2017 Board Choice Award

St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School

Category: Collaborative Design

Landscape Architect:

RKLA Studio


Project Team:

Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects

Photography: Frank Oudeman/OTTO

About the Project:

Guided by an educational tradition  to nurture  the “whole person:  body, mind and spirit”, St. Hilda’s &  St. Hugh’s School in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood embarked on an extensive “greening” to better serve its diverse pre-K through  8th grade community. Stretching over the School’ s interior and exterior spaces, this “greening”  was a true collaboration  between landscape architect and architect. With little outdoor play space in such a densely urban environment,  the School’s 7,400 square foot roof playdeck was a highlight of this initiative. Once dark and confining, the re-envisioned playdeck has become an exhilarating play space rich with environments that support the whole child through physical activity, imaginative play, experiential learning, and quiet study.

Project Location: New York City

Special Factors

Prior to renovation, the children’s only outdoor play  space was an uninspired  playdeck  on the roof of the School’s gymnasium. In order to create a more engaging urban  landscape that supported  the School’s emphasis on play-  “the work of children”-  the design team used elements of field and sky as a guide . Portions of the existing steel cage at each end of the roof were removed, physically separating the ball play area from the Brutalist 7-story classroom building. This gesture created a more expansive play space open  to the sky above.

The reconfigured playdeck  now features  three distinct landscapes:  an enclosed  ball play area, a playground, and an outdoor classroom. The ball play area features a play surface with radiant heating for year-round play as well as woven  shade cloths printed with images of dynamic landscapes. A revolving installation of unique play equipment in the playground area offers students of different ages a variety of opportunities to climb, slide, swing and jump. At the far end of the roof behind a new slatted wood wall, is  the outdoor classroom that doubles as a quiet area. The highlight of this space is a 10-foot-tall living wall. Throughout the landscape native plantings provide ever-changing sensory interest with varying tastes , colors, textures, and smells.

The impact of the reimagined playdeck is furthered amplified by its relationship to the interior spaces, with views of the roof from the classroom visible. Classrooms, especially those at the playdeck level, enjoy passive and active interaction with the landscape and children at play. In addition, custom glass terrariums at each classroom, designed in collaboration with the architect, bring the natural world indoors. Through all these “greening” initiatives, the School is nurturing a whole child – one that learns through play and has developed an appreciation of the natural world.