The East Harlem School
Harlem, New York, New York, USA
The East Harlem School is an independent, not-for-profit, year-round middle school that recruits students from low-income families in East Harlem. The school provides scholarships for all enrolled students. It is the first independent school to have been built in the Harlem community in decades. The school is committed to maintaining an intimate cohort of students, in which each is recognized as an individual and as a contributor to the community.
This dual purpose is echoed in the design of the building. The lower floors, which are linked by a formal public stair visible from the street, contain public spaces: a large cafeteria, gymnasium and entrance lobby. These floors are sheathed in translucent, acid-etched glass through which the daily activities of students and teachers are visible from the street. The upper floors contain classrooms and other academic spaces, which are veiled by a composition of windows and panels of varying colors and degrees of reflectivity. This fabric-like screen marks the sheltered isolation needed for the serious work of learning, study, and discipline that goes on in those spaces. As part of the pixelated façade, window openings are placed in relation to interior planning rather than imposing any formal exterior logic. On the interior, the outside walls of the classrooms are composed of staggered rectangles of alternating windows and colored panels that are used as tack boards for instructional materials and other displays.
The school had an extremely tight budget, caused both by the high cost of construction that plagues inner-city schools and the fact that its site was within the 100-year flood zone. Our office acted as both architect and construction manager in an integrated process led by the architects. This process provided a level of intensive quality control and substantial cost savings that produced a building that would otherwise have been out of reach for such a school.