Walking by the Martin Luther King High School campus, it’s hard to tell that there are actually six different theme-based high schools housed in the same complex, at 122 Amsterdam Ave. and West 66th Street. In its current dilapidated condition, not many people use the plaza outside the building, but faculty and students of Manhattan Hunter High School for Science, one of those six schools, want to change that.
Last year, art teacher Nick Kozak noticed that faculty members kept talking about updating the plaza, but no one had any specific ideas. He had always wanted to implement an architecture unit in his studio arts class, and after asking the principals of each of the schools on campus what they envisioned, he decided to give his students the task of redesigning the space.
Kozak was most excited to present his class with a reality-based project.
“This is actually being discussed, this is not just some lesson conceived out of nothingness,” he recalled telling his students. “I wanted them to go through the steps that an actual architectural firm would have to go through.”
Kozak broke the class into groups of three and asked them to think about all aspects of the space, keeping in mind that it would serve not just their high school, but all of the schools in the building, as well as the community.
Principal Susan Kreisman said the goal is to create a “space that announced both who inhabited the building, which really hasn’t existed, and also a space which was inviting and welcoming.”
Some basic upgrades are also needed. Benches in the plaza are worn down and arranged so that a larger space cannot be created.
“That front plaza is horrific. [The benches have] been the bane of my existence since it was built,” said Council Member Gale Brewer, who has supported the project. “It’s all in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, but you’d never know it.”
Brewer, along with the schools’ principals and the firm Handel Architects LLP, judged the students’
designs in March. The plans were evaluated for aesthetics, the use of green technology, unification of the space, use of open areas and other criteria. Some ideas included a hydroponic wall (similar to the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center), bringing in large boulders for visual interest and seating, and making the front entrance more handicap accessible.
Many of these suggestions have been incorporated into the recommendations Brewer’s office has sent to the School Construction Authority, seeking funds for the renovation.
While students expected a quick turnaround on the project, Kozak has reminded them that it’s a long process. Still, he was impressed with their level of engagement and is thrilled to see the proposals moving forward.
“It really went beyond the surface of just a place for people to walk around,” he said of the students’ designs. “It made me swell with pride.”
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