects has provided intelligent, critical, creative responses to a wide range of cultural, commercial, and residential design challenges. We are a collegial practice of partners, associates, and staff who consistently deliver award-winning, collaborative, and evocative designs that enrich their contexts. The practice is a collaborative one that beneﬁts from the direct participation of all partners, each of whom contributes expertise to every project.
Our projects are carefully designed to express the character of the organizations served and to be in harmony with their surroundings. Our work is energized by the dichotomy between contemporary designs for new buildings and the conscientious restoration of major historic landmarks. In new buildings and additions, and in an array of program types, the firm has consistently produced original designs that both harmonize with and invigorate their surroundings.
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