APRIL, APRIL 24 2011

DASH students design their dream school
A contest sponsored by local philanthropists challenges DASH students to imagine the art campus of the future.

ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ, aveciana@MiamiHerald.co
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On these grounds, inside these walls, teenagers have learned their lessons, met their friends, planned their future and grown familiar with both success and failure. Now as graduation approaches, these architecture and industrial design students have been challenged with one last task: Re-imagine your school.

Sketch out a dream campus. Decorate it with an attractive interior. And populate it with a welcoming landscape of lush and native trees.

"We've been here four years and we know what works and what doesn’t,” says Susan Alonso, a senior in the architecture program at Miami's nationally ranked Design and Architecture Senior High."We've been walking the halls and sitting in the classroom. We know what we would want to change."

Alonso and her teammate Frank Fuentes are among the 43 DASH seniors participating in a contest sponsored by philanthropists Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz and the Knight Foundation. The teams of two must come up with drawings and three-dimensional models for the art school of the future. DASH, with 500 students, is the art school of the present - or, considering its modest campus, some might say the art school of the past.

"We have an amazing staff and great classes" says Isaac Lubarsky, an industrial design senior also participating in the contest. "But the building itself...well, not so much."

Located in the Design District, where storefronts beckon with beautiful art and furnishings, DASH is a former showroom that dates to the 1970s. So it wasn’t built as a soaring structure, the kind of edifice that would symbolize budding designers’ lofty ambitions.

"The idea of designing a new building is not so crazy," insists Eric Hankin, an architecture teacher at DASH. "It needs to be done, but financially for now - that's not going to happen."

In other words, there's no money in the coffers of the Miami-Dade school system for such a project, but it doesn't costto dream, - and that is precisely what the students are doing. They're exploring possibilities with youthful passion and unbridled originality.

They must follow certain guidelines, of course. For instance, their designs must fit a vacant lot on Northeast First Court and 38 Street owned by Craig Robins, president of DACRA, a global real estate company, and a longtime supporter of DASH. The design must also be realistic and the building sustainable and efficient, keeping Miami's tropical weather in mind. Finally, the school should be treated as a cultural hub for the community, a place that could be readily used by neighborhood designers, the public and the students.

Kelley Kwiatkowski, the industrial design teacher who is working with Hankin on the contest, puts it this way: “We give them some boundaries, but we like for them to be creative. They start way out far and then retract."

Alonso and Fuentes, both 18, began researching architects and educational facilities as soon as they were introduced to the project in March. They visited Florida International University's School of International and Public Affairs, which has a rooftop garden, and asked classmates what they liked - and what they didn’t - about DASH's campus on Northeast Second Avenue.

Perhaps more importanty "we sat down and reflected on our own personal experience, how we used classrooms and other parts of the building," Fuentes said. "We studied how students circulate."

Though their design is still in the conceptual stage, Fuentes and Alonso know that certain concepts will likely survive all the way to their finished model. For example, the west facade of their building will have few windows in order to avoid the afternoon heat. They've placed the film and graphic students - who don't need natural light - on that side. The east wing has more windows and houses studio and classroom space for the art, design and architecture students who need the soft morning rays for their work.

Lubarsky and his industrial design partner, Scott Zenteno, studied a typical student's day before hitting the drawing board to imagine the interior of the future art school. Their ideas use space cleverly. The library has ledges that double as bookcases and benches. Core classrooms use angled walls to improve acoustics and the art room has pull-out easels that can also be used to hang art work. For the industrial design and architecture rooms, work tables fold into pillars and chairs stack into walls to make space for gallery exhibits.

"When we first got here" to DASH, Zenteno says, "we did designs that were just cool. Now we know that we have to design with several purposes in mind. We have to make sure to use space better."

This is the third year DASH students are participating in the de la Cruz-sponsored contest. Last year, the contest called for a transformation of Northeast 41st. Street. The year before that, the couple asked DASH students to create designs and models for a museum. The Knight Foundation began matching funds last year. All participants receive scholarship money - six $3,500 awards for first place, six $2,500 awards for honorable mentions, and $1,000 awards to each of the remaining 31 participants.

Rosa de la Cruz said she and her husband were inspired to start the contest when they found out that some DASH students werent' going to prestigious art schools even when they received financial aid because they didn’t have the extra funds to pay for incidentals.

"These are very smart, very hard working students who need a little extra," she says.

The de la Cruzes, who have an art space for their private collection near the school, have been longtime supporters of DASH as well as the New World School of Arts. In addition to various contributions during the past decade,they've launched a study/travel program, DASH Takes Manhattan, at the suggestion of DASH principal Stacey Mancuso. This summer, a group of sophomores and juniors will spend a month in New York visiting theaters and museums while also studying at the School of Visual Arts.

"We're great believers in education and that you enrich a city through knowledge," de la Cruz says. "They are our future. Their minds are open to everything."

Other donors, including the Braman Foundation and developer Robins, have contributed to various student art programs. “I hope this inspires other people to do something for their own community," de la Cruz adds.

Drawings and three-dimensional models of the art school of the future will be judged by a group of local architects and designers. The community exhibit opens May 20. Until then, the students are tweaking their creations with an eye toward the future.

"There's an urgent sense of competition not just because of the scholarship money but also because it's our last project," says Fuentes. "And you don't know if a few years from now our design does become reality."