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The Class of '10

After decades of putting up awful buildings, Columbia tries to break its streak.

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Left, Moneo's new science building; right, Weiss/Manfredi's Diana Center for Barnard College.  

When Columbia builds, the city cringes. It started so beautifully: In the 1890s, McKim, Mead & White laid out a serene campus on the rocky outcrop of Morningside Heights, its gated grounds defended by a stone perimeter. But few universities could have done a more thorough job of squandering a lofty site and noble plan in successive spasms of expansion. Everyone has a favorite blot: the law school’s misbegotten Jerome L. Green Hall by Harrison & Abramovitz, the life-sucking bridge across Amsterdam Avenue, or the aptly named Mudd and Uris Halls. Columbia did mercifully abandon plans for a Morningside Park gymnasium (which ignited the 1968 riots) and for the pair of Brutalist towers that I. M. Pei suggested plunking down on the South Lawn. Despite those bouts of wisdom, an institution that includes one of the country’s preeminent architecture schools has regularly dishonored itself.

So it’s with a combination of skepticism and nervousness that I have watched a pair of new academic structures rise on opposite sides of Broadway, in this phase of the university’s growth: Columbia’s metal-jacketed science building and Barnard’s bronzed-glass Diana Center. They were designed independently, by different architects for different schools, but together they form a new gateway for students, who will one day march up from the future Columbia campus planned for the lowlands around the 125th Street viaducts. That expansion project has been squelching through a bog of lawsuits, but it’s already an implicit part of the landscape.

To finish off the northwest corner of its corral, Columbia hired Rafael Moneo, an architect of distinction who delivered a refined and exquisitely rational research center that nevertheless manages to look tough and intrusive. Some architects package ordinary interiors in spangled wrapping; Moneo hides real quality behind a mass of rigid grilles. His façade suggests a Sol LeWitt wall drawing in three dimensions: a grid of aluminum panels with fins that zig and zag in a play of arbitrariness and rigor. Wide diagonal bands represent the steel just beneath the skin, expressing the building’s musculature like the abs on Batman’s suit. At strategic points, Moneo pries the exoskeleton apart. A window-walled library hovers above Broadway, and a grand entrance on 120th Street points north to the still nonexistent Manhattanville campus.

But if the architect is solicitous toward the future, he turns a stone shoulder to Broadway now. A street-level palisade of granite (fronting a preexisting structure) ensures that the sidewalk will remain perpetually dead. In other projects, like the Los Angeles Cathedral and his addition to the Prado, Moneo has proved himself a poet of the blank wall. He is the anti-showman, concealing intricacy in austere shells, making his buildings at once generous and forbidding, glamorous and dour. In his New York debut, that balance comes off wrong. The outside resembles a cooling unit, another depressing entry in Columbia’s unproud tradition.

Yet the building is a puzzle in a box, a sophisticated adaptation to heavy constraints. The center had to straddle (but not touch) a partially buried gym, so it sits atop a mammoth truss. It had to negotiate between the campus’s neoclassical history and its contemporary aspirations, so Moneo invoked McKim, Mead & White’s unrealized vision of a campanile tower, but substituted a metallic mass. This facility for as yet unnamed high-tech disciplines encourages foot traffic through its body, between the elevated plaza and the city street. The elegant interlocking of public areas with private workspaces should please scientific minds, while the exterior drives the rest of us crazy.

Barnard’s wedge-shaped arts-and-student center manages complexity with equal grace and less ambivalence. The college has its own cloister, gate, slope, and knot of competing needs, and the New York firm Weiss/Manfredi responded with an artful, airy building that harmonizes and attracts notice at the same time. A double wall of etched glass, backed by painted panels, translates the palette of its brick neighbors into a façade that slips by degrees from transparency to opaqueness. The hue responds to the quality of daylight, shading from rust, brick, and brazen orange to a pale, warm copper. It takes nerve to design with color in our muted city, and even greater confidence to fuse vividness and subtlety.

To sculpt the interior spaces, the architects studied how undergraduates lounge and work. Liberated by pocket computers and wireless networks, some prefer doing research sprawled in a busy corridor, while others crave the discipline of a carrel. This building caters to them all. Ample hallways are seeded with movable furniture, such as ottomans sized for slumping (but too central for a nap). More-formal spaces levitate and flow. A glassed-in gallery floats above a reading room, which overlooks the dining hall, which in turn juts over the lobby, letting light cascade like rapids through the center. This is a social building: You can look up from your book and wave at someone coming through the front door, three floors below.

The narrow envelope with four glass façades shapes the indoor experience, slicing the view into vertical bands and keeping both street and campus constantly in sight. This is a college building that makes it hard for scholars to shut themselves away. Architecture students, especially, have no excuse for solipsism; their studio, cantilevered over the green, appears to be escaping from the structure altogether, already ferrying them out into the world. If Moneo’s design warns of Scientists at Work, Weiss/Manfredi’s suggests that scholarship and hanging out are two sides of the same endeavor.


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