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Fostering Meaningful Partnerships Between Schools and Communities

On Thursday, April 22, 2021, LA IDEA members were honored to host architects and principals, Salo Levinas and Maria Gorodetskaya, from distinguished architecture firm Shinberg Levinas in a webinar titled, “Fostering Meaningful Partnerships Between Schools and Communities.”

Our Speakers

Salo Levinas is an internationally recognized architect known for his distinguished and innovative contemporary designs for institutional, commercial, sacred, and residential clients as principal of Shinberg Levinas. His projects have appeared and been reviewed in broad circulation publications and a number of international books and online magazines. Levinas is a frequent lecturer in the U.S. and abroad on responsible design, and is a recognized leader in the Hispanic community - he received the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Hispanic Leader in Architecture Award for his architectural contribution to the Washington Metropolitan Area and his philanthropic work in the Hispanic community. A native of Argentina, Levinas received his architectural degree from the University of Buenos Aires’ School of Architecture and Urban Design in 1981.

Maria Gorodetskaya is a partner and principal at Shinberg Levinas. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University and is a Registered Architect in DC. Her technical expertise, attention to detail, problem-solving focus and strong organizational skills positions her well to manage projects and teams. Gorodetskaya is committed to realizing the integrity of the project’s design intent from conception to completion. She maintains long-term client relationships and connects the designer’s vision to the client’s goals at every stage of the project path, overcoming challenges and researching solutions to maintain shared success.

The firm’s work includes extensive experience designing educational institutions, the topic on which they were invited to discuss at LA IDEA. One theme that emerged in the discussion was how to develop strategies that ensure projects are successful not only as works of architecture, but as places of engagement for children, parents, and surrounding communities.

Levinas stated, “The role of the architect is to understand their commitment to the societies in which a project is developed.” Levinas and Gorodetskaya described the firm’s work as the nexus between three relationships:

Neighborhood, Children, and Parent Involvement: Understanding neighborhood dynamics and demographics is a fundamental step in a design project. Shinberg Levinas follows this as a basis for design; they believe buildings are made for users, not just building owners. Each project benefits from an extensive process of neighborhood and community feedback. This process may be challenging, yet rewarding, as the input plays an important role in shaping a project’s design and generating buy-in from community members. What school facilities will be open to the public? How will the landscape of the new building shape the pedestrian experience in a positive way? These are just some examples of questions that can be addressed in meetings/design charrettes with a project’s neighboring community.

In schools, children are the main users and they benefit from design that evokes collaboration, integration, and communication. Space layouts should be flexible for different learning styles, activities, and accessible to all. They should also be integrated with efficient building systems that make for a comfortable learning environment. The furniture layout needs to be integrated for each program and room type, so that kids can interact with it in an engaging, didactive manner. Materials and finishes as well can transform the atmosphere into a playful tone, and everything in sight and touch becomes part of the learning experience.

Parents are often active stakeholders, maintaining relationships with teachers and other parents, as well as attending school activities. The development of after-school programs, childcare programs, or adult learning programs allow parents to interact within the project space, and are another example of generating a sense of belonging for community members.

Selected Case Studies The second half of the discussion explored the community engagement strategies used in a select number of projects.

Paul Public Charter School – 5800 8th St NW, Washington, DC For this addition, new volumes were designed with bridges connected to the existing school. These bridges transformed the layout, allowing the courtyards to be engaging and accessible outdoor spaces. The contemporary white volumes facing the community were designed with substantial glazing to be more inviting, with the flexible communal spaces open to the neighborhood

Eagle Academy Charter School – 1017 New Jersey Ave SE, Washington, DC This is another welcoming project where the addition, art classrooms and a swimming pool, among other spaces, are open to all. These changes have transformed the neighborhood into a walkable area. During the day, the glazed portions of the facade offer a peak into the activities happening on the inside. At night, a mix of translucent and transparent materials emit a glowing quality, with the building resembling a lantern.

Hyde Addison Elementary School – 3219 O St NW, Washington, DC The design process for this school involved numerous meetings spanning several years with community members, owners, and members of the historical review board, which led to a successful project. The stakeholders at the school needed an exterior gathering place, which inspired the design choice of locating the gym underground in order take advantage of the limited exterior space for alternate uses. Furthermore, the ease-of-access to the gym and library have promoted a strong sense of belonging for school users and neighboring community. The building’s modern design contrasts with the architectural style of Georgetown, yet its compelling and dynamic terracotta façade connects the building to historic brick exteriors in the community.

Bowser-Muyshondt Digital Library – San Salvador, El Salvador This library in El Salvador exemplifies the ability of Shinberg Levinas to adapt their practice at an international level, across materials, climates, and culture. For this pro-bono project, the communal needs and the local environment played a major role in the project design. The sustainability strategies included natural ventilation, building around trees to preserve forestry, and using local materials and recycling wood for the building and its interior bookshelves. The project promoted collaboration between various local artists and architects, whose work is now featured within the building.

How can architects be more involved with the communities for which they design? Levinas and Gorodetskaya emphasized the importance of open-mindedness, humility, and disposition to listen. Architects and designers may benefit from approaching a project with a clean slate, as each project exists within unique circumstances. Community engagement techniques range from interactive design charettes, questionnaires regarding user needs, back-to-back meetings, full-scale construction mockups, and inclusive activities such as community participation in mural design. These interactions typically transform the entire design process in a constructive way. For this reason, relationships that are essential may continue to grow beyond the regular scope of work.

Event Moderator: Daniela Pardo Blog Author: Mariana Torres


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