The PAVE Academy, a charter school in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is one of the rare buildings in the neighborhood that wasn’t affected by Hurricane Sandy last November. The school’s sparing seems a bit like fate: The 40,000-square-foot building is the first new elementary school in more than half a century for the isolated neighborhood, where “elementary and middle schools have struggled for decades to adequately prepare the neighborhood students,” according to PAVE’s administrators.
The New York City public school system is full of bad architecture, most of it inherited from the 1970s and ’80s, when rising crime and a fiscal crisis produced dozens of gloomy schools that look more like prisons than schools. Pave is one of 13 schools built in the past 10 years by Civic Builders, a nonprofit development group that leverages its well-connected board of developers to open new schools in underserved areas (tagline: “real estate will never be a barrier to an excellent education”). Almost every Civic Builders school has gone on to win national awards for design, which is treated as a community investment, rather than a gift from on high.
Students at PAVE, which was designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, enter the building under a wide overhang that shouts the school’s name in canary yellow letterforms designed by Pentagram’s Paula Scher. Inside, they’re greeted by tiled slogans like “Do the right thing” and “Show me what you know.” The cafeteria is a visual cacophony of encouragement, writ in yellow and red tile: Sharpen Up. Every Day All Day. Hammer It Home. Scher calls this kind of typographic cheerleading “sloganeering,” and explains that it’s increasingly common in schools these days. “There’s a growing philosophy of explaining, and to a certain sense indoctrinating, the kids about what success can be,” she says. “The graphics are sort of like a Jewish mother, telling the kids that they’re gonna grow up and go to Harvard.”
This is Scher’s third school project with Civic Builders, where she works with the architects to develop environmental signage that incorporates sloganeering. “The best work is the work that’s in collaboration with the architects, and where you really begin to build sculptures with typography,” she says. The teachers and administrators come up with the wording, and Scher works with her design team to integrate the slogans into the architectural design. At PAVE, this is achieved by merging of typographic and architectural space with details like the entrance sign, which is made from extruded aluminum letters that reach back to the building envelop, or the hand-laid tiles that cheerlead all over the school.
Thinking back to my days in elementary school, I’m not sure how I would have taken to being yelled at by walls in addition to teachers, coaches, and parents. Scher explains that the slogans are as much about color and visual interest as motivation. “I was surprised by it, at first,” she says. “I didn’t know how the students would feel about going to a school that talked to them that way.” In fact, the kids at PAVE responded to Scher by saying they’d like to become artists, too. “They’ve been tremendously successful,” she adds. “I think most kids are accustomed to going to a school that’s totally beige.” Yep–that’s exactly how I remember it.