Class Action

A design initiative in New York seeks to improve literacy rates in some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Mark Sinclair spoke to the people behind a groundbreaking project that puts the school library at the centre of an ongoing educational reform programme

New York City has the largest public school system in the US. More than one million students are taught in around 1200 schools. Yet according to the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, compared to the rest of the US the educational prospects for the city’s students are significantly reduced. The CCC estimates that only 38.9 per cent of the city’s school children will graduate high school, compared to 68.8 per cent of all American students. In terms of projected incomes, living standards and social welfare, this statistic has far-reaching implications; not least in determining a true figure for the levels of poverty that exist within the city itself.

Despite the fanfare of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which instigated a series of federal programmes aiming to improve reading standards in primary and secondary schools, New York’s education system bears witness to a significant problem: student literacy levels are worryingly low. In a bold move to counter this (with much evidence to suggest that literacy is inextricably linked to social welfare) a unique initiative to redesign all of the city’s public school libraries is now well underway with help from some of New York’s brightest architects alongside a range of designers, photographers and illustrators brought together by design consultancy Pentagram. The ambitious project has the potential to affect generations of the city’s students.

The L!brary Initiative was launched in 2001 by the Robin Hood Foundation (an organisation that funds and partners community groups in targeting city poverty) in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education and several corporate and private sponsors. Its aim is to refocus attention on the role of the school library and enable a handful of world-class creatives to design inspiring spaces for learning in some of the most deprived schools in the city’s five boroughs. Robin Hood estimates that around 60 per cent of students in grades three through to eight (ages eight to 14) are reading below their grade level. The L!brary Initiative has been created to try and change this.

While private sponsorships and corporate donations are nothing new to US schools, New York is setting a precedent in that a significant part of the reform of its public school system ©  ß has fallen to several architects, designers and a unique organisation that specialises in what Anooradha Siddiqi, the director of the L!brary Initiative, terms, “venture philanthropy”. “Robin Hood was formed by several Wall Street traders who wanted to use their money to fight poverty,” Siddiqi explains. “Their idea was that the board of directors would underwrite all the administrative and fundraising costs so that all the money received by the organisation would go to the poor.” In granting money for initiatives that spring up around areas of need, Robin Hood use their venture capitalist experience to hold recipients to a set of criteria. “We’re like a full service operation,” says Siddiqi – one that will help to “set up a structure for the money, provide management assistance, technical and HR support”.

To date, 31 new libraries have been designed and built over two planning stages ­– the current phase includes the creation of another 25. An architect herself (the first on the Robin Hood team), Siddiqi is perfectly matched with the objectives of the L!brary Initiative and sees the value in the oft-used phrase that has seemingly become the campaign’s mantra: “by affecting five per cent of a school’s real estate you can affect 100 per cent of the students.” The library is also one of the areas within a school that, she adds, “everyone goes into… a place where students congregate.” In many of the New York schools, libraries were
ill-equipped, uninspiring or just severely outdated. “In one, the books in there had last been checked out in the 1960s,” says Siddiqi. “There were titles in there like The Negro in America – so we give the library an overhaul on a number of levels.”

In addition to pairing up library with architect, overseeing the provision of new equipment and furniture and the proper training of library staff, Siddiqi gave the task of creating the environmental graphics and signage to Pentagram. Designer and partner Michael Bierut headed up the project from the consultancy’s New York office. “Robin Hood had lined up a great list of architects to work on the initial set of libraries,” says Bierut. “Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Marian Weiss and Michael Manfredi – not Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, but New York designers from a younger generation or two. We were asked to coordinate all the graphics for all the libraries and, of course, we said ‘yes’.”
The basic brief for Pentagram was to create “a welcoming space based on books, reading, storytelling and learning that can accommodate a lot of different students,” says Bierut. “Initially, our work was focused on trying to come up with a ‘brand’ for the project and I have to admit we were too clever, offering a lot of fanciful names that assumed the audience were already jaded about libraries. It took me a while to understand that each of these projects would be a real revelation for the kids in the schools, many of whom had never had a library of any kind before. So we just used the word L!BRARY for the identifier: a straightforward name with a signal that there was something special inside.”

As the project developed, Bierut and his team became more involved with the creation of custom artwork for the walls, especially, he says, “that inevitable span between the ceiling and the top shelf that a kid can reach”. Pentagram then started to commission other creatives – like photographer Dorothy Kresz (Bierut’s wife, who donated some portraits of students to an east New York school) and illustrators Lynn Pauley and Peter Arkle.  The next batch of schools, Bierut explains, will have murals created by a range of designers and illustrators including Maira Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister and Christoph Niemann.

For Niemann, as with all the creatives working on the L!brary Initiative, it’s become a project that is as much about the future as it is about what’s been achieved over the last five years. “Michael asked me to create some illustrated murals for PS 69 in the Bronx,” he explains. “I’m used to working for magazines and newspapers, hence my illustrations tend to have a very short life: open the paper, look at it for ten seconds, hopefully get the joke, gone in 20 seconds. To create drawings that will still speak to the students going to this library in five or even ten years is a pretty unusual challenge.”

Indeed, as Siddiqi readily admits, the results of the L!brary Initiative on a social level won’t be seen properly for another ten or 15 years, as a generation of students passes through the system. “Our main aim with all this is high school graduation – it’s the ticket out of poverty,” she says. “The difference in projected incomes between a graduate and a non-graduate can be between $6,000 to $10,000 a year or $200,000 in a lifetime.”

For now, the immediate benefits of the scheme are obvious. Teachers who work in the most deprived areas of the city see their new library as a kind of safe haven for their students. Siddiqi recalls a conversation with a teacher from a school in Rockaway who claimed that, at the moment, the curriculum is the least of her priorities – just getting the kids into school safely and keeping them there has become her main focus each day. A new library would no doubt improve things there, as it clearly has at the school where the principal made a point of announcing over the tannoy that the 10,000th book had just been checked out.

The wider implication of this ongoing project is that the cyclical social changes that good architecture and good design can bring about will not only be felt by the students, but by their families and the communities of New York as a whole. “My interest in this started because it’s rare for an architect to do humanitarian work,” says Siddiqi. “Something like this is tangible, bringing architecture to the people – these libraries have become safe havens on so many levels.”

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