Robin Hood in Queens
by Marion Weiss and Michael A. Manfredi
Public School 42 in Arverne, Queens, a five-story prewar brick edifice, had a small library in a converted fourth-floor classroom. Physically and visually isolated from the core of the elementary school's activities, the library was relocated to the ground floor, where it replaced one of two gymnasiums.
The relocation gives the library a more central role in the school's daily rhythms. The library's curvilinear wall affirms its unique status within the school; its variously sized inhabitable windows operate like the cutouts in a construction fence, providing selected views from the ground-floor hallway and cafeteria.
The Robin Hood Foundation's Library Initiative, launched in partnership with the New York City Department of Education in 2001, aims to reverse "patterns of low literacy skills and underachievement by working with community school districts and public elementary schools to design, build, equip, and staff new elementary school libraries."
The initiative has grown from a ten-school pilot program, including Public School 42, with each designed by a local architect on a pro-bono basis, to a group of more than fifty projects citywide.
The design by Weiss/ Manfredi aspires to make the act of reading visually evident in a setting where learning and play are literally and philosophically connected.
Inside the library, a winding wood-paneled wall, conceived as a "book worm," holds volumes and reading alcoves. Adjustments to the space's geometry are made legible in the registration of scalar devices, such as the overlapping of flat panels to produce curved surfaces that provide a tactile and visual acknowledgment of the assembly sequence.
The architectural intent, playful and engaging, is also palpable in the library's moving parts. A deployable white theater scrim, suspended on a circular track and printed with text to resemble a crossword puzzle, provides the impression of privacy for reading groups while remaining transparent enough for librarians to supervise the activities.
For school events, the rolling bookcases can be moved to one side of the library to create a large central space for group activities. Custom-designed rolling beanbag seats, student chairs, and other furniture can be arranged in a variety of informal settings.
With its inventively detailed prosaic materials (plywood, Plexiglas, and industrial carpeting), varied lighting, broad windows, and multiple computer stations, the library is a place that encourages learning and social interaction.
The success of the project can be measured in its use: expanded hours, including Saturdays and evenings, were instituted not long after the new library opened its doors to accommodate the school's popular family and community programming.
New York City public schools in impoverished neighborhoods have rarely been able to afford or sustain properly equipped libraries. Reading levels at these schools have remained substantially below city averages. These facts are what captured the attention of both the New York City Department of Education and the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit organization that leverages private funds to address poverty's root causes through a broad range of prevention programs.
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Weiss/ Manfredi is a multidisciplinary design practice based in New York City. Founded by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, the firm is known for their integration of architecture, art, infrastructure, and landscape design. They were awarded the Academy Award for Architecture by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and were named "an emerging voice" by the Architectural League of New York. Interdisciplinary projects such as their competition winning Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, and the Design Center in Essen, Germany. Princeton Architectural Press previously published a monograph titled Site Specific: The Work of Weiss/ Manfredi Architects.
This article is excerpted from Weiss/ Manfredi: Surface/ Subsurface by Marion Weiss and Michael A. Manfredi, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.