North Brother Island, an island located in New York's East River, has been used for a plethora of different purposes since 1885 -- including a quarantine zone, a hospital for infectious diseases, a tuberculosis sanitarium, a host for Typhoid Mary, a site of a disasterous shipwreck, a drug rehab center, and housing for World War II soldiers. Since 1963, the island has been abandoned, and over the more than 50 years, it has served as a habitat for colonial water birds.
University of Texas, Austin architecture student Ian M. Ellis, and partner Frances Peterson are proposing that a school for children on the autism spectrum be built on the abandoned North Brother Island. They feel that the 20-acre island, would provide the perfect backdrop to address the various needs of autistic children.
Ellis and Peterson want to put the Island back to good use as a school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as stabilize its landscape so that it can serve as a bird habitat again. They propose to restore five of the islands’s existing buildings for reuse by the school and use the existing structures that are further south for field offices for the New York City Parks Department, Cornell University Department of Ornithology and the Audobon Society. The four remaining structures on the island would be left to decay naturally into the bird habitat.
Ellis and Peterson attempt to use architecture to address the spectrum of needs of autistic children. They have designed the school in three clusters. The west cluster would be for children that are in the middle of the spectrum, the central and most protected cluster would be for children who are hypersensitive, and the east cluster, which has the most exposure to the public realm, would be for those students who are hyposensitive and need extra stimulation. The classrooms in all three clusters would be identical, while the roof and garden spaces would provide variety and identity to each cluster.
As for the rest of the island, Ellis and Peterson propose winding paths throughout to entice visitors to explore the island without disturbing the children, the school or the habitat for the birds. There would be open park spaces creating gathering spaces for the public, the school and various research functions happening on the island. For Ellis and Peterson, the island could be an interdependent system where “the unusual mix of program, site, and clients (neuro-typical children, autistic children, researchers, educators, and birds) actually reinforce and enable the success and growth of each other… human or bird.”