After nearly sixty years in their original Midtown East building, the Kennedy Child Study Center relocated last summer to a new home in East Harlem, situated on two floors of a previously un-renovated 1930's warehouse. The adaptive reuse of the 25,000 SF space presented a number of difficult challenges, from an unusually low ceiling height to the absence of any natural light. Consequently, the design of the 16-classroom facility developed around the need to radically transform the existing building into a varied space for learning, creating a sense of openness to the surrounding community and continuity between the neighborhood and individual classroom environments. To that end, the design sought to engender moments of engagement, small and large, between the community and the facility, in ways that would support the Center’s mission and provide infrastructural improvements that would benefit the building and the neighborhood alike. This included creating a new, illuminated storefront entry that brings light and activity to the street corner, and installing new perimeter windows at the 2nd floor that bring daylight to the center of the large floorplate, while simultaneously opening the bright, active interior (previously undetectable) to the street.
To ameliorate the low ceiling height of the 2nd floor, a field of recessed and painted lighting bays was introduced, tracing the shape of the joist-framing above and populating the ceiling with pools of diffuse light. Varying in size and color, these bays are distributed throughout the lower floor, animating the public spaces, open offices, and therapy rooms with discrete episodes of color and light - effectively creating the perception of greater height and illumination from above. To address the much taller ceilings of the upper floor, suspended panels and a low datum of pendant lighting bring down the perceived scale of the classrooms. These panels are composed of a center, perforated maple veneered acoustic panel, flanked by painted gypsum which corresponds to the painted lighting bays on the 2nd floor – enabling color to act as an organizational tool for teachers who collect their students downstairs under the subtle glow of a lighting bay which corresponds to their particular classroom.
Given the organization's focus on purposeful play for social and sensory awareness, the selection and application of color was intended to promote thoughtful engagement with the surrounding physical environment: from signifying family and community program, to establishing recognizable relationships between spaces and activities for the students. At the lobby, the colors of the lighting bays are coordinated with similarly painted ceiling panels in the classrooms upstairs, establishing a visual and cognitive link between individual classrooms and meeting areas in the lobby for student pickup and drop off. To further promote active connections within the design, a family of furniture-scaled elements was deployed throughout the space to announce moments of interaction between the community and the organization. Rendered in vibrant orange, these include a string of built-in, curved seating along the lobby window wall, millwork pieces at the family waiting room and reception, and a large central stair. These elements organize the public sequence from the street level entry to the classrooms, giving shape, purpose, and continuity to the various spaces along the way.