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Cooke School & Institute

Autonomy, Independence, Recognition

PBDW Architects

Like many things in the United States, New York’s Cooke School & Institute is the result of private enterprise: the determination and voluntary work of many families to provide their special needs children with academic programs, therapy and other support services. This private initiative was also backed by New York State and City, which gave permission for building a new school in East Harlem, bringing under one roof the institution’s three makeshift and ill-adapted locations scattered around Manhattan.

Sited on a relatively empty city block occupied by brick buildings dating back to the 1960s, the school has the unusual privilege - in a dense city like New York - to stand on its site as a freestanding construction open on all four sides.

Chosen from among the many practices examined, PBDW Architects came to the task with a solid portfolio of building for schools, foundations and organizations, their tailor-made programs always taking their cue from the specific values and cultural identities of each institution.

In the case of the Cooke School, it meant providing for pupils in need of help to learn life skills that would allow them to be independent actors able to navigate their environments. In addition, the brief required the school to have two completely separate
units - a grammar school and a high school - as well as administrative offices.

The plot’s wide rectangular footprint facilitated the division into two separate units on each floor, each served by its own independent staircase. Only the below-grade and ground levels are common to both schools and contain the shared gym, cafeteria, music room and some administrative offices.

Color has been used as a strategic programmatic feature, facilitating orientation and coping skills. The common areas are blue, the grammar school is yellow, while green is the signature color of the high school. Accent colors on floors, walls and...

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