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Sterling Cooper

The new Cooper Union building has it all: drama, elegance, and the most inviting stairs in town.

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Left, the lobby; right, the view from Cooper Square.  

New York’s institutions of higher learning have regularly botched their expansions, inflicting arrogant towers and cut-rate boxes in the name of education. So it’s a relief to see the Cooper Union start the school year with a tough and beautiful new academic building that merges showmanship with sensitivity. The graduates of this private, tuition-free school of art, architecture, and engineering help shape our visual culture, and it benefits us all to have them spend their student days in such a fertile place.

At first sight, the nine-story structure, from Thom Mayne and his Santa Monica–based firm Morphosis (with Gruzen Samton), appears bent on sucking up all attention. With a contoured steel façade parted by exhibitionistic slits, it projects an attitude that makes tourists reach for their point-and-shoots. But the building also plays a fine ensemble scene. Its armored exterior echoes that of the Foundation Building, Cooper’s glowering pre–Civil War brownstone castle. Strategic openings allow views of the Ukrainian church next door, and the upturned hem of the metal cladding resonates with the mansard roof across the street. That last unexpected harmony links Mayne’s industrial toughness with Belle Époque glamour. At Cooper Union, he has produced an East Village homage to the Left Bank.

At its most elemental, the building is a concrete box, enclosed by off-the-shelf window walls and draped in a second skin of perforated steel. Out of these prosaic elements, Mayne fashioned a structure that can be alternately brutal or coquettish. On a sunny late summer afternoon, I looked at the building from the south, and the elaborately folded carapace went flat and gray. Then I walked a block uptown, and the skin turned to marble white. A scattering of solid patches amid the perforations sparkled in the glare. With the sun behind it, or after the interior lights go on, the building acquires a startling transparency. V-shaped columns hoist it off the ground, allowing views of the side street from Cooper Square. An automated system adjusts to the sun, so that a few panels swing open or shut in a slow-motion choreography. The most dramatic reveal is the calligraphic slash in the west façade, an elegant wound in the steel skin. What looks capricious from the outside is instead the empty core projected onto the surface. This building wears its warm heart on its skin.

Mayne’s team has thought hard about how to get Cooper’s sculptors, designers, and aspiring sewage-disposal experts to interact. Students, faculty, and staff all enter through the same door at the building’s northwest corner—closest to the Foundation Building—and flow diagonally across an atrium that punches up through the entire volume to a skylight tucked just out of sight. Directly in front, the stairs beckon; taking the elevator means actively rejecting them. Every day, students confront the choice to climb or ride, to join the life of the institution or be wafted speedily to class. Actually, the building coerces even the fatigued and lazy into motion, since the elevators stop only on 5 and 8, with stairways suspended in the atrium leading to the floors in between. (The disabled have access to an elevator that stops on every floor.)

Every staircase implies a particular speed and style of movement. This one suggests not a stately processional or a debutante’s descent or a dramatic entrance but the mixture of purposefulness and sociability that characterizes higher education. It offers a caffeinated kind of leisure. The wide stairs are designed for hanging out, the landings lined with benches. A mini-stand of bleachers tucked behind the lockers even offers some almost-privacy.

What really animates the interior, though, is the see-through wrapping around the twisting, theatrical void, a miracle of simple patterns arranged to appear complex. Constructed of two different lengths of scaffolding tubes—one straight, the other curved—and coated in a seamless white compound, it looks like a grid that’s levitating itself drunkenly. This ingenious merger of fantasy and rationality draws an alert eye in a deliberate gyre: across the landing, down the stairs, up the luminous gorge to the source of daylight, and out to the street. Cooper Union has done its students a service by reminding them constantly of one another’s presence, and of the world beyond their workstations.

Among New York’s benighted construction zones, Peter Minuit Plaza has a legendary place. For eighteen years, ever since a fire wrecked the ferry terminal, Staten Islanders have disembarked into a nasty labyrinth of construction fences, noise, and inertia. So how is it that it’s taken less than a year to dream up, fund, design, and build the gleaming white pinwheel that will henceforth act as Manhattan’s welcome sign? A gift from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, commissioned by the Battery Conservancy, and designed by the Dutch architect Ben van Berkel, the New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion won’t make its official debut until the landscaping goes in next spring, but already the little structure is modeling the charms of understatement.

Van Berkel’s four-pointed star sits gracefully in the middle of an open plaza—and how many structures in New York can you say that about? It has the scale and fluidity of a fountain, defying the surroundings by staying low to the ground. Made of wood like a pair of crossed ship hulls, the pavilion presents a continuous façade of glass, grille, and tough polycarbonate. When it opens, it will serve as a place to buy a cup of coffee or pick up a schedule of arts events, but its more crucial function will be as a sign: an X marking the spot where New York started, where friends can meet, and where an architect delivered on his profession’s promise to ennoble a patch of public space.

Cooper Union
Thom Mayne.
Morphosis.

New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion
Ben van Berkel.
Unstudio.


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