There are so many things to celebrate this school year – our second year as a school in New York City, the growth of our student community, our very first 9th grade class. At the top of this list, we are celebrating our first year in our new schoolhouse, a space purpose-built for our use as not just any school, but a BASIS Independent school. We’ve been getting a lot of questions on choices that were made with the design and facility, and many of our decisions go beyond being purely functional. Our building speaks to the culture of our program and the type of learning community we are growing here in Brooklyn. Here’s Vice Chairman Mark Reford’s take on our space:
“The beauty of the building does not consist in the roof and walls but in the space within to be lived in.” Lao Tse
A schoolhouse is a place where lives are made, driven by hard work and the excitements of learning. It should be a beautiful place. When teachers and students enter they should feel uplifted. We designed BASIS Independent Brooklyn so that the building would itself be a quiet lesson about the focus of our program and the values of our culture.
BASIS.ed has redefined what is possible in American education and we want our schoolhouse to reflect that. We do not want our schools to look conventional and institutional. A signature of our building’s exterior is the way in which so many angles come together. A school must be a vibrant space and we want the building itself to convey energy and a feeling that this is somewhere in which the unexpected happens.
The random grid of windows in the classrooms continues this aesthetic from within. In the long northeastern winters light is precious and we wanted to fill the classrooms with sky. Rather than the conventional rows of windows placed mid-level on an exterior wall however, we designed a grid of windows that frame the urban landscape that stretches 360 degrees from the Verrazano Bridge, by way of the Statue of Liberty and Jersey City, to Lower and Mid-town Manhattan and across the full expanse of Brooklyn. This random grid brings light and creates a surprising gallery of urban pictures in every room.
Our students study engineering from the age of three. A crucial part of the design is for children to be able to experience their schoolhouse not only as form, but also as function. The mechanical and electrical systems that cool and heat and power the school and the skeleton of steel that supports it are all exposed.
The fundamental responsibility of every school is to ensure the safety of the students. The entire building is raised 20 feet in the air. This elevation means that learning in the classrooms and the noise and activity of the outdoor play spaces are all protected from the streets below. Students, especially in the younger grades, can have outdoor recess in safety, rain or shine, for the duration of the academic year.
Our culture and our financial model are focused on one thing: student learning. Financial resources are directed, as an absolute priority, to the classrooms, and likewise the design of our schoolhouse reflects this bedrock of our values. Walk into 556 Columbia St. and you will understand the value we place on the co-creative engagement between students and teachers. Almost all our floor space is devoted to teaching spaces.
To facilitate that co-creative engagement between teachers and students, all of our teachers have private offices, shared with one or two colleagues. Our culture is built upon a deep respect for our teachers, their disciplinary expertise, their passion and their care for their students. Inspired by an old-fashioned collegial model, we want to make it easy for students to meet individually and in small groups with their teachers to facilitate our culture of support.
This sets us apart from both traditional public and private schools. In the conventional school building the administrators have private offices that usually occupy prime real estate, commanding the best views and most luxurious finishes and furniture.
Our administrative offices are small and all are shared. Unlike the classrooms and teacher offices, they have no views and contain the same furniture as the rest of the school. The choice of private offices for teachers and bull-pen offices for administrators is one way we show our respect for the faculty. It is also a message to our administrators: we want them to manage the school from the hallways, to be always around the school engaged with students and faculty, and above all to be sitting in classes as vigilant stewards of the learning culture.
The science program at BASIS Independent Brooklyn is the finest in New York City. All students study physics, chemistry and biology as separate disciplines from 6th grade. They will learn to be scientists in an unparalleled suite of labs that occupy much of the 5th floor and which have the most stunning views in the school.
Finally, the most prominent learning spaces in the school are the classrooms that face south across the farm to IKEA, the harbor and the Verrazano Bridge. Those classrooms have a magnificent cascade of angled glass that runs floor to ceiling from the base to the roof of the school. We define ourselves as a STEM-focused, liberal arts school, and during the design process we carefully chose the mix of activities that would occupy these rooms to symbolize the breadth of creativity and discovery that characterize our program. Thus in that cascade of classrooms we have our Industrial Arts studio, a Middle School science lab, an Art studio, and finally at the top of the school, a Senior Center and suite of College Counseling offices.
Our educational goal is neatly summarized in that architectural ascent. Our curriculum does not place students in boxes. Our teachers work to help your children discover what they love, how they want to define them as individuals, and finally to ensure they have choices in their future that a more conventional, more limited educational vision is unable to provide.
We offer tours of our schoolhouse – and more importantly the academic community budding within it – regularly. Please join us for a tour, registration is online.
*Photos courtesy of Maribel Rodriguez.