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Montessori School of Lower Manhattan, New York City, United States

Wednesday 31 Aug 2011

Learning by heart

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Manhattan pre-school provides foundation for an optimistic future 

This Montessori pre-school is built on the foundation of resilience. It was conceived in the spirit of moving forward; designed to provide a space to learn and become enlightened in a city, and a world, that was posed with the threat of stagnancy. In the aftermath of 9/11, the users - children - were left without their school.

In a daunting time, the client for this project didn’t miss a beat. They donated their art gallery, which Lewis and Gould Architects had recently completed, to be used as a blank canvas for a temporary school. The success of the school is inherent in the fact that 10 years later, not only does it still stand, it has expanded vertically to floors above and another branch was completed three years ago in the Wall Street area, walking distance to the site of the former World Trade Center.

Both neighborhoods are new locations for schools for young children to be built. They help to create new neighborhoods and enrich existing ones. Lewis and Gould Architects' design is intended to define the space, accentuating the natural light and contours of the gallery that came before it.

They used borrowed light to surpass the concept of a classroom as separate from the outdoors, encouraging a light-hearted learning experience. They placed grass on the floor at the base of each of the large windows to teach that their classrooms are much like the world outside them; the window does not separate what they learn inside from how they apply it out of doors.

Each cubby unit is designed with the concept of personal space in mind. Each child has a reserved space for their possessions that effectively holds their belongings without encouraging excessive materialism. They place their backpack, jacket and stroller on a large bike hook and share a seat with their neighbor. Above the cubbies there is closed storage for naptime mats and supplies. The alternate side of each cubby unit holds a desktop for computer and sharing layout space, a box-shaped shelf for holding books within, globes and containers above and a light contained in the bottom.

The rooms made of cubby units have a dropped grid above which creates a sense of scale and holds lighting to simulate the type of light kids experience in an intimate space. The use of space is economical, balancing open and enclosed spaces and seamlessly fusing storage and work space. Each piece of furniture is chosen for its efficacy and storage abilities, as to further the space’s capaciousness.

This school not only provides a new school for the youngsters of lower Manhattan, but gives them a safe and welcoming environment to foster their beliefs in working together towards progressive ideals including social justice and teamwork. It fulfills the prophecy of its students: to eventually grow, to invent, to learn without a classroom and to be resilient.


Social, environmental, technical, economic and community goals have all been realized in this small dynamic space. The initial project has had an amazing and positive social impact on its users and the surrounding community.

Children and parents can walk to school rather than commuting all over the city. The client benefited by the economic and technical solution of carefully honed pre-fabricated units and their ability to convert an art gallery, also once a plant warehouse, into a usable space for a school. This community, affected by the destruction of much of lower Manhattan, has been assisted as they re-create and improve their neighborhood with the addition of the school.

Constructed as an impermanent place, the design is a collection of precise / useful pre-fabricated units arranged to solve a multitude of duties. Though designed as temporary, the space quickly became a haven for families looking for a place to send their young ones; the seeds of the next generation. Each facet of the school's design is intended to broaden horizons and open pathways for an education that stays true to its principles.

Key Facts

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Lewis and Gould Architects, PC

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