Ted Hoffman is the architect who has been building Head Start centers with ECMHSP for the past 12 years. These are his thoughts.
I was asked to contribute some words and photos about the new Jennings Head Start Center I am working with ECMHSP to build in northern Florida. The work is shaping up nicely, but until it’s done, the photos can be rather uninteresting. Instead, I thought I would try to describe more generally my goals and thoughts as I design new centers for ECMHSP.
Jennings will be the seventh center for me, dating back 12 years or so. Each new site presents its own unique challenges and problems, but the overriding philosophy for me is to make each place special, interesting, welcoming, and more than just a place to drop the kids off each morning. To do that is hard, and it requires the understanding and sensitivity of all the players to make the hard work relevant and worthwhile.
We all know that for the families, the Head Start centers represent more than a safe place for their kids. It represents, I think, a refuge, a place just for them, comforting and helpful, full of resources they don’t find anywhere else. That feeling comes mostly from the staff, but I try to heighten that representation by making places that are: 1) spatially exciting and interesting; and 2) built strong in character and permanent in construction. Unfortunately, permanence is not something found in the lives of migrant farmworkers anywhere. I refuse to buy into the idea that the working poor somehow don’t deserve good design, whether it’s in their housing or where they send their kids to school. The centers I design cost the same –and in some cases actually less– than the Head Start centers that look either like big tract houses or shoeboxes scattered around a chain link playground.
I can’t talk about building for ECMHSP without mentioning my ECMHSP colleague and partner in all of this work: Mike Wilcox, the Facilities Manager. These centers would literally not look like they do without him. You would never know it from watching or listening to him growl and stomp around the site yelling at everyone (including me!), but he gets things done and the time and commitment on his part is nothing short of amazing. Another thing that happened at Jennings recently was that Mike had almost all of the maintenance people from every area come to Jennings and work for two weeks building and setting up the classrooms in order to speed up the construction process. These men work all year keeping the facilities operating and it was special to see them working together on one of my creations.
So the next time you go to one of the places Mike and I have made, look around and see if you can sense a place made with heart, soul, and a great respect for the families and children who use them. I want my work to be a physical extension of the very special things that the Head Start program, and East Coast Migrant Head Start Project specifically, makes happen.
These Head Start centers have gotten a good deal of recognition and awards from the architectural community, but the best recognition happened to me one day as I went into a preschool room full of children with a center director. One of the children asked, like they almost always do, “What’s your name?” I said, “Ted,” and the center director said, “This is the man who designed this place.” The little boy looked around, looked me in the eye, and said, “I love it here.”
You can see pictures of all of the Head Start centers I have helped build on my website: tedhoffman.us.