A long-standing fixture in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Concourse House is a shelter that serves women with young children who are transitioning out of homelessness. In addition to providing families with safe and stable transitional housing, it also provides a range of social services to help those families make successful transitions into permanent housing. New York City architecture firm MKCA, established in 2011, recently redesigned the Children’s Library at Concourse House, providing a space for families to come together and enjoy an atmosphere of learning and community. We spoke with Michael K. Chen, principal of MKCA, about what the project means to him and why he took on the project pro bono.
Michael, tell us more about how you got involved with the Concourse House project.
Michael K. Chen: We were brought into the project by Julie and Kate Yamin, whose family has been supporting Concourse House for many years. They started an initiative to create a library at Concourse House, and they engaged us to design the library.
Why did you decide to do the work pro bono?
Michael K. Chen: It was clear to us from the very beginning that this was a special project. It is a special population—women with young children who are transitioning out of homelessness—and such a compelling and inspired initiative. Reading was my absolute favorite activity as a child, and access to books was one of the most significant and deeply formative privileges of my own childhood. The same was true for everyone on our team. We are all book lovers. We are a small office, with all of the challenges of a small business, but as soon as we were able to make it work, it was an easy decision to do the project pro bono.
You teach architecture at Pratt. What’s a key principle from your classes that you took into the Concourse House project?
Michael K. Chen: On the broadest level, I am personally inspired by the notion that the city is the technology that allows us to live together. I always try to communicate that to my students. And to the extent that architecture and architects play a significant role in shaping and envisioning the city, it’s important to think about how our work can make a positive contribution to living together in a better way.
Homelessness is a topic that remains one of the most pressing issues of our times. We interviewed Rosanne Haggerty, one of New York City’s trailblazers of homelessness, in one of our prior issues. What was the most challenging aspect for you—from an architectural standpoint—to cover in terms of your client’s goals?
Michael K. Chen: Concourse House’s mission is to both provide housing to women who need it, and to help those women and their families make a successful transition to permanent housing, through services, training and resources. Our donors’ vision is one of personal empowerment and self-esteem, specifically through literacy for women and their children. The library is home to a number of programs, including readings, story time, poetry writing workshops and advising.
For us there was a challenge to accommodate a wide-ranging set of uses in a small footprint; to design for numerous ways for adult and child users of the library to use the space, from formal study, to group events, to quiet settling in with a book; and to ensure that the library would hold up to intense use, while maintaining a deeply residential feel. Concourse House is a temporary home for these families, but it was important to us that the space feels like a home, and that it clearly communicates caring and goodwill.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the project was hearing how special it feels to the children and their mothers, and seeing the ease with which the kids settled into the space. It’s clear that the entire community at Concourse House feels at home in the library. And that’s everything that we hoped for.
One of the ideas that’s mentioned in your concept is that the space you designed “allows for flexible transitions between individual and organized group readings and storytelling.” What kind of feedback did you take into consideration in regards to having individual and group spaces? Why is that important to the people, or children, that visit the library?
Michael K. Chen: The library is fairly compact, but it punches above its weight. We thought a lot about how to design for collective events around books and reading, and around personal time for reading and imagination. We provided space for children to sit on the floor around a reader or storyteller. For slightly more formal situations, we created a series of upholstered poufs that provide seating for these kinds of events. Those poufs get stashed in sets of cubbies along one wall, and when they are put away, they create an upholstered surface that makes sitting on the floor with your back to the upholstered wall a comfortable experience.
Even though the space is small, it was important to us and the library that the space provide for both a collective experience around books, as well as an individual experience. I think that range of activity strengthens the community’s relationship with books and reading, and it creates different opportunities to experience the collection. Even in the short time that it’s been open, the library has become an important component of the Concourse House after-school activities, as well as evening reading and writing events.
Tell us a little more about how women or women with young children played a role in the design.
Michael K. Chen: My mother studied library science, and started her career as a librarian, and she instilled in me a love of books and of reading. So thinking about women, families, and books is something that was hardwired in my personal history from the very beginning. My husband works on women’s rights and reproductive freedom at the ACLU, and my sister works on combating human trafficking, which disproportionately impacts women, so I draw endless inspiration from them.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that design for women was much of a specific factor here, beyond our desire to deliver an outstanding project for Concourse House. Our focus was mainly on the children. There had been a temporary library in the space previously, but because it was dark and fairly hastily put together, the children were intimidated by the space, and hesitant to use it. So a lot of the design approach had to do with balancing some technical and safety concerns, like making sure that there was no risk of children falling through the existing railing that only nominally separated the library from the chapel space beyond, but also making sure that the lighting in the space was warm and welcoming, and that the design was friendly, almost cuddly. That, and the shape of the vaulted ceiling of the building really drove the form of the library.
The carpet, which was a collaboration with the artist Alex Proba, was another important component. We wanted to make sure that the carpet would be plush, and also playful. And of course, we wanted to make sure that the colors of the carpet and the space were fun and also not overly gendered.
In parallel with the design of the library, we organized a design-focused art auction that was sourced from our network of creators and galleries. One hundred percent of the proceeds went to support the library, and we took pains to make sure that the work of women designers, like Alex Proba, were represented. We had incredible contributions from designers like Bec Brittain, Mary Wallace, Lindsey Adelman, Katrina Vonnegut, Brian Kraft, Egg Collective, Kinder Modern and many more.