Across the Harlem River in the South Bronx, a 200,000-square-foot historical brick building sat vacant for years, its distinctive arched windows providing roosted pigeons with spectacular views of Manhattan. Many New Yorkers know this 1900s structure, a former ice factory, colloquially as the “Uber building” for the large billboard atop its roof. However, earlier this year, with the design vision of Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, and his team at locally based Adjaye Associates, it became a branch of the New York–based Dream Charter School system and a progressive precedent for architectural adaptive reuse. “I have this almost romantic idea about these types of buildings as a vital device throughout the history of architecture for knowledge and for teaching,” the architect says.
The design takes advantage of the building’s sweeping proportions and solid bones, retaining as much as possible of the original structure, including the brick walls, the exposed steel beams, the barrel-vaulted ceilings, and the signature windows. Dividing the building’s large, open factory floors into several more spaces, the firm achieved a program that supports 21st century, multidisciplinary scholastics for 1,300 students. High schoolers moved into the school this past January, but all the facilities are designed for K–12 learning. The concept aligns with what Adjaye considers the future of architecture for education—“hybrid, multifunctional spaces that support and cultivate both mind and the body,” he explains.
First and foremost, to make the building suitable for teaching and learning, it needed to be properly lit. Flanking classrooms appropriate for the curriculum’s emphasis on STEAM education, two mirror glass–enclosed lightwells now penetrate the school’s five levels, bringing natural light into the administration, special education, and study spaces in the new central core they form. On the third floor, south-facing windows light a double-height arts space, which can also be used for student and community events, exhibitions, or other meetings.
A well-rounded education is crucial at Dream Charter School, and with play and social interaction equally as important as classroom time to the development of children’s minds, the team incorporated both formal and informal gathering spaces throughout the building. At the ground level, a large lobby connects circulation and learning spaces and provides a place for students to meet peers or teachers between classes. Students moving throughout the space on foot ascend to classrooms on the second floor via a grand staircase situated, to dramatic effect, underneath one of the lightwells. On the fourth floor, in addition to a more defined dining hall, a large central common area features amphitheater-style seating where students can spend time with friends. The fifth floor, meanwhile, is dedicated to a triple-height gym with a regulation-size basketball court, and the landscaped roof above it functions as an outdoor classroom or space for unstructured play. “These [factory buildings] were engines that nourished the people,” Adjaye reflects. “The opportunity to transform these structures into spaces that feed the mind and feed the body is profoundly powerful.”
A large-scale example of this more sustainable architectural approach, the project also preserves the history of its neighborhood. Housed in an existing building, Dream Charter School is instantly integrated into its surroundings. Its façade remains largely unchanged, but to support the structure’s new life as an education facility, Adjaye Associates designed two fresh entrances: one for its older students, set along the heavily trafficked Bruckner Boulevard, and another meant for younger pupils on quieter, East 132nd Street. Recognizing the unique before- and after-school experience of an urban student, who often does not have a larger campus or schoolyard in which to gossip, hang out, and play, each entry is set back into the building—protected but outdoors—to provide a safe space to just be a kid. “I see the project as setting a framework that other cities can and should adopt, which is to radically reuse its industrial heritage—not to tear down buildings but to imagine them as new pieces of infrastructure for new generations,” Adjaye says.
Project: Dream Charter School, New York
Architect: Adjaye Associates, New York. Sir David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA (principal); Russell Crader, AIA (associate principal); Camaal Benoit (associate); Eric Ball (senior director); Christina Yang (project director); Ella Arne (project lead); Huizhen Ng, Clara Aramburu, and Ryan Ball, AIA (project team)
Mechanical Engineer: Ettinger Engineering
Structural Engineer: Brooker Engineering
Electrical Engineer: Ettinger Engineering
General Contractor: Eastbound Construction; Joy Construction; MADD Equities
Architect of Record: Aufgang Architects LLC
Lighting Consultant: Kugler Ning Lighting
Signage / Wayfinding Consultant: Jones Knowles Ritchie
Kitchen Consultant: Clevenger Frable
Security Consultant: John Cutter Investigations
AV/IT Consultant: Syska Hennesy Group
MATERIALS AND SOURCES
Acoustical System: Autex panels used in ceiling and wall application
Lighting: Custom lighting manufactured by Lusive
This article first appeared in the May/June issue of ARCHITECT and has been updated.