Magazine Preview: New Kids on the Block
Written by Bwog Staff
Big changes are happening where 120th Street meets Broadway. With one new building opened and another not long from completion, the northwest part of campus is in the middle of a full-blown façade-lift. The Blue & White examines these changes in the latest issue, now available campus-wide.
This February saw the presentation of Morningside’s newest daughter. The long-awaited Diana student center finally emerged in ceremony after ceremony; after opening her doors and shedding her fences in late January, amidst a shower of berets they finally cut her ribbon to great applause. She may be Barnard’s pride and joy of the moment, but architecturally she is one of two black sheep to join the neighborhood this year. The other odd-man-out stands across Broadway—called the Northwest Corner Building for now, this younger creature of indeterminate gender may feel even more out of place as it struggles to live up to the standard set by its older brothers, the aristocratic and ornate McKim, Mead, and White-esque science buildings of north campus.
Coming of age almost simultaneously, the science building and the student center are different faces of the same super-modern moment in architecture, urbanism, and campus planning. In fact, both Columbia and Barnard administrations have expressed a desire for a new building that boldly announces the historic moment in which it was conceived. Professor Andrew Dolkart of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation describes the Northwest Corner Building as “a statement of contemporaneity.”
The two designs do share a certain set of memes floating about in today’s architectural thought. For one, the Diana’s use of matte glass and the science building’s ribbed aluminum siding both represent the contemporary architect’s interest in the novel use of old materials. The Diana is one of many recent buildings to experiment with opaque colored glass; a new variation on the completely transparent and quintessentially modern all-glass box. Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, the architects of the Diana, said that they chose the “terracotta” tint to quote the various shades of brick around the campus without imitating any single shade. Rafael Moneo, the Spanish architect contracted to design the Northwest Corner Building, is also experimenting with his chosen exterior medium – a shiny, lightly brushed aluminum. And he isn’t the only one; current architects are discovering that metal is a stunning, malleable material that they can use to transform a building into an abstract sculpture. Moneo’s design manipulates metal to beguile the eye, but not by twisting it into a strange shape like many contemporaries including Thomas Mayne, the man behind the curvaceous new aluminum student center at Cooper Union. Moneo has instead fragmented the face of his traditional, rectangular tower by creating ribbing at either diagonal, vertical or horizontal angles on various sections of the façade in no predictable pattern. Michael Manfredi could have been speaking about the Northwest Corner Building as well when he said in reference to the Diana, “Good architecture is always a little theatrical; messing with you is a good thing.”
The Diana “messes with you” by unexpectedly breaking from its simplest geometric form, jutting in and out in places from the wedge-shaped base. But the shifting path of the zig-zagging staircase, extending sometimes past the floors below into precipice before heading back into the building, is also meant to “gently teach an architectural lesson,” says Manfredi, by forcing students to look sometimes north, sometimes south, and sometimes down at the 60 feet of space below their feet. The Diana is designed to force you to look around literally as well as figuratively. “It’s part of a moment in education,” says Marion Weiss, “I think schools are recognizing that the distinctions between disciplines which are so administratively separate and ossified hurt the energy of the school, and that energy should be all about interaction.” Accordingly, the space in the building was parceled out for a variety of uses to encourage students and faculty from a variety of departments to mix and mingle in the double-height open spaces and on the “relaxed,” wide staircase of the building. And, should you run into someone on the meandering stair or in the lobby, “you’re actually encouraged to sit! There’s coffee nearby!” says Weiss.
The idea that architecture can encourage pan-academic innovation through interaction made its way into Moneo’s thought process as well. The select science researchers and faculty who will be upgraded to the building’s new state-of-the-art labs form a diverse group, so that each lab will neighbor facilities working in different fields. Bio-chem will run into its cousins biology and chemistry in the elevator, not to mention in the café on the ground floor. Plus, the bridges connecting it to Chandler and Pupin will bring the entire scientific end of campus together, connecting labs in Chandler and Havemeyer to offices and classrooms as far away as Shapiro and Mudd. The literarily-inclined student who couldn’t point to “Mudd” on a map might even feel the love – like the Diana, the campus side of the Northwest Corner Building features a huge amount of glass, encouraging visual interaction. Drawn north by the building’s Blue Java coffee station after hitting the gym, the humanities major will find himself or herself face to face with a lab-coat-clad side of Columbia they’ve never seen before.
The Diana’s Broadway façade is similarly transparent, exposing student activities so that the outside world will want to come onto campus and learn more about Barnard, says Weiss. She is among the many professors, architects, and administrators from both Columbia and Barnard who have expressed hope that both the Diana and the Northwest Corner Building will serve to activate the dead corner of the university at 120th and Broadway. “Columbia hasn’t spent a lot of time looking to the northwest,” Professor Robert McCaughey added. “I think that [the Northwest Corner] building does indeed face outward in certain ways, and it will be important if Manhattanville ever gets built.” President Lee Bollinger shared similar hopes in a New York Times piece about the building, which he described as a “beacon to Manhattanville.”
“Beacon” bespeaks well the soaring height and massive proportions of the new Columbia building. “I think it’s gutsy,” says David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Barnard. “It will become one of those landmarks that marks the city, one that you can see from all the way down Broadway.” Professor Dolkart similarly embraces the bold statement, comparing the building to the work of McKim, Mead and White who he describes as “the avant garde of the 1890s.”
According to Dolkart, Columbia should continue that tradition, with a building of the moment that leaves behind the “timid” architecture of the late 20th century. Such timidity, he says, resulted in “ill-proportioned, boring, and misconceived, in my opinion, buildings like Schapiro.” In comparison to buildings like Schapiro, which mimic brick and limestone, the Northwest Corner Building’s disregard for the McKim style has angered some preservationists. But Dolkart argues that “just because a building uses some of the same vocabulary that McKim used doesn’t make it appropriate.” McCaughey agrees, adding that the upper end of Columbia’s campus, built mostly in the ’50s and ’60s, is “one big mistake.”
The science building confidently declares its own existence, standing out from the campus and tall above the city. But the Diana’s goal is different; even as a modern building, Weiss and Manfredi designed the building and surrounding plaza to nuzzle comfortably into the Barnard landscape. “Landscape architects,” as Weiss and Manfredi are called, attempt to use buildings and landscaping together to create feelings of wholeness and connection between the two. Weiss and Manfredi see Barnard’s campus with the addition of the Diana as “a spectrum,” representing around the lawn the architecture of turn of the century Barnard and Milbank halls, of the ’50s and ’60s in Lehman and Altschul, and the 21st century in the Diana. “The Diana didn’t have the problems that Lerner at Columbia did,” said Karen Fairbanks, Chair of the Architecture department. Since a number of brick buildings of similar height and matching green roofs stand around the South Lawn, Lerner’s simplified imitation preserves the quad’s continuity. The Diana represents a departure both from Lerner’s imitation and from the most recent addition to the quad, the Journalism School student center and cafe, designed by Professor Fairbanks’ own firm. The university expressed a desire there to have the glass be almost devoid of frame, so that “it almost disappears, in order to respect what’s already there, McKim’s coherent work.”
But with the Diana, Fairbanks noted, “we had to negotiate other problems. We had to reconnect a campus that was not coherent in a lot of ways.” Indeed, the Barnard campus used to be “bifurcated by the plaza of Altschul and Macintosh, the old building on the Diana site,” said Weiss, “So the first thing we wanted to do was to allow Barnard to experience the whole of the grounds.” The wedge shape and diagonal lines across the campus façade are meant to draw your eye from the gates at 117th towards the once hidden Milbank. “The idea is that the campus should unfold in front of you,” says Vice President of Administration and Capital Planning Lisa Gamsu, “the grade difference between Lehman lawn and Milbank was really softened by Weiss/Manfredi’s sloping step design, so as to unify the view.” Smiley’s favorite place on the campus now is the narrow space between Altschul and the wide end of the Diana, near Milbank. “You walk into that and it’s almost as if you’re in an ancient place,” he says. “It has the density of an old city, where public space gets quite compact, and it’s a canyon sort of feeling that is coherent without being uniform.” Weiss and Manfredi, Smiley and Fairbanks all agree that the Diana gives the interior of the Barnard campus a distinctly “urban” feel that it previously lacked.
Despite the modern effect, the Diana is more concerned with the campus that predated it than the Northwest Corner Building is. The Diana looks inward to the Barnard campus and invites the Broadway pedestrian to peer in as well, while the science tower surges up and surveys the world to the east, west, south, and especially north. Smiley calls it “a monolith; a very precise and powerful interpretation of sciences and technologies and their place at the university, and the university’s place in the city.” Drawing on the things that fascinate the modern architect—broken form, re-imagined materials, and daily interactions—Moneo and Weiss/Manfredi created a pair of buildings as foils for one another. They reflect a conversation between academic approaches and grand philosophies, a series of ancient pairs: the vertical landscape and the horizontal declaration; the centering force and the brave outlier; the observant eye that looks around, and the eye in awe that gazes up.
Illustrations by Maddy Kloss