Innovation & Design

Robin Hood Foundation Library Initiative


"I had a dream of reinventing the library for elementary students," says Lonni Tanner, who headed special projects at the Robin Hood Foundation for 11 years. In 1998, she and Henry Myerberg, AIA, a partner at Rockwell Group in New York, visited a school in Brooklyn and saw what passed for a library: a room with a few dusty books and out-of-date computers. Soon they discovered that many of the public schools in New York City had similarly dispirited spaces posing as libraries. The kids deserved better, Tanner felt. Essential to their thinking is that libraries -- at the heart of learning and education -- can have a lasting effect on poverty. "You can't change all the classrooms in a school, but you can make a library -- which takes only 5 percent of the physical space of a school, but has a 100 percent influence," says Myerberg. "That's a great rate of return."

So began the Robin Hood Foundation's library initiative, which has evolved into a unique collaboration with New York City's Board of Education to create, fund, and maintain school libraries in some of the most impoverished areas of the city's five boroughs. Myerberg worked closely with Tanner to jump-start the project, asking other architects to volunteer their services. He was amazed at how easy it was to get help; it took 10 phone calls to get nine New York architects (plus himself) to design the initial 10 projects, which were completed in 2002. Since then, on the second round, he designed seven of the next 21 libraries, which opened in 2004. For the third round, he will undertake about five of a total of 25 libraries, which will be also be designed by seven other local architects, four of whom created prior libraries for the project.

The goal of the first round was to create a model that might be applicable to other school districts in the U.S. "It's not about creating a box or a room or putting books on the shelf," says Tanner. "I wanted the library to do its duty with the rest of the building and the school's program."

The library initiative fits perfectly into the mission of the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 by commodities broker Paul Tudor Jones and two friends in an effort to give something back to the less fortunate in a society that made them wealthy. The foundation has become a favorite of New York's high-flying hedge-fund managers, many of whom have given to it generously in recent years as their own fortunes soared. The group funds soup kitchens, education, job training, and programs for the homeless, supporting about 140 organizations in the greater New York City area. Executive director David Saltzman says, "The library initiative is a model of what public/private partnerships can and should be. Generations of poor children in New York City will benefit."

The inspiration becomes reality

The architects involved in the library initiative knew they needed to understand the students before they could design for them. Calvin Tsao, AIA, a partner at Tsao and McKown Architects, who has completed five libraries to date, says: "We examined what the word ‘library' means today, technologically and sociologically, and then sought to define the word for this particular group of people. We deconstructed and reevaluated the purpose of the library specifically for the students, to reinsert learning into there in a way that would be relevant to them."

From the beginning, a stream of donations -- elicited by Tanner -- sprang forth, including one million books each from Scholastic and HarperCollins, paint from Benjamin Moore, computers from Apple, advanced education (Master of Library Science degree programs) for the librarians from Syracuse University, graphics from Pentagram, and other gifts in kind. Even with donations and modest spending, the budget for the design of each library typically runs $400,000 to $500,000, a hefty commitment for schools with limited resources. But the Board of Education has committed its ongoing support -- essentially in the form of a two-to-one matching grant -- putting in two dollars for every dollar contributed by Robin Hood.

The architects learned that the old-fashioned definition of libraries as quiet, private places to read has morphed over time into a notion of settings for collaborative learning. They serve as gathering spots, where kids can work together on computers and watch or deliver presentations. Libraries have become media centers where technology and the Internet provides access to the world at large. Public performance and interactive learning appear to help the kids develop confidence. For that reason, the libraries feature theater areas or town halls, as Tsao refers to them, a deliberate attempt to center the space in a traditional way and use design as a learning device.

The team of architects from the first round of libraries established parameters to guide later designs. They agreed on the need to accommodate librarians/teachers leading an active class, students giving performances, and individuals studying alone. Since each space comprises no more than 2,000 square feet, flexibility became a key design component. Many areas have multiple uses facilitated by custom-made movable furniture and shelving. Each library required a minimum of four computer stations, wireless access, and storage for 10,000 books. While the design in each instance is unique, the aim has been to standardize the program and develop an economy of means.

The designs themselves

Architect Richard Lewis has designed five of these projects to date and is slated to do five more. He has enjoyed the sense of common purpose that Robin Hood encourages among the architects. "It is so satisfying to see the positive effect of these libraries. That's why the issue of professional fees has been so unimportant," he comments. The architects speak glowingly of their experience with Robin Hood, despite modest fees, which offset a portion of their direct costs. Michael Beirut, a partner at Pentagram who serves as graphic designer for the libraries, reiterated this experience. He described this work as the most fulfilling of his career. Perhaps the look on the kids' faces as they use the places explains the motivation of everybody involved in the initiative.

Looking at tight budgets and existing spaces, the architects found that some of their best tools for enlivening the libraries included customizing portable furniture, applying bright colors, and bringing in lots of daylight, original graphics, and whimsical light fixtures. While the libraries are ambitious for this context, they are often conservative for the architects themselves, many of whom have established reputations for innovative design. Marion Weiss, a partner at Weiss/Manfredi Architects, who designed a library at P.S. 42 in the first round, made a big impact simply by changing the library's location. Moving it from the fourth floor -- where, in isolation from the center, it seemed to imply that reading belongs at the periphery of education -- she placed it on the first floor, where it is visible from the street and makes clear the school's commitment to books and learning.

One of the challenges the architects faced was combining public and private areas in limited space. Some designs use bookcases, often on wheels, to define zones. Multifunctional furniture such as "flip-flop" desks and stools also help, along with curtains that can be drawn or opened as needed, and areas that can morph into proscenium seating, a stage, or work area.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects completed one library in the first round and three more in the second. Partner Billie Tsien, AIA, said they learned that a great cabinetmaker is not only your friend but potentially the primary builder of the library, since he/she can produce the space-defining bookcases that can "make a room feel good."

Beirut unified the projects with an identity built around the word l!brary, with an exclamation point in place of the i. Throughout the interiors, this iconic branding crops up in a variety of materials and forms -- in signage, carpets, flooring, and the glazing of doors. Since the kids typically can only reach 5 to 6 feet up to the top shelf, most architects kept the shelves low but took advantage of generous ceiling heights by putting murals on the walls above the shelving.

Moving ahead

So far, the libraries have been big hits -- not just with the design community, but more important, with the administrators, teachers, principals, and children who use them. Principal Robert Flores of P.S. 106 in Brooklyn says, "You can't fathom what this library has done for this community and the 650 students served by the school." When the program began, few of the teachers believed they would see much outcome from the initiative; they had long become accustomed to unfulfilled promises and cuts in school funding. Yet after the completion of the third cycle, there will be more than 55 new libraries built with 595 more to go, to fulfill the Robin Hood Foundation's goal of completing a school library for each of the 650 public schools in New York City.

The projects have won eight AIA awards for excellence in design, and this year, Tanner received a special citation by the New York City AIA for the work, along with Christo and Jean-Claude for their Gates in Central Park -- the only recipients of this award in 2005. The good will, strong design, and civil virtue of these projects are hard to quantify.

And now the initiative is having an impact beyond New York. Baltimore launched a similar program in its public schools in 2001. The first library, Southeast Middle School, should open this fall. Designed by Alexander Design Studio, it won a Baltimore Chapter AIA award as an unbuilt project. With funding from grants raised by Baltimore's Board of Education, the city is preparing to expand the program. "We enlisted the help of 12 architects to do 12 more libraries for the schools," says Alexander. While Robin Hood's library initiative is 100 percent in New York City, the idea of public/private partnerships to effect change in student performance and schools nationwide is both its promise and example. This remarkable project has drawn people together in creative and meaningful ways, bringing attention to communities that sorely need it.


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