We pondered its meaning, and delighted in its reflections. This building has been going up for years, but has managed to remain mysteriously shrouded in scaffolding. No longer! A day before the building officially opened on Friday, Bwog had the opportunity to join a group of  journalists on an architectural tour of the building, guided by PrezBo, and the architect himself, José Rafael Moneo. Claire Sabel was there.

From the brand new entrance on 120th and Broadway, you climb an elegant staircase made from huge slabs of pale green marble. This takes you to a large open space, walled on three sides with glass and floored with more marble — soon to become the café — that seems to hover just above street level. In fact it is essentially hanging. Not to delve too deeply into the mechanical structure of the building, but it was draped (as far as you can you say that about glass) on a huge frame. The frame was built over the existing gym, and all of the facade, (basically the glass panels and steel fins) was simply hung on the outside (friction between the new layer and underlying building is reduced by giant pads of Teflon). Therefore there are no supporting columns that divide any of the spaces within the building itself, only supportive ones at the corners of the building. One of the architects from Davis Brody Bond Aedas, who also worked on the project with Moneo, explained that part of the aim of the building, and the first floor in particular, is to be transparent to the world outside, and so without the columns, you can have unobstructed views of the entire interior. Standing by the glass wall you can see all the way down Broadway. You’re close enough to ground level that you don’t feel removed, but far enough that it’s not too voyeuristic to gaze out at passersby.

The tour met on this first level, and was ushered onto the elevators to the campus level, to where the entrance will be across the courtyard from Pupin. From this entry, you can walk right into the new two-story library. It was here that the group congregated in front of President Bollinger. PrezBo expressed warm appreciation of Moneo’s work, indentifying the building’s completion as both finally fulfilling of the McKim, Mead, and White plan, and the first landmark of the planned expansion. The building’s dimensions are exactly those specified by the original design, except for a bit of extra height, and the architects involved in the building’s design are also advising the Manhattanville project.

Bollinger’s introduction, while heartfelt, was not what we had really come for. After the conclusion of his opening remarks we set off, following Moneo on a guided tour of the building. The library had set the tone for spaces that felt very different to the minimal, rather cool attitude of the entrance. Similarly uninterrupted by columns, the theme of openness continues to be apparent. All of the desks and booths are made from slotted wood, creating many semi-private study spaces that you can still see through. The ceiling is similarly paneled with wood and — rather bizarrely — with lots of small mirrors.

The wooden interiors did make the rooms feel much cosier, an effect extremely well-achieved in the new auditorium on the floor above, with wooden walls and steeply sloping seats. It seats 170, but still feels relaxed, far less austere and sterile than one might expect from a state of the art science facility. Moneo compared the intimacy of the space to that of an operating theater (think this, kinda). There are also smaller teaching rooms on the lower floors, similarly wood-floored and snug.

From these we walked through some of the lab spaces. Located on the higher floors they have beautiful westward facing views, to UTS, Riverside Cathedral, and the river beyond. While some are designed for specific needs, many of the labs operate on a ‘plug and play’ model, where the equipment and surfaces can be moved around and rearranged, depending on the needs of the researchers. Such interdisciplinary connections that the building is supposed to foster are manifest in every aspect of the design. Offices for professors run alongside the building on each lab floor, so that at any time, one can cross through the lab to offices on the other side. Many professors and grad students had already moved in by this point, and were working away at their computers. The harmony of the office and research spaces was already apparent – each individual fit together, neatly delineated, but comfortably compact.

The tour culminated at the top of the building, on the 14th floor, which is also walled almost entirely in glass. Although not yet finished, this space really did feel majestic, as if you were floating above the city, rather than holed up away from it. It was hard to believe that the imposing steel-clad fortress had managed to achieve such loftiness throughout its many stories. Moneo himself was delightfully enthused by the whole project, excitedly pointing out to all the intricacies of his blueprints at every possible moment.

We have, by now, gotten fairly accustomed to the view of the outside. While I appreciated its elegance, it takes the interior to complete your understanding of buildings function, and its remarkable success in marrying its academic needs with sophisticated design. Most of the public facilities are expected to open in January. Even if Frontiers was too much for you and you swore you’d never enter a science building again, it’s definitely worth a look around.

Video of the building’s construction can be found here.

Images courtesy Michael Moran and Columbia University