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Imagining a New School in Opa-Locka, Florida's Moorish Revival Wonderland

Where the architecture makes for interactive learning

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, new ideas for a building conversion in Opa-Locka, Florida.

The Hurt Building began its life in 1926 as a hotel. Really, though, like most of the buildings in Opa Locka, Florida, it was a short-lived dream. In 1926, aviation millionaire and developer Glenn Curtiss and partner James H. Bright constructed around a hundred Moorish-style structures just north of Miami, hoping to seed a suburb that would take after 1001 Arabian Nights. Opa Locka was a wonderland of minarets and domes and exotically-named streets—Sultan, Ali Baba, and Sharazad Boulevard—a blend of American expansion and architectural appropriation, a beguiling, if strange, collection of Orientalist buildings conceived by men who’d never been to the Orient.

A hurricane hit in 1926 and, though a train station opened in 1927 to receive the inaugural run of the Seaboard Airline Railroad’s "Orange Blossom Express" and Curtiss had added a golf course, zoo, archery club, and airport by 1928, the stock market crash in 1929 curtailed further development. In the ensuing decades, Opa Locka’s mission was lost as it became known more for high crime rates—at one point, it boasted the highest violent crime rate in the nation—than for its whimsical architecture.

More recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Opa Locka as an active community development corporation marshaled resources to the area and authorities wrangled crime under control. (A 2010 FBI report placed the city as fourth for crime in Florida, and rates have continued to decrease.) Architectural restoration efforts have flourished: the multi-domed City Hall, conceived as a sales center for Curtiss’ original housing development, was restored in 1987 and is now being converted to an arts hub, and the CDC renovated the Hurt Building in 1990 and the city’s rail station, with train tracks flanked by slim minarets, in 2003.

Opa Locka now boasts 20 buildings on the national historic register and an increasing number of community development efforts, many of which focus on historic restoration and public art—and some of which have been spearheaded by urban planner, Curbed Young Gun, and Opa Locka CDC designer-in-residence Germane Barnes.

Here, Barnes teams up with Miami-based architect Joachim Perez to propose a creative re-imagining of the Hurt Building—or, as Barnes calls it, "the runner up to the main attraction of the city, the historic city hall." Graced with a distinctive, Moorish exterior and flexible, open interior, the building has, in the years since its construction, been a bit of a chameleon. "Every twenty to thirty years, the building becomes something new," explains Barnes. "Initially it was a hotel, then a gas station, a hotel, a health center, offices for the local Community Development Corporation, and now it again has a health center."

Important as its current inhabitants are—it still houses a few offices for the Opa Locka CDC and a community health center—Barnes and Perez see potential for a more tailored application. As arts charter schools open in the area amid a wave of arts-oriented activism, Barnes and Perez suggest the building’s inherent adaptive use as the city’s first science and technology charter preschool.

"We were imagining that it could be an interactive learning space," says Perez. "The Moorish architecture is not just decoration; it goes farther than that. What we’re trying to do is add yet another layer to the existing Moorish revival style that makes the building seem didactic."

At the new preschool, educational programming works hand in hand with the architectural changes Barnes and Perez suggest. The prominent second-floor dome becomes, with a series of projectors, a planetarium; the terraced roof of the first floor is converted for use as an urban farm. Windows that look out onto the terrace, originally small and thick to withstand hurricane winds, are, with newer glass technology, expanded into a mosaic of panes governed by the golden ratio. The structure itself becomes a learning tool.

"We wanted to make the building as didactic as possible so students would be learning whether they realized it or not," explains Perez. "Teachers can instruct students based on building tectonics; students can see, touch, and feel what they’re being taught."

"If a child is already behind at preschool level, it’s hard for him to catch up," adds Barnes. "The installations we’ve created are designed to catch them up. These objects would be like a rock climbing wall-slash-net so they get fitness without realizing it. Our idea is to have the kids be active without realizing they’re active, and apply that to everything. Science is the planetarium, lunch is the urban garden, gym is on the net. Everything functions as double space. You can climb up to the second level and peek into the planetarium and you’re doing physical fitness and learning about the universe."

Barnes, whose work centers on the possibility of Opa Locka’s regeneration without displacing the primarily black, primarily lower-income current residents, emphasizes the importance of the building’s continued community-oriented function.

"Even though we’re proposing radical changes as far as the windows and the painting, we wanted to make sure it was still a building that everyone in the community had access to," he says.

"We didn’t want to bring something in that didn’t talk to the architecture in the rest of the area," Perez adds. "What we’re approached with is, how do we take the old building and blend it into contemporary times?"

Here, they say, is one possibility.