With Andri Putri, Eileen Dirks, and Masha Konopleva
How did volunteers from Ennead get involved in the library renovation at PS/MS 57 in Harlem?
Masha Konopleva: It was through our relationship with Concrete Safaris, a nonprofit organization in East Harlem that supports outdoor education and community engagement for youth. About four years ago, a few of us from the office signed up for one of their volunteer calls to work at a garden they operate. We really enjoyed it, so when AIA New York’s annual Day of Service came around in 2019, we proposed partnering with Concrete Safaris. For that event, the Ennead team designed and built benches which are raised garden planters that provide an open circle of seating for outdoor programming. We thought the experience was fun, so we decided to do it again and made a commitment to Concrete Safaris for another project – renovating a public school library in Harlem where they often hold after-hours activities. Then COVID hit. Pandemic delays made progress on the project challenging at times, but we kept pushing forward. Two years later, our entirely volunteer renovation of PS/MS 57 Library is complete.
What did the project involve?
Eileen Dirks: The library and community space renovation at PS/MS 57 was meant to reinforce Concrete Safaris’ mission of healthy living, and also adapt the space for returning students. It was an opportunity to bring something fresh into a dated interior. Through colors, texture, materiality, and some thoughtful choices of placement and process, we were able to infuse the space with creativity, which we hope will be both inspiring and enjoyable.
Masha Konopleva: It was an interesting project because it is a small space with such a diversity in user groups. During the day, it is used by the school librarian and middle and elementary school students. After school, it is used by Concrete Safaris for their youth programs, and in the evenings, it often functions as a community space for adults. One of the big design moves we made was to add a space partition which established some distinct work zones, making the room more adaptable.
How did the artist’s mural come about?
Andri Putri: As we were planning the improvements, one goal was to bring more of the energy of the neighborhood indoors. We knew we wanted something colorful and uplifting. I reached out to artists who often work with public schools to see if anyone might be interested in creating an interior mural. Kat Lam, who is a fantastic artist, agreed to do it. Her artwork really fits the ambience that we wanted to bring to this space to support STEM learning and overall positive mental health. It's very playful and geometric, and it fits with the materials palette.
How did you source the materials for this volunteer effort?
Eileen Dirks: I sat down with Andri and Masha and we thought about how we can make the interior more dynamic while conscious of the fact that we did not have a budget for materials. We were relying heavily on donations for everything—from paint, ceiling tiles, and window coverings, to rugs, furniture, and air purifiers. There were so many wonderful people that helped on the manufacturing side, Keilhauer, Maharam, Knoll and Shaw, among many others. We are grateful to our partners on this project at Richter+Ratner, ATW, and AIA, to former Ennead staff member Lauren Harness, who was a key figure from the beginning and also coordinated Ennead’s donation of 3D printers to the school, as well as to everyone at the firm who supported this effort.
What did this project mean to you?
Andri Putri: I started working on this shortly after I arrived at Ennead. This project feels special to me because it came at the right time. When the pandemic first hit, I felt a great sense of urgency to go out and do something positive amid so many feelings of isolation and helplessness. Making a space healthier, brighter, and better for these kids felt very important.
Masha Konopleva: What began with pulling weeds in a garden four years ago has grown into a volunteer effort that continues to add more people from Ennead, all taking our skills out into the community to help a nonprofit whose mission we believe in. It is great to see the relationship with Concrete Safaris continue – we are excited to welcome some of their students to our office soon to learn more about architecture and design. For me, working at this scale is also a reminder of how small changes can make an impact on how people learn, collaborate, and find joy and pride in their space.