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Center for Discovery Autism Campus
Harris, New York
Courtesy Turner Brooks Architect

The constellation of buildings at the Autism Campus at the Center for Discovery in Harris, New York, is highly attuned to the haptic experience of space—the way we encounter the world with all of our senses at once. Designed by New Haven– based Turner Brooks Architect, the school is tailored for students with autism spectrum disorders, in which an elevated haptic sense can spur often traumatic responses to color, sharp angles, or transitions from one space to another.

Campus buildings follow the contours of the land, with paths leading residents from one structure to the next, and indoors, without abrupt angles or spatial transitions. 
courtesy turner brooks architect

This unusual design brief offered a chance to explore what firm principal Turner Brooks said was a fundamental quality of architecture: “The idea that the space changes as you go through it, and funnels you and turns you.” Within the campus’ single-story residences—which consist of nine five-bed homes—sunlit spaces gently expand and contract into one another. Right angles are completely avoided until the final turn into the bedroom. Small satellite living areas that look like large bay windows are arranged along corridors, allowing residents to be ensconced in a snug space while still observing the world around them.

The ten-acre campus, which also includes three classroom buildings for 120 students aged five to 21, is separated by a pasture from other special-needs facilities. Because walking is a common autism therapy, the sprawling, three-building residential clusters are connected by pathways to each other and to their adjacent classroom building, as well as to the other two clusters and a nearby library, art, cafeteria, and gym to be designed by Peter Gluck. Winding through rolling deciduous woodland, the pathways gently guide residents’ bodies and eyes to their destination. All paths from the residential buildings lead to the cluster’s homeroom, a large, open space around which classrooms, an exercise room, dining area, sensory room, and staff and conference rooms are centered.

“The site plan may seem to some totally random,” said Brooks, “but the alignments are like a slalom course that presents the doors to each building.” Like beacons along the course, buildings are painted in solid colors slightly brighter than those that autistic author Temple Grandin describes as having therapeutic effects.

Patrick Dollard, the Center for Discovery’s president and CEO, embraces such bold moves even when they may strike some as unorthodox approaches to autism. “We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to help kids,” said Dollard. “We’d be the last people to push designs that are our ideas without some evidence that they’re going to work.” As it opens to residents for the first time this fall, Dollard and Brooks don’t yet know if their campus will become a model for other facilities of its kind. As with the careful treatment of autism, only time will tell what is possible.

Jennifer Krichels