As a means of combating food deserts, childhood obesity, and shortages of green space, schools have begun to incorporate edible gardening and kitchen classrooms into their academic programs. Yet as recently as 1995, edible education was just an inkling of Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters on her daily walk past Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Three years later a desolate acre on the school property had been fully remade into the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley, and this prototype for an urban agriculture and culinary arts curriculum has informed numerous life-changing projects elsewhere.
Photo © Iwan Baan
Among them is the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Northeast founding affiliate Edible Schoolyard NYC (ESYNYC), which in 2010 launched its first demonstration project at P.S. 216 Arturo Toscanini in Gravesend. The Brooklyn neighborhood suffers from the third lowest percentage of green open space in the borough, and today a former half-acre parking lot produces approximately 60 varieties of organic food.
A team from WORKac led design of the transformation of the 550-student elementary school’s patch of asphalt into an urban idyll. The New York–based architects finalized the inaugural effort last December with the official opening of a structure that combines kitchen classroom, greenhouse, and systems all on one site.
In order to maximize sun exposure to the garden, the new building was erected in the northeast corner of the converted parking lot. Its three parts are expressed as connected, yet highly legible volumes. The greenhouse is a 763-square-foot aluminum-and-polycarbonate wedge directly facing the garden, which then tapers to a 1,075-square-foot middle that includes a kitchen for 30 students and ESYNYC offices, and whose exterior is finished in multicolor, cementitious shingles. The building terminates in the systems component. Looking something like a caboose, this blue rubber-coated rear captures rainwater from the adjacent angled roof and channels it into the 1,550-gallon cistern housed among the mechanical equipment inside. Located closest to P.S. 216 itself, the azure volume also includes the main entrance.
Creation of the entire complex began with a trip to the original schoolyard, explains WORKac principal Dan Wood, so that its programming and principles would be fully manifested back East. Besides the obvious difference of climate, the Berkeley visit reminded the design team that, in cramped New York, square inches are precious. “So everything at P.S. 216 is densified a little bit—the cistern and the classroom and the systems are all put in the tightest possible package,” Wood says.
“We also realized that, during the New York school year, the weather is not ideal for working outdoors,” Wood continues. “Making the garden and the greenhouse really equivalent was an important part of bringing the values of Berkeley here.” Whereas a 50-square-foot ramada at P.S. 216 directly references a similar open structure that anchors the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley, a space within the Gravesend kitchen classroom serves as an indoor version of the ramada come winter, when kids also use the greenhouse as a semi-outdoor classroom. In addition to adapting Waters’s vision to more punishing conditions, WORKac had to interpret the rules of the New York City School Construction Authority throughout the process.
It also had to translate its own legacy. As winners of the MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program in 2008, WORKac had begun intense research into “food systems and how buildings can combine natural and architectural elements,” as Wood puts it. The result of that query, an installation in the MoMA/PS1 gallery entrance called Public Farm 1, was a ski jump–like grid of cardboard tubes sprouting crops and shading the courtyard visitors congregating underneath. Although ESYNYC was in its very formative stages at the time of Public Farm 1, a visit to that project prompted the organization’s founding board member John Lyons to seek out WORKac and connect the firm with P.S. 216 principal Celia Kaplinsky.
While WORKac’s contribution to Gravesend may not appear as buoyant as its previous temporary intervention, they do share DNA. “The idea of visible systems really comes from PS1,” for example, Wood says. In the systems component of the Brooklyn building, a curved wall surrounds the rainwater cistern while other blue shapes outline a tool shed, restroom, and air-conditioning units. The one-to-one correspondences “get the kids to ask questions” about their quirky classroom, and perhaps about the built environment in general.
Overall, Wood notes, “We wanted to make a contribution, architectonically. We were a little bit conscious of how socially responsive architecture tends to erode formal discussion.” Indeed, while ESYNYC is preparing kids for a lifetime of good health right now, WORKac may inspire a few of them to enter the architecture profession in their grown-up years. The firm’s next inspiration is taking shape at P.S. 7 in East Harlem, where the second ESYNYC demonstration notably deploys colorful planters in addition to comprising a kitchen classroom, greenhouse, and rooftop garden.