It is not a surprise to hear that Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, AIA, principals of New York-based Work Architecture Company (WORKac), live with a pair of the floral, porcelain-enameled steel panels designed by John Rauch, FAIA, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi, FAIA, for the façade of a Best Products Catalog Showroom built in Pennsylvania in 1978. After all, the most striking feature of WORKac's diminutive new Edible Schoolyard building at P.S. 216 in Brooklyn is its middle section—where scalloped shingles overlap to form giant red and white blooms on an institutional-green ground.
This pattern, designed as a grid of pixels and then translated into three dimensions via off-the-shelf building materials, is the highway-scale branding for Edible Schoolyard NYC (ESYNYC) in Brooklyn, N.Y. If the dreams of the architects, the foundation, and elected officials are realized, those flowers will be coming soon to playgrounds near you. With the flowers comes the mission, launched by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, to get kids growing, cooking, and eating better food. On the Edible Schoolyard Project website, it’s called "The Delicious Revolution." The second WORKac-designed edible schoolyard for New York is already under construction at P.S. 7 in Harlem. With the city's new outer-borough-friendly mayor, can Queens be very far in the future?
The flowers are a canny choice, because the 2,300-square-foot building—which holds a "culinary arts classroom," a greenhouse "garden classroom," an office, and a 1,550-gallon cistern for rainwater collection—could have been just a plain old shed. But the design makes it a beacon, a reminder that architecture for children needn't be dumb to be cheerful and friendly. It is instructive to see it side-by-side with a mural painted by children on the side of P.S. 216: The colors are the same, but WORKac has successfully pushed the graphic elements to a bigger, more abstract scale. What is taught here has a more concrete relationship to what happens inside the school: the teachers are paid for by ESYNYC, a nonprofit. The classes in cooking and gardening are designed to be hands-on additions to the existing academic curriculum in science and social studies.
The building breaks into three parts. The flowers correspond to the office and a generous classroom, lit from above and the side by circular windows. The slant-roofed greenhouse is clad in translucent polycarbonate with an aluminum structure. In the back, coated in a Smurfish blue rubber, the tool shed, a bathroom, and that cistern, expressed as a centered, giant bulge. This blue section, which the architects call the "Systems Wall," is a missed opportunity. The systems are expressed as shapes—something Venturi and Scott Brown would never have done—and not further revealed through windows, exterior piping, or supergraphics. Why should a water tank be the only space without a porthole? Sustainable architecture could also be a visible part of the schoolyard curriculum.
Inside the kitchen classroom (or "culinary arts classroom," in the words of the Board of Education, which approved the ESYNYC curriculum), the colors of the shingles repeat, this time as a spectrum applied in lacquer to cabinets wrapping the room. The architects laugh when they see that labels have been applied to almost every door: "Oven," "Hand Washing," "Orange Team." Sometimes color cues are not enough, or not at every age. The fourth-grade lesson in progress involves chopping, cooking, and eating food in the same colors: the "three sisters" of Iroquois lore, corn, beans, and squash, which grow better together.
WORKac clearly spent more time on this Edible Schoolyard than its size warrants. That time will only be worth it as the work scales, in the form of purpose-built kitchen-and-greenhouse projects like this one as well as smaller, more affordable kits that could be used in concert with a mobile kitchen at any school in the city. Andraos says the School Construction Authority requires a very high quality of construction, and they had to go back and forth to get approvals for design elements like their rounded, ADA-accessible bathroom. The P.S. 7 Edible Schoolyard, for example, will be very different, involving a bridge between two existing buildings to hold the greenhouse, and outdoor gardens on a rooftop and in the street-level schoolyard. The P.S. 216 version smartly combines architectural function with publicity value.
Even if you find Alice Waters a little precious (it was suggested on NPR, a few years ago, that she had become the locavore "food police"), it’s not hard to get behind the simple idea that growing and cooking food leads to healthier eating. When Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown plastered a big box store with flowers, they were exposing the kind of decorative options for sale within the walls. At ESYNYC, those flowers return without the irony: these kids are learning about the real thing instead of the ersatz, and the wider audience is not in a car but online.