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Magazine Preview: New Kids on the Block

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.

—Liz Naiden
Illustrations by Maddy Kloss

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  • ... says:

    @... also, this is a great article about why the northwest corner building is sweet:
    it literally floats over dodge gym, balancing on three of its four corners, b/c the gym roof cannot bear the load of the building. the diagonal “cheese graters” are meant to echo the giant diagonal trusses that make this possible.

  • ... says:

    @... for an example of why blending old and new is an awful idea see: the horrible broadway facade of lerner, the shapiro center, and william and june warren hall. these confused mishmashes of architecture transparently ape the style of the original mm&w buildings without contributing anything new or interesting other than clean lines and obtrusive design “flourishes” that are meant echo the beautiful molding of the originals but instead look silly and out of place.
    the mm&w buildings are beautiful but impractical for a 14 story, 188,000 sq. foot science center, not to mention massively expensive to construct without resorting to poured concrete and new brick (once again, see lerner’s broadway side for a horribly ugly example of this). personally, i find the northwest corner building to be gorgeous.
    as the article points out, mckim meade & white were a somewhat avant-garde design firm in their time and the italian renaissance design of the campus was a move away form the gothic style of columbia’s peer universities. nostalgically copying this now outdated architecture or building something nondescript would not just be boring, it would be contrary to the legacy of mm&w.

  • ... says:

    @... the diana looks like a gigantic 1970s washer/dryer set.

    the northwest science building looks like the chassis for a large hvac unit.

    Professor Andrew Dolkart of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation describes the Northwest Corner Building as “a statement of contemporaneity.”

    today’s “statement of contemporaneity” is tomorrow’s fairchild or uris hall.

    seriously, neither of these buildings will age well. i understand that modern architecture is all about buildings with a short shelflife.. but these are academic buildings. they need to last. they will not be torn down and rebuilt.

    and uh, experimentation is good. and glass is great for the occupants… but uhm, it would have been interesting if they would have tried to blend the old and the new. despite it’s functional problems, lerner is pretty good at this. from broadway, it looks conservative and designed to fit in with the mmw stuff, but then from on campus, it’s like ultramodern fuckall.

    i think the most interesting thing would have been to build something that aims to recreate a big hamilton, but then have exploding cancers of jagged edged glass walls/modern all over it.

    although i suppose the real reason why modern is in is because it’s cheap.

    1. Alum says:

      @Alum What’s wrong with Fairchild? It’s interesting and attractive. It makes very effective use of a small site by using light materials and cantilevering its floorspace to the east and west. And perhaps most importantly, it blocks most of Mudd from the campus side.

  • murtceps says:

    @murtceps sickery

  • Nice Job says:

    @Nice Job This was a great article. I really enjoyed it. Though I have very little knowledge of architecture (almost all from reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) this seemed like a well thought out and well written piece that flowed well. Great job!

  • Alum says:

    @Alum This is a really good essay. Kudos to Ms. Naiden and to Bwog. I don’t share the author’s fondness for the NW Science Building (which isn’t bad on its own but which largely ignores the context of its surroundings), but I respect her perspective and her analysis.

  • Heh. says:

    @Heh. The Vag and the Cheesegrater. I don’t want to hear them called anything else.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “…a desire for a new building that boldly announces the historic moment in which it was conceived”

    read: Something that will look completely dated in 10 years.

    A building like Hamilton will never look “bad,” no matter what year it is. IAB, the Law School, Mudd, and Uris all look like garbage now. What happened to timeless architecture?

    1. Is it timeless? says:

      @Is it timeless? Or is it just a historical style that you’ve been conditioned to find ‘meaning’ in? In any event, if they attempted to fill out the campus with buildings imitative of the MM & W architecture from the late 1800s, the new buildings would look like a bunch of postmodernist crap, as I believe is a point the author makes in this post.

      Also, people felt, at one point, that classical architecture looked dated as well, and without variety and truth of temporal origins, things are boring.

      You, sir, have no vision.

      1. Good Point says:

        @Good Point I too, often pass by buildings that look of a “dated” era and find them unattractive. However, when thinking of what our world, even New York, would look like if every architect had stuck to this “rugged and classic” look when designing their buildings, there would be no expression, no art to the craft of architecture. While I don’t particularly find Mudd, Uris or Altschul the most attractive buildings on campus, who is to say that 30 years from now they won’t be praised for their artistic intent in regards to the time they were built as these new buildings may be appreciated now or far into their future.

        The Greeks may have found columns a little trite during their day, after all.

        Also, great writing. Props to Liz Naiden.

        1. colt 45 says:

          @colt 45 a building’s architectural legacy only matters to those educated and privileged enough to understand it: a very small minority of people. the rest of us care more about whether or not it contributes something meaningful and positive to our community and its sense of place. Having a common architectural thread throughout all of the buildings in a vicinity creates a meaningful sense of place for the people that live/work there. Dotting that landscape with eyesores does not. Architects and planners are in the business of creating buildings and environments for people, not other architects and planners.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I don’t mind modern buildings at first, but i think that they tend to look dumpy really quick. They don’t age well, and with a build-up of grim and shit they look unclean. For classical buildings the grim just adds character. Build them rugged and classic.

  • bravo says:

    @bravo this is great

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