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The classroom is NOT a box, it is a learning environment. Traditionally, the school building is an industrial package of these boxes efficiently put together. The mission statement of The Blurred Classroom is to unfold, unpack the box – and blur the lines of how the classroom is traditionally known.

The design team took the following steps of action:

REUSE: Appropriate portions of the existing building.

TRANSFORM: The corridor by changing it into an activated learning space.

UNFOLD the BOX: To provide for multiple types of learning environments with maximum flexibility.

ENGAGE: The outdoor environment from the classroom and bring the classroom outside.

SHIFT: Thinking to allow for traditional group space to become activated communal space.

EVOLVE: Towards learner centered spaces.

BLUR: The lines between flexibility defined spaces to create a wide variety of learning environments.
Maximizes use of existing spaces by creating overlaps in the interstitial space.

The design team partnered with the Future Leaders Institute [FLI], a public charter school who shares space with two other schools in an existing school building in Harlem, New York City, for a few important reasons.

First, FLI is a high performing school providing quality education for their students in spite of specific challenges that each student faces. This school is focused on providing excellent education at every level for students from Kindergarten through Eighth grade. Curriculum includes not only language, math and science skills, but strives to include social learning around individual responsibility, community and leadership experiences.

Second, FLI works with an underserved population in a dense urban area. The positive and progressive program permeates through the schools’ culture, as well as having an immense impact on student’s families, local neighborhood, and community.

Third, FLI currently resides in an older, traditional public school building, designed and built for traditional educational purposes. The three story academic building has an attached gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium. With a traditional plan designed around a simple double loaded corridor with stairs at either end of the hall, it functions, but in the traditional school model of yesterday’s society. The classrooms are appropriately sized and shaped for education in the 1950s, and the building has held up well for its age.

Fourth and most importantly, the Future Leaders Institute has found the physical space they occupy constrains the level of effective education they can provide and their ability to prepare future global leaders. Located in an urban, high-density environment, these students are surrounded by the hurried speed, and unforgiving nature of the world. The design team is attempting to prepare students for this fast-paced world by creating an encouraging atmosphere which is:

Comfortable, yet rigorous

Versatile, yet stable

Individualized, yet communal


Liberated, yet responsible.

. . . the music of learning . . .

One of the things that sets this school apart is its ties to culture. They express this through the infusion of musical instruments, specifically drums, throughout the school day. The drums have become a point of pride for the students and are an opportunity for mentoring, socialization and shared learning. In the proposed design, the drums have become a source of design inspiration.

This design approach recognizes the music of learning and its key components. The spaces act as the instruments on which the music is played. By creating diversity of spaces, we provide depth and richness to educational opportunities.

The rhythm of learning is set by the schools’ curriculum and culture. The melody is based on the talents of each individual student. Harmony is created with larger groups having shared learning opportunities.

Blurred Classroom – Research shows students learn in different ways and at different rates. The proposed design creates the required diversity of learning, by supporting the individual melodies to create the harmony of an orchestra. The blurring happens when a traditional classroom box is flexible enough to transform into a multitude of spaces from a small group learning room to a multi-use assembly space. The variety of spaces provides an opportunity for the individual student to shine, thus tapping into each student’s individual strengths, again another growing sense of pride.

Corridor Transformation – FLI emphasized the value of self directed learning through casual opportunities of leadership, mentoring and curriculum based learning. The design approach transforms the traditional corridor into a multi-use space, named the Boulevard. To many students, the school is their first home, so this design seeks to provide students a space they can relate to and take pride in. The Boulevard creates a comfortable, flexible space that activates and engages student learning. It is a social space that provides identity nodes throughout the school, and can become owned by an individual student or group of students.

The boulevard experience is about improvisation. Each student can interact with other students, teachers, use technology, be outdoors, and experience cultural signifiers such as the drums.

The proposed design supports a variety of ways that “spaces can be played.” These range from direct instruction to individual improvisation. It provides support to existing student behaviors but will require more of a shift for instructors. This shift is desirable, as their current plan restricts their ability to embrace a more progressive pedagogy.

Global Awareness – Creates a compass for students so they understand how they fit within the world. The existing building is in a neighborhood which embraces community, history and culture. The design approach reuses and respects as much of the existing structure as appropriate. There is much needed green space taking the place of what was previously a plain façade. Students viewing the outdoors from within the classrooms will be inspired by their surrounding neighborhood.

There are many opportunities for interaction with outdoor space (at their floor as well as on the roof) and through materiality. Bamboo floors, recycled millwork and natural daylighting are integral to the overall design. The use of advanced technology throughout the space will help prepare the students for the future. The roof garden allows the classroom instruction to be achieved in an outdoor setting.

The communicative relationship with the Future Leaders Institute has created an idealized design that addresses their specific culture, curriculum, personality, and needs, but can also be a potential prototype that is accessible and applicable to schools anywhere. The teams’ approach to ‘blur the lines’ of the classroom and unfold the box truly have an immediate impact on learner-centered environments. By blurring the boundaries of the traditional classroom redefines what it can be. The proposed design makes a bold statement that the “perfect classroom” is not a single box, but, a series of dynamic, flexible and overlapping learning environments.


For more detailed information on the design team’s process, see the attached video:


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“The drums are an inheritance from our culture” – Peter Anderson, Head of School

“The existing alumni mural is the best space at the school” – Patricia Charlemagne, Chief Operating Officer

“We believe that true education is holistic. And so not only do we seek to address the needs of the children by nurturing their minds, but, we seek to address their whole beings.” – Peter Anderson, Head of School

“Even as you look at the school itself the layout is traditional. One corridor down the middle, all classrooms mirror each other, nothing special or creative about it. Four walls. No change in function in terms of the different rooms, they are pretty static places. There is very limited creativity now.” – Michael Pages, Director of Institutional Advancement and Special Projects

“This is where I go for inspiration – I go to my mind because I can think a lot.” – Student, Grade 6

Themes of Student Visioning Session:

- High Tech / Futuristic

- Inspirational

- Outdoor / Earthy / Trees

- Sophisticated

- “Fun-ducational”

- Flexible / Versatile

Space Designations:

ACADEMY: Open / Individually Focused

FORT: Closed / Self-Directed

TENT: Focused / Self-Directed

PORCH: Open / Self-Directed

CAMPFIRE: Open / Group Focused

PICNIC: Open / Directed

Versatility and student adaptability are essential design characteristics with the Future Leaders Institute. Learning environments can be easily transformed from individualized spaces to teacher-led group instruction rooms. There are multiple levels of transparency throughout the proposed design, with the learning spaces overlapping and breathing into one another.

Activity Wall

- White Board

- Sink

- Organized Storage

- Moveable wall


- Panelized

- Switchable glass

- Moveable

Teaching Wall

- Integrated Technology

- Tackable panels

- White boards

- Hidden storage space

- Movable divider wall


- Interactive displays

- School Announcements on LED banners

- Stand up computer kiosks

- OLED Technology


- Drum Circles / Storage

- Collapsible Bleachers

- Soft seating

- Floor to Ceiling glass

- Expandable to Learning Spaces

- Access to Outdoor Gardens


134 West 122nd Street
New York, New York
United States

Competition Category Entered

Competition Details

  • Name: 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom
  • Host: Architecture for Humanity
  • Type: Public
  • Registration Deadline: May 4, 2009
  • Submission Deadline: June 1, 2009
  • Entry Fee: $25 USD Developed Nations , $0 USD Developing Nations
  • Award: $50,000 for the winning school for classroom construction and upgrading, and $5,000 stipend for the design team.
  • Contact: Sandhya
  • Status: Winners Announced

The competition entry ID for this project is 3973.

Project Details

NAME: 3973_Blurred-Classrooms
LOCATION: 134 West 122nd Street, New York, New York, United States
START DATE: January 28, 2009
CURRENT PHASE: Design development
PROJECT TYPE: Education Facility - Primary School
CLIENT: FLI Charter School
, Architecture for Humanity

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