As an architect focused on the creation of innovative environments for children, I always look for inspiration in different places, and it’s important to me to learn about the planning of educational facilities around the world.
On one of my searches for inspiration I came across Ms. Alexandra Barker, the principal of Barker Associates Architecture Office, and who has won multiple architectural and design awards for her outstanding and innovative work. During my most recent trip to New York I had the honor of interviewing her for my Magazine, and to understand a bit better what lies behind some of the most interesting NYC preschool designs.
As I wrote in an article I’ve published dealing with this issue, there is no doubt that architecture and interior design of educational facilities is the key to children’s success in the 21st century. This is why I believe we should open up to the world, mainly to learn, but also because the world has changed and our children are growing up in a ”global village”.
Meeting architect Alexandra Barker in her inspiring office was definitely one of the peak moments of my career. Barker is a daring architect that redefines preschool design. She has won multiple design awards for her outstanding work. Apart from being principal of Barker Associates Architecture Office, Barker is an associate professor with CCE and the coordinator of the Masters in Architecture program at the Graduate Architecture and Urban Design Department in the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute.
What should you notice when you read this interview?
The architectural and design elements that Barker describes here, including paying close attention to scale and sight lines, are very important when it comes to planning for children. These are two elements that I always take into consideration in my projects, and I hope that these elements will become part of every project designed for children in Israel.
The two main projects Barker and I talked about in this interview, Maple Street School and Mi Casita Preschool, are two projects that Barker planned in collaboration with 4Mativ Studio. They are innovative projects that won the AIANY Design Award.
The three main pedagogical themes that Barker implemented while designing these projects were themes other architects might have ignored, but Barker addressed them in a creative way.
Opening a private preschool in New York means you have to meet so many licensing requirements that aren’t required in Israel, it makes you wonder…
Please tell our readers about your office
In our office we have a mix of projects, including lots of residential projects, some small development projects, and retail and office projects.
Do you think your childhood experiences have influenced the way you perceive architecture?
(My remark: it was important for me to ask this question because I believe that our childhood stories, drawn from our childhood experiences, mold us into the adults we grow up to be. For instance, my personal experience of attending a school in London, has greatly impacted me.)
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. These suburbs are different than NYC because there’s a lot more space; it’s much less dense. Buildings were low – 5-6 stories tall and there was a lot of interesting spatial diversity. Urban environment is like working around a box. Having a lot of boundaries makes you become a lot more creative in some ways.
Some of my childhood experiences that influenced me include going to a preschool in the basement of a church, with windows that were very high up the wall.
At Christmas we would go to ”Breakfast with Santa”– and for this, there was this secret door for children to go through to get their presents. Secret doors between rooms, and these places where you can have a half-height zone where only children could get into, these are the kinds of things that captivate me.
We also introduced the idea of a small children’s door from our preschool projects into our residential projects, when we added a little children’s door between two daughters’ rooms.
What was the turning point in term of Preschool Design in NYC?
About five to six years ago people started to focus on preschool spaces, trying to turn them into design spaces. This coincided with a whole bunch of development projects. Together with this, an opportunity emerged for development projects with ground level spaces for retail to get more F-A-R(floor area ratio) if they incorporated a community use into their space. So, some of them did that, and so suddenly we had these amazing spaces that were much more open, with higher ceilings.
What is important in your point of view when you plan a preschool?
We’ve been able to bring a lot of our knowledge and capabilities from the residential sector into the design of children’s spaces. It works particularly well because in contrast to approaching children’s spaces from the point of view of larger institutions, approaching it from residential brings detailing and materiality and other types of scaling of spaces into that environment, all of which helps to add to the design sensibility of the spaces.
Could you please give an example of how this different approach affects the way you plan spaces for children?
An example is that we really pay close attention to scale and sight lines – what can a child see? What can an adult see? When can a child observe an adult? And how to supervise a child while respecting a child’s privacy.
In Maple Street School you implemented pedagogical themes in the design. Could you please give three examples of these themes?
A kitchen that is also a culinary experience: In Maple Street School the owners would gather around food, So we thought: “let’s make the kitchen more of a central feature rather that it being hidden away in the back with the food kind of magically appearing.”
We were thinking of a food truck, for a food truck, parked on the sidewalk, has apertures that open and close, and different places for people behind the counter verses people who are approaching the counter. This means that there are doors for adults to enter that were closable, as well as a counter that is actually the children’s height so that they can just sit there and ”order” and be served, and are able to absorb what’s going on in the kitchen while at the same time the counter keeps them safe and prevents them from getting into the kitchen.
Bathrooms and hygiene: Typically in preschools the bathroom door is opened all the time because it’s not designed with the specific needs of a small person who’s learning to use the bathroom. So we’ve seen an opportunity to change this in different projects we’ve worked on by planning the bathrooms in a unique way that allows supervising a child while also maintaining that child’s privacy.
The sink isn’t a standard sink; its design transforms it into a sink you can play in and also wash your hands and that way you get acclimated to hygiene through play.
The bathroom is a very important part of preschool, so you don’t want to put it behind some back corner. It should become part of the curriculum.
A multipurpose space: We often put big doors between rooms. This is because when you have all these big doors connecting from room to room, when you open the doors, the rooms are transformed and you create one big open space. Through this we create big gathering spaces and more connectivity between the classrooms, instead of distinct classrooms.
Mi Casita Bilingual Preschool and Cultural Center – I love this project! Could you please tell me about it, and describe the working process with the educational staff?
”Mi Casita” means ”my little house,” and the idea was to create a home away from home, and to bring residential elements into the space. So we have an alcove where a kid could sit, a child-sized opening in a wall, and a child-sized aperture and an adult-sized aperture, so that the children can feel that the space was for them.
The owner liked all these little design details. Like the city skyline. We worked with those and built around it. We designed Mi Casita without walls between the classrooms, simply furniture partitions on wheels (with lockable wheels), so you can move them around and clear them out when you have events. So everything is totally transportable.
Safety and Security: In my point of view, the most important issue with architecture and design for children is safety and security. You want a balance between the fun elements and visibility and control when creating spaces for children. So, for example, in Mi Casita, the glass wall separating the preschool from the street is frosted with little eye holes that are kids’ height. Of course an adult could scoot down and look in the holes, but for the most part it creates a privacy barrier. You let light in and yet retain privacy. For instance, somebody was walking by and didn’t even notice anything about the building, until their daughter looked right into the eye holes and wanted to go in.
Security in NYC is a challenging and important issue. For reasons of security it’s important to layer sequences of access because there’s almost always mixed use for the spaces. When a space is on the ground floor you can have three doors to go through, and if it’s on an upper floor, which in many ways is easier when it comes to retaining privacy, you can have big windows that are not on street level.
How do your projects implement mixed use?
It’s implemented in many ways. For example, there’s a new preschool that we’re working on that has different classrooms: music, art, science, and cooking. During the mornings preschool kids use the space and come up for activities at the same time there are “Mommy and Me” classes going on. Later in the day, the same space is used for afterschool classes as well as a break room for teachers.
Choosing a space that will meet with the DOB requirements – When clients need to choose a space in order to open a preschool we sometimes look at different spaces with the them until we locate the right one. We do a lot of research to check if the space will meet DOB (New York City Department of Buildings) requirements.
It’s pretty common in NYC that preschools don’t have an outdoor space for a playground, because outdoor spaces for preschools are hard to find. So you have to be walking distance to a playground. Sometimes the outer space is on the roof – like in the Maple Street project.
Do you think if you planned Maple Street when we were children, that kids back then would have responded in a similar way?
I think that nowadays, sometimes the physical is a lot more present because it’s in such contrast to the digital. The kids spend a lot of time on screen and so it’s really necessary for them to go into a ”movement” class. The stimulation and the physical space becomes more important because it’s a way to separate these two worlds. We still haven’t yet figured out how the physical and the digital worlds interface, but it’s evolving.
To sum it up, I returned home absolutely enthralled from my interview with Alexandra Barker. I am utterly captivated with her creativity, her brilliance, and her modesty. I now realize that there is so much more behind those pretty pictures of preschools that she has designed than I had ever imagined. There are so many unique architectural and pedagogical challenges that she takes in consideration, because she sees every challenge as an opportunity to create a better experience and life for children.