It’s not often that you hear the satirical newspaper, The Onion, referenced in design discussions, but in the case of Harlem’s Hamilton Grange Teen Center designed by Rice+Lipka Architects, it just so happened to inspire the space’s unconventional design.
The firm was in the early stages of its research for the 4,400-square-foot center, the first full-floor space for teenagers in the New York Public Library (NYPL) system, when Project Architect Benjamin Cadena stumbled upon a 2005 clipping from the paper entitled “‘Hanging Out’ Continues to Grow in Popularity Among Teens.”
“While it may seem harmless, even cool, the sad truth is that hanging out distracts our children from more important goals, such as buckling down or shaping up,” the article warns in mock seriousness.
“There was something in the humor of the story that made us realize that’s what teenagers do, so why would we try to create an environment that absolutely inhibits these kinds of things?” recalls Principal and Partner Lyn Rice. “We wanted to create a space—a kind of living room—where teens would feel comfortable relaxing and chatting, and where the rules weren’t as rigid.”
Just like good satire, the firm’s final design for
the space challenges expectations with its open plan, bold graphics and laid-back attitude, including a first-ever break from the near-sacred prohibition of eating and drinking in NYPL facilities. Organized into several distinct zones through the use of color, lighting and spatial cues, the center’s layout encourages small group interaction, and even—heaven forbid—fun.
“It’s about providing programs that actually interest
and engage teens, rather than trying to tell them exactly what information they should be seeking and in what format,” Rice says, adding that observations of, and feedback from, patrons of other NYPL teen areas inspired the creation of the space’s two anchor elements: a media vitrine and a bamboo bleacher.
The vitrine, filled with colorful poufs and light from the building’s large north windows, flips the notion that multimedia spaces need to be dark, isolated rooms. Measuring 20 feet in diameter, the open-topped enclosure creates a performance-like experience in the heart of the center, encouraging teens to share in the physicality
of games like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports. Four Holosonic speakers mounted above the enclosure produce a vertical column of sound, allowing teens inside to crank the volume without disturbing others.
While some may consider video gaming and peer interaction to be opposing concepts, Rice says that the vitrine’s stage effect draws teens in and pushes them to be players, not bystanders. “They’re creating a social space that kind of unglues people from the monitor.”
WATCH: Learn the backstory behind Hamilton Grange's unique design in the I&S Media Center.
The bleacher on the opposite side of the floor facilitates interaction in a more organic way, allowing teens the freedom to group up or spread out. Framed by sunny views to the south and a large-scale wall graphic depicting the constellation Leo to the west (a coded reference to the library’s mascot), the simple structure is equal parts cool hangout and community flex space. By moving the pair of custom-made L-shaped benches situated in front of the bleacher, staff members can make room for everything from poetry readings to Guitar Hero tournaments (the latter with help from a large projector screen hidden in the ceiling).
It should be noted that it’s not all fun and games at the branch, as the space also provides a range of amenities for students interested in buckling down. An X-shaped computer bar, a centrally located info desk, a study zone placed next to exam prep stacks, and a highback lounge filled with stylish seating from Arper support teens’ academic efforts, while a brightly colored snack and chat niche gives them a place to fuel up.
These study areas are tucked into pockets of space created by the positioning of the vitrine and bleacher, and help create the center’s fluid, flexible dynamic. Users can move between spaces and groups, and are encouraged to create their own experience, whether it’s a noisy jam session or a self-directed SAT study session—or maybe a little bit of both. “It’s not about an isolated study experience, but rather a more socially interactive experience,” Rice says. “Not necessarily with computers, but actual human beings.”
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