The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood

The cutting-edge nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation has recruited a band of architects to give to the poor by designing libraries in some of New York City’s neediest public schools. With its second phaseeand 31 librariessnow complete, the Library Initiative is an example of pro bono design at its best. Cathy Lang Ho reports.

Marpillero Pollak created a simple dropped perforated metal ceiling, with cut-out holes filled with colored Plexiglas and Jasper Morrison Glo-Ball Flos lights that echo the round foam seats by M2L below. With Milder & Co., they devised a set of tables (background) that can be pushed apart or linked together.
> peter mauss / esto

In 20011three years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg won approval for his $13 billion school construction and improvements campaign, which is just now beginning to be implementeddLonni Tanner, then director of special projects at the Robin Hood Foundation, decided that New York City’s public schools needed serious attention. Robin Hood, a poverty-fighting, grant-giving nonprofit, had just funded the renovation of a library in a charter school in Brooklyn, undertaken by Karen Davidov and Henry Myerberg of the since-dissolved partnership Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer. I was curious if other schools needed a similar resource,, said Tanner, so she canvassed 250 of the city’s 650 public elementary schools. I was shocked at what I saw,, she said. I saw a few dusty books on some shelves, old Wang computerssnothing that could be close to being called a library.. At the time, 60 percent of New York public school students in grades three through eight were reading below grade level. Believing that education is the key to fighting poverty, Robin Hood, in a groundbreaking partnership with the city’s Board of Education, launched the Library Initiative.

Today, the program boasts 31 alternatives to the bleak public school norm, created by 16 architects who worked mostly pro bono over the course of two phases (see sidebar for complete list). The highly publicized results of the pilot phase, completed in 2002, prove that there are myriad ways to skin a cat: Charged with creating distinct spaces for instruction, presentation, and private reading, accommodating 10,000 books (donated by Scholastic) and several computer workstations (donated by Apple), and ensuring clear sightlines throughout the space, among other requirements, ten firms produced wide-ranging prototypes of lively, child-friendly spaces that are rigorously programmed for learning as well as cost-efficient, durable, and easy to maintain. Because the libraries departed so dramatically from their standard-issue, institutional contexts, they quickly became magnets within their schools and larger communities, captivating students who regard them havens, retreatssplaces where they want to be.

Gluckman Mayner Architects used the library as a chance to explore sustainable materials, such as non-off-gassing Woodstalk for millwork, non-VOC adhesives, bamboo flooring, and recycled-content Interface carpet tiles. To counter the divisions of the floor area, the architects wanted a unified ceiling treatment. They gave it a sky motif, with wallpaper designed by 2×4 and customized light fixtures that are simple fluorescent bulbs with bent metal forms to evoke birds or flying books.

Custom responses were integral to conveying to students, many of them economically underprivileged, that they are important and deserve special attention. (Robin Hood selected schools where over 75 percent of students qualify for a free lunch.) But replicability is equally important to the Library Initiative. The idea from the outset was to develop a standard, since the aim is to get architects to all the schools eventually,, said Myerberg, who was instrumental in helping define the Library Initiative and worked with Tanner to recruit first-phase architects. But we didn’t want a cookie-cutter approach, like Starbucks, either..

This inquiry into how to allow the libraries to be unique expressions of their contexts and their architects while capturing economies of scale has intensified in the second round of libraries, completed the last month.

In phase two, 9 firms produced 21 libraries. Four of the firmssTsao & McKown, Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Richard H. Lewis, and the Rockwell Group, where Henry Myerberg now worksswere architects returning from the first round, and who were asked to design multiple libraries, nudging the potential of serialization further. We love the idea of the libraries having distinct identities, but the cost pressure is continually growing so the impulse to standardize grows stronger,, said Robin Hood’s chief of external affairs Joe Daniels, who oversaw the build-out of phase-two libraries. The libraries were budgeted at about $1 million each, encompassing the cost of construction as well as training and staffing librarians, which Robin Hood considers essential to the program’s success. To date, Robin Hood has contributed $7.5 million to the initiative, which the Board of Education matched funding three-to-one, putting in $22 million. The libraries average about 2,000 square feet; the construction cost of each was roughly $400,000, or $200 per square foot.

Second-round architects, like many in the first, found vibrant colors, playful furniture, irregularly shaped spaces, and bold lighting and graphics to be effective accomplices in creating high-impact, low-cost gestures. Many new architects had the urge, like Weiss/Manfredi did with its award-winning first-round project, to extend the presence and magic of the library into the rest of the school. Rogers Marvel offered tantalizing views into their library at P.S. 105 in Far Rockaway by filling two unused doorways that face the adjacent corridor with alternately clear and frosted glass blocks, where they also sited benches so that silhouettes of readers inside would be visible to passers-by. Meanwhile, Marpillero Pollak Architects’ library at P.S. 5 in Sunset Park beckons students with an entrance fronted by a window and an oversized bench, emblazoned with the Library Initiative logo created by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, who worked with all the architects to incorporate graphics into their spaces.




PHASE 1 completed Fall 2002

Della Valle + Bernheimer Design (PS 18)
Tsao & McKown Architects (P.S. 19)
Weiss/Manfredi Architects (P.S. 42)
Deborah Berke Architect (P.S. 46)
Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer Architects (P.S. 50)
Alexander Gorlin Architect (P.S. 92)
Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates (P.S. 101)
Ronette Riley Architect (P.S. 149)
Paul Bennett Architect (P.S. 165)
Richard H. Lewis, Architect (P.S. 184)

PHASE 2 completed Winter 2005

Tsao & McKown Architects (P.S. 46, 86, 94, and 246)
Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates (P.S. 1, 28, and 32)
Richard H. Lewis, Architect (P.S. 10, 36, 93, 287)
The Rockwell Group (P.S. 5, 17, 106, 137, 145)
1100 Architect (P.S. 16)
Rogers Marvel Associates (P.S. 105)
Dean Wolf Architects (P.S. 151)
Marpillero Pollak Architects (P.S. 1)
Gluckman Mayner Architects (P.S. 192)

1100 Architects took its cue from the school’s small reptile zoo, creating a long bookshelf that snakes through the space and creates distinct separate areas for private reading and group activities.

The learning curve was higher for new architects,, said Myerberg, but we all learned what worked and didn’t work from the first round.. For example, for P.S. 50, he had designed a system of Lego-like bookcases arranged in a staggered pattern, but they confounded librarians’ ability to uphold the Dewey decimal system. In his second set of libraries, the bookcases follow a more linear pattern.

The treatment of bookcases varied widely from architect to architect. Billie Tsien said that her firm learned early on to discern what was important and treatable versus what they could do little about, such as a wall of unattractive windows. To them, bookcases were key. We learned that your best friend is your cabinetmaker,, said Tsien. They can deliver the room for you in a beautiful way because they’re making a container for people and books at the same time.

It’s the cabinetwork, too, that’s essentially replicable.. Many other library architects also emphasized the importance of custom casegoods to ensure maximum book capacity and a snug fit. And many insisted on wooden bookshelves, despite the expense, as if to reinforce the traditional idea of libraries and avoid the typical approach to children’s or institutional spaces, to go plastic, hard, and cool. Richard Lewis’ firm decided that all the furniture that was fixed would have a traditional look while all the movable furniture would be modern, so their bookcases are old-fashioned molded wood while chairs are by Arne Jacobsen and cabinets are by USM. Tsao & McKown designed shelving (made from medium-density fiberboard) that’s almost constructivist in detail,, said Zack McKown, so that kids can reverse-engineer how they were built..

Rogers Marvel Architects used cheap VCT (vinyl composition tile), arranging two different shades of yellow in a random pattern, giving the floor interesting visual texture.

Interestingly, Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner Architects had the opposite point of view about bookcases, using off-the-shelf metal frames. We didn’t think it was the place to spend money,, he said. Why reinvent the wheel? Whenever possible, we wanted to use straightforward, utilitarian products to support the architecture..

Flooring was also an important realm for experimentation. Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Tsao & McKown, which both used cork in their first library, resurrected the soft, resilient, acoustically and environmentally friendly material in their second-round libraries. Richard Lewis, Marpillero Pollak, and Dean/Wolf followed their lead, specifying the material in different colors. The Rockwell Group used mostly Interface carpet, as did Gluckman Mayner, which paired the soft floor covering with bamboo, to denote the different areas of the room. Meanwhile, Rogers Marvel used perhaps the cheapest flooring material of all, vinyl composition tile (VCT), but picked a nice yellow in two shades and arranged them randomly, giving the floor some visual texture. These varied solutions raise the potential of developing standards or uniform elements for future libraries. We are looking for elements that can be applied across different projects, without restricting architects’ designs,, said Daniels. For example, in the future, we could offer a choice of three or four flooring options or shelving solutions, and make a deal up front with a vendor or fabricator..

Marpillero Pollak Architects extended the presence of the library into the school, with an entrance bench/gathering area. The Library Initiative’s logo was designed by Michael Bierut of Pentagram, who worked with the library architects to create site-specific graphics.

To counter the uniformity that might come with recurring elements, Robin Hood has been encouraging architects to emphasize site-specific graphic installations involving students. Marpillero Pollak created a window frieze using chidren’s drawings of fictional characters. Meanwhile, Richard Lewis worked with Pentagram, as well as artists Dorothy Kresz, Peter Arkle, Raghava Kalyanaraman, and Lynn Pauley to create murals to fill the space between the tops of bookcases (which could be no higher than five shelves) and ceilings.

As the Library Initiative enters its third roundda list of 25 schools and architects will be determined this summerrcost savings will be even more crucial, as the Board of Education reduces its matching funds from three-to-one to two-to-one. But the Library Initiative has already developed a certain cachet in the architectural community, with many clamoring to be involved. The same goes for vendors, many of which have donated or discounted their materials and services. Luckily, there are plenty of libraries to go around. 31 down,, said Tanner, who left Robin Hood last month. 619 to go.. cathy lang ho is an editor at an.

Rogers Marvel Architects used cheap VCT (vinyl composition tile), arranging two different shades of yellow in a random pattern, giving the floor interesting visual texture.



1100 Architect
Dean Wolf Architects
Gluckman Mayner Architects
Marpillero Pollak Architects
Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates
Tsao & McKown Architects
Richard H. Lewis Architect
The Rockwell Group
Rogers Marvel Architects

Client: New York City Board of Education
General contractor: F. J. Sciame Construction Co.
Funding partner: Robin Hood Foundation
In-kind donations: Scholastic Books, Harper Collins, Apple, Maharam
Graphic design: Michael Bierut, Pentagram
Photography: Peter Mauss / ESTO

* It’s worth noting that many of the companies involved with the Robin Hood libraries supplied their products or services pro bono or at discounted rates.