By Emily Pierson-Brown
PEople Culture Manager
If “diversity” is being invited to the party, “inclusivity” is being asked to dance. Creating an inclusive environment is about a mindset and an attitude, the intentional expanding of the circle not just to invite everyone in, but to ensure that their experience is meaningful. Translated into architecture, that goal means the people who would inhabit the built environment will inform how it’s designed.
Building inclusive communities has been a hallmark of Perkins Eastman’s portfolio for decades. Three projects spanning thirty years illustrate this mission particularly well as examples of the Human by Design ethos that guides our firm.
A Safe Space to Learn
Thirty years before gay marriage was legalized—a milestone marking society’s widespread acceptance of gay rights—the Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI) founded the Harvey Milk School in an effort to create safe space for LGBTQ youth in New York City. The school, named in honor of the iconic gay rights activist, provided a unique educational environment to counteract the harassment and violence many LGBTQ students were experiencing at their schools. Opened in 1985, it was the first in the country to provide a safe haven specifically for LGBTQ students.
After decades of moves from one cobbled-together space to another, HMI and the Harvey Milk High School found a permanent home at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway; they turned to Perkins Eastman to design and plan the space because the firm had already built a strong relationship with the gay community. “Early days in the firm, we had extensive involvement with the LGBTQ community because we got very involved with dealing with the AIDS crisis,” says Perkins Eastman Co-Founder and Chairman Brad Perkins. “A couple of our early projects were the first AIDS hospice in New York and transitional housing for people dealing with AIDS.”
Our designers had to get creative outfitting the institute offices and school within a turn-of-the-century office building near New York University and Washington Square Park. The classrooms are intentionally small to reinforce the school’s supportive environment, and a full commercial kitchen allows HMI to provide after-school activities and social support for students and their families. Harvey Milk also provides a more robust creative program than many other public schools offer, so the design includes spaces such as a darkroom and an expansive art room.
Accordingly, one of the school’s most striking interior elements is its bold color palette. The project’s small budget didn’t allow for any architectural flourishes or cutting-edge technology, but the color conveyed an expressiveness that other public schools at the time did not have. Bright yellow angled walls with blue trim house an office block at the core of the building, while red lockers line the hall opposite the offices. The primary palette flows everywhere—even into the bathrooms.
Though the New York City Department of Education has since expanded its enrollment support for LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming students across the system, Harvey Milk High School remains popular for the intimate, supportive, and expressive environment it provides. “My son has severe ADHD and identifies as being gay,” a parent writes on GreatSchools.org. “I am very thankful that I found this school, where my son gets supported and can be himself without sneers or bullying. This school teaches the students compassion, volunteering in the community, and gives them the tools they need to become successful, confident adults.”