Illustration by Jean Kim

In this newest excerpt from The Blue and White, Conor Skelding tells us what the Northwest Corner Building can teach Columbia about Manhattanville. Additional reporting by Sally Gao, Luca Marzorati, and Angelica Modabber.

“Did you know there’s a 15-story coffee shop by Pupin?” asked a bumbling but blunt Dean Valentini in last spring’s 118th annual Varsity Show.

Most undergraduates visit the northwest corner of campus to disburse disposable income at Joe the Art of Coffee. Some attend class in the building’s single lecture hall or study in the Science and Engineering Library. And although only a select few (relative to those who associate it with a high-ceilinged espresso bar) consciously consider the building an interdisciplinary science center, that is the building’s intended purpose.

As the University planned and built the Northwest Corner Building, the central administration deliberately considered and tested the physical and academic planning processes. Whatever could be learned from the new science building would be put to work further uptown. As one University Senate report put it, the Northwest Corner Building was a “training run” for the ongoing Manhattanville development, President Bollinger’s signature project, and part of his ongoing effort to remake Columbia as a “global university.”

A Senate committee was tasked with following the process and understanding the intersection between physical and academic planning at the Northwest Corner Building. But the committee had its eye on another interdisciplinary project: the Manhattanville campus. They recommended that the Northwest Corner Building’s physical planning process be emulated, but that academic planning be better managed. Though intended to bring together diverse disciplines, the Northwest Corner Building still has no guiding institute or director. Instead, its labs are partially filled by several departments, without, for the most part, any explicit cross-fertilization.

The Northwest Corner Building was also conceived of as a bridge to Manhattanville: an article in Columbia University Record explains that the clear glass room on the building’s top floor “acts as a beacon toward the neighborhood and Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus.” It is so: from the “beacon,” one can see cranes at work uptown. Situated across campus from South Field and the inward-looking seminar rooms of the original plans of the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, the Northwest Corner Building was intended to “face outward,” as Bollinger told the The New York Times in 2008, toward West Harlem and Manhattanville.

The Brief Labor of the Northwest Corner Building

The 2001-2002 Annual Report of the University Senate’s Physical Development Committee delivers the conclusions of the Science Space Group (SSG), a faculty committee of the Physical Development Committee (PDC). The Phong Report, the SSG’s final product, recommended that a new science building be raised “on the northwest corner of the Morningside campus.” The idea was not new; as early as 1924, McKim, Mead, and White drew up plans for a science tower on 120th St.

According to a USenate staffer, “there do not seem to be annual reports for that committee [the PDC] for 2003, 2004, 2005, or 2006.” (The 2006 report was eventually located.) In the first three of these less-accounted-for years, two more committees reported that lack of lab space, in quality and in quantity, was hindering Columbia’s scientific research and faculty recruiting.

Given the dearth of annual reports, it is fitting that in Academic Year 2005-2006, the PDC, tasked with reporting on “the intersection of physical development and academic planning […], decided to take a different and more systematic approach to its work.”

Rather than “talk generally” about several buildings, the PDC intended to tell one building’s story thoroughly and holistically. The Northwest Corner Building, they declared, was the “natural choice,” as it had only recently been begun, but was far enough along to be examined.

The PDC’s comprehensive report, issued February 23, 2007, was titled, “An Examination into the Physical Development Decision-Making Process: The Northwest Corner Case Study.” It looked backward over the “training run” so far, and advised how decisions might be better made uptown.

The Case Study chronicles how swiftly the idea of an interdisciplinary science building ascended from faculty committees to the Trustees: in June 2004, the Trustees approved the Northwest Corner Building along with the rest of the 2005-2009 Five Year Plan, which strategically delineated the University’s major construction projects for those years. It stood apart from the other Plan’s project in that it fell short of the important criteria that “[f]inancing [be] in place.” Years later, at the April 11, 2008 Senate meeting, Bollinger “said construction is proceeding before all needed funds have been raised, though there has been an anonymous $20 million gift for this purpose.” As the recession began, funding became a major problem.

In early 2005, Bollinger selected Rafael Moneo as the architect (who, the PDC took care to note, “asked that there be more faculty involvement [with psysical planning].”) Three years later, in the summer of 2007, Columbia broke ground. Four years after that, The New York Times reviewed the building. The review was overbearingly effusive, calling Moneo “a priestlike figure” and the building “a work of healing.”

A Lack of Transparency

Though the report found the planning process “[i]n many ways […] exemplary,” it made a point of criticizing the process in two ways: first, for insufficient communication between the administration and faculty and secondly, for a lack of administrative transparency.

The review cited one administrative mishap as emblematic of both concerns. In 2003, then-Provost Alan Brinkley issued to faculty a request for proposals (RFP) to ascertain what future research might be undertaken in a new science building. Predictably, the faculty submitted a slew of suggestions. Though the committee found the request for RFPs “admirable,” it noted that by 2007 “there has been little subsequent communication with the faculty regarding the outcome of that process”—and no communication at all between 2003 and 2005. The RFP’s robust bottom-up flow of information was not matched top-down, resulting in, among other gaffes, “faucets without sinks.”

But this lack of faculty consultation had a more serious repercussion than sinkless faucets (indeed, faculty now installed in the Northwest Corner Building were eager to note that such infrastructural errata were quickly corrected). Administrative opacity and indifference to faculty consultation put the driving interdisciplinary vision of the building in jeopardy.

In November 2010, two residents of the building, Rafael Yuste, Professor of Biology, and Ken Shepard, Professor of Electrical Engineering, were brought into the Senate by the Campus Planning and Physical Development (CPPD) Committee. The pair called for “some kind of Center” to govern the building as other laboratories were governed, by allocating space and ensuring the building fostered interdisciplinary research, rather than simply housing professors from different departments. In the same month, biology professor and Northwest researcher Brent Stockwell told the Spectator, “I was advocating for that. Many of us were.” Faculty had been lobbying for such an institute since the building’s planning stages.

Yuste told The Blue & White in an email that the lab space is being allocated “without an overall plan or vision.” If the building is to be “more than the sum of its parts”—to follow its initial interdisciplinary vision—Yuste believes that “it is necessary to create an institute with a director “to harness the interdisciplinary talent at the university and coordinate the research activities, fundraising, grant writing and new strategic hiring into the available NWC space.”

The pervasive lack of funding for the project hindered the formation of such an institute. In November 2010,  David Hirsh, then Executive Vice President for Research, told Spec that “it takes, in my view, funding we simply don’t have to support an institute structure.” Executive Vice President for Arts & Sciences Nicholas Dirks took the position that if a Northwest Corner institute existed it could not “both strengthen the departments and strengthen interdisciplinary science.” That is, an interdisciplinary institute would undermine departmental independence.

The faculty of the PDC found fault with this. Though it recognized the need for senior administrators to be able to act “unencumbered by excessive bureaucracy,” it did espouse a commitment to sufficient faculty oversight. The report insists that the Senate was founded “to protect the interests and concerns of the internal community and in order to provide a forum for necessary deliberation.” Throughout the Northwest Corner Building’s planning and development, faculty did not know how the make their voices heard, or where decisions were being made. “While there may be a capital project development process at Columbia,” the report drily determined, “it is little understood by players outside of that process.”

Brinkley, who stepped down as provost in 2009 recalled that while, “I know David [Hirsch, former Executive Vice President for Research] continued to talk to faculty, but I’m not sure that there was as much communication as there was in years before [the 2003 RFP].” This is the lack of top-down communication that the PDC review cited.

“Money was a big problem,” he explained. The recession of the late 2000s made it hard to populate the labs and necessitated the postponement of long overdue renovations the faculty had expected, especially in Pupin. The recession also made it necessary to carry out cosmetic reductions to the new building. When Arts & Sciences had trouble raising the money to hire new faculty, floors were effectively sold off to whichever department could raise and hand over the $1-2 million necessary to install a professor soonest. To this day, floors 10 and 11 are unfinished, though they’re assigned to the Physics and Chemistry departments, respectively.

Overall Brinkley doesn’t “think this was a bad process.” On “any project like this you’re going to have troubles, here and there. But I think this was a very good thing to do. I think the building will be important, and eventually, it’ll be finished.” He continued: “I think the only problem with it is that it’s not big enough, but it’s as big as you can get it on the campus, and you know the really big buildings are going to come in Manhattanville,” he concluded.

Lessons Learned Downtown, Brought Uptown

A June 2010 report of the Campus Planning Task Force is entitled, “Manhattanville and Academic and Physical Planning at Columbia University.” Referencing the PDC’s 2007 report, the June 2010 report noted that the mandate of the CPPD had been expanded to encompass “both academic planning and oversight of the physical plant,” the two items the PDC comprehensively studied.

This new report identified “lessons learned” from the construction of the Northwest Corner building which would be applied at Manhattanville. The CPPD called for: transparent governance; a two-way flow of information between faculty and administrators, and a timely response to faculty suggestions; and, uncharacteristically, that planning should seek the best return for the University, “even if that is not measured in dollar terms.”

In September of this year, the CPPD concluded that the Northwest Corner Building “needs the kind of oversight a department would normally exert over its own space,” and that an interdisciplinary institute was finally in the works. It also explains that renovations in Pupin are underway.

The Executive Vice President for Research, Michael Purdy, reflected on the experience gained. “I think we learned that there is a lot more science programmatic planning needed.” Noting that “the construction process was excellent” at both sites, Purdy intends to match a robust infrastructural process management with one for research management. He said, “We need to do programmatic planning for science and research with the same degree of thoroughness, and I think we are a position to do that in the Greene science center,” home to the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Institute, the first Manhattanville project. Purdy also confirmed the existence of a nascent Northwest institute: “[W]e’ve had conversations with the faculty in the Northwest Corner Building about the creation of one or more [interdisciplinary] institutes. This is a central part of the Arts & Sciences strategic planning effort.”

To that end, though the MBBI will not open until June 2016, an institute is already organized. Purdy explained that many top-level faculty are already on board, and that Tom Jessel, professor at CUMC and co-director of the MBBI, is a communicative and cooperative leader. There is time and intent for faculty to be more included in the process, he said. “You’ve got to build consensus support for everything, you’ve got to have everybody supporting the decisions, and that takes time.”

Moreover, according to Columbia Magazine, the generous Greene family donated $250 million to the project in March 2006—two years before Bollinger announced an anonymous $20 million donation for the still unfunded Northwest Corner Building.

Dialogue between planners, funders, and researchers appears as though it’s set to improve. “Communicating internally, within this university, is a challenge,” Purdy conceded. He aims to address this challenge: in addition to an executive committee chaired by himself and Jessel, and including researchers across faculties, Purdy said that “we are in the final stages of the search of an executive director for the Mind, Brain institute.” Within six to 12 months, Purdy estimates, a small staff will be fully devoted to the MBBI, and it will have “time to communicate with everybody, make sure everybody knows what’s going on, make sure all the decision making processes we use are transparent, and hopefully have a better process.”

“Destroying communities is something I know a lot about, being Provost for seven years.” —Professor Alan Brinkley in the spring of 2011, teaching America Since 1945

  • 2010 Campus Planning Task Force Report: studied the intersection of academic and physical planning at Manhattanville
  • 2007 PDC Report: examined the planning and construction of the Northwest Corner Building; lauded the construction but cited a lack of administrative transparency and communication
  • Campus Planning and Physical Development (CPPD) Committee: the new committee resulting from the April 2010 merger of the CPTF and PDC
  • Campus Planning Task Force (CPTF): ad-hoc committee founded in 2003 to provide for faculty and student participation in Manhattanville; absorbed by the PDC
  • Executive Vice President for Research: reports directly to the President; has overall responsibility for a broad spectrum of research projects in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities
  • Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative: will open in June 2016 at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center; one of the first ventures at the new Manhattanville Campus
  • Physical Development Committee (PDC): established by the Senate to monitor the intersection between physical and academic planning in new construction, and how new construction affects the non-Columbia community
  • University Senate: University-wide legislature that represents faculty, students, and other interests, and that rules one as broad range of issues; the Trustees must approve Senate decisions.