Beyond Educational architecture / Q & A with david rockwell

Interview by Shea Keats & Lora Appleton

David Rockwell. Photo via rockwellgroup.com.

David Rockwell. Photo via rockwellgroup.com.

David Rockwell, founder and president of the innovative architecture firm Rockwell Group, sat down with KINDER to talk about the joys and challenges of designing educational spaces.

K: Can you talk a little bit about designing for the Blue School, both the current building and the new expansion? What kind of evolution occurred from phase one to phase two?

DR: I first met Matt [Goldman, cofounder of the Blue School] at the TED Conference in March 2010. We had both been spending the last few years thinking about how children learn and play, between Imagination Playground and Blue School, both of which are based on the fundamental need for child-directed, creative, ever-changing play and ways of learning. Like Imagination Playground, which Blue School was an early adopter of, our idea was to provide a design where we as designers take a back seat, so children’s work can take a front seat.

The Blue School’s pre-k and elementary school spaces are all designed so that kids can invent and reinvent them on an ongoing basis, so there is a constant sense of change and evolution, and so teachers and kids can change the layout of the classrooms every year as the world and curriculum changes and advances. The new middle school building shares the same philosophy and creates moments for planned and spontaneous group learning and inspiration. We’re very proud to be part of the next phase of growth.

The Blue School elementary space. Photo via rockwellgroup.com.

The Blue School elementary space. Photo via rockwellgroup.com.

K: How do you begin when designing a public or educational space for children? Do you approach the project differently than adult-oriented design?

DR: The notion of play runs through all of our work, whether it’s a work environment for adults or a children’s playground or school. Play draws people together and invites them to cultivate community and creativity. For our spaces for children we start by asking what is most important to a child and their needs. We look at ways we could spark and fulfill the incredible imaginations of kids from a kid’s point of view, as opposed to an adult’s vision of what this should be.

K: How do you think about space shared between children and adults, and how do you appeal to the needs of both demographics?

DR: In every project, we design from the point of view of the people who are seeing, visiting, using, and experiencing the space.

K: What have been some of the challenges you've faced in your educational projects? And how have you solved them?

DR: In terms of designing the Blue School, an exciting challenge was how to translate the project-based teaching philosophy into a spatial experience that enables learning, but allows for so much more. Our goal is to provide a strong foundation for the school to further realize its mission and vision: creating unique and powerful approaches to cultivate children’s curiosity, creative expression, and self-awareness.

K: Imagination Playground is such an amazing venture. Were you inspired by your own childhood?

Imagination Playground. Photo via rockwellgroup.com. 

Imagination Playground. Photo via rockwellgroup.com. 

DR: The idea was really inspired by how my own kids played. They were always more interested in the box than their contents. I started to spend a lot of time in playgrounds, and to really look at them, and found that there were plenty of great fixed-equipment play spaces but few where kids could manipulate their environments.

K: You’ve designed a lot of different types of properties. Did you always know you would work in education design? How did this come about?

DR: I didn’t. Our studio likes to take creative risks, so we are constantly seeking out opportunities to work on unfamiliar project types. Designing new, unfamiliar project types allows us as designers to “play.” Each new project presents an opportunity to learn, to invent, to reinvent, and to remove us from our comfort zones and push boundaries.

One of our earliest projects for children was the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. There, we tapped into our hospitality experience to create a medical facility where both children and their families feel comfortable, as well as involved in the care and healing process.

K: As children become more immersed in technology, how does it impact your spatial design?

DR: In a technology-driven world, I think it’s just as important to design environments that children can physically manipulate. It’s about empowering children with the necessary tools, whether that’s an iPad or a coloring pad, to create and learn on multiple different levels in the process.

K: At what stage do materials and color come into play in your design process?

DR: From the beginning of the design process. For example, the Blue School is known for its project-based curriculum that mediates individual learning with group or collaborative-based learning. So classrooms and other spaces need to be flexible to create opportunities for different types of learning.

Rendering of the new Blue School middle school. Photo courtesy of the Blue School. 

Rendering of the new Blue School middle school. Photo courtesy of the Blue School.