Steven Holl arrived in New York from the West Coast in 1976. He has erected vast complexes in China and major museums in Helsinki and Kansas City. He made some of the earliest studies for reclaiming the High Line and later connected two old buildings on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus with a graceful atrium. But in this city, he has been lavishly admired and rarely hired, and for nearly 40 years, he has been the most important New York architect without a New York building. And now voilà: his firm’s first freestanding New York project, which Holl designed with his partner Chris McVoy. It’s a rugged oddball clinging to a steep hill in upper Manhattan, hard by the elevated subway and across Broadway from a squat MTA bus depot. Columbia University’s Campbell Sports Center houses an assortment of sports (soccer, tennis), but the anchor tenant is the school’s benighted football team, which can only hope that a winning building breaks its losing habits.
Holl and his firm avoid pinning themselves down to a recognizable style and instead grow the form out of the site and assignment, like crystals in a petri dish. At first glance, this building seems foreign, a glinting, contorted thing in a neighborhood of plain brick and playing fields. But you need only jog around it to see how neatly it negotiates a tangle of different transitions, from sloping residential streets to the rumbling subway trestle to the battleship-gray Broadway Bridge. The Harlem River winds its way around the tip of Inwood here and a few blocks away detours into a placid marsh by a white-brick boathouse. (Columbia is opening the waterfront for public use, with a design by James Corner Field Operations; the ribbon-cutting will be in a couple of months.) Over on the Bronx side, a Cubist landscape of apartment blocks rises above the cliffs. In the distance is the double-decker metal arch of the Henry Hudson Bridge, leaping out of the wilds of Inwood Hill Park. The sports center reacts to this whole array of hard and liquid surfaces, to the neighborhood’s old steel and iron landmarks, to the extravagance of the natural topography and the deadness of cinder-block sheds. Nobody would call it contextual, and yet it’s the only building around that deals with the surroundings in all their jagged complexity.
The architects began by sketching football plays, and they, at least, still see those dots and squiggly arrows embedded in the final form. To me, the muscular building suggests the game itself, rendered in three dimensions. It crouches in a three-point stance, a defensive lineman steadying himself on fingerlike stilts. Outdoor stairs run down the aluminum-clad flanks like bulging sinews.
A sports facility shouldn’t be too fussy or plush, and while the well-wired auditorium has a warm, bamboo-clad serenity, Holl and McVoy have left other places as raw as a garage: buffed concrete floors, naked concrete ceilings, cables strung along suspended baskets, uncovered ducts and heating coils. The roughness often reads as cheap and unfinished, but the architects are obviously proud of the building’s power and grit. McVoy lovingly points out a spot in a study room (yes, they study; these are scholar-athletes) where three steel roof beams, one steel column, and a diagonal steel tube converge in an orgy of welds and rivets. In another spot, the wall peels back flirtatiously to allow a full-frontal view of a joint. It’s the architectural equivalent of the strutting and flexing that goes on in the locker rooms.
Holl and McVoy have given Columbia’s athletes an athletic structure that moves in various directions at once. It charges up the hill, twists toward the playing fields, and embraces the yard with outstretched arms. It’s designed for users to move in, through, and around it. Soccer players clatter down an outside staircase that reaches out like a snake’s tongue toward the fields. The building’s core is a double-height weight room with a great glass wall that faces toward the elevated subway tracks. After dark, riders on a passing No. 1 train will get an expansive glimpse of young bodies pumping iron.
The building takes nothing for granted. Each of the four floors has a different plan. At the bottom of the hill, a patterned aluminum screen makes the base forbidding and opaque; at the top, crisscrossing stilts prop up the higher levels, leaving nothing but air below. The façade along West 218th Street is a study in shadows and broken symmetries. Opaque boxes and glass recesses arrange themselves in an irregular grid, slashed by the protruding Z of metal stairs. It’s not an especially friendly building: The Broadway side is barren, and in bright light, the whole thing flattens into a shadowless metal safe. But in the rain or at dusk, the lights go on, and the staircase railings, which look solid in daylight, show their perforated Sol Lewitt–like patterns of light and airy lines. Then the building’s metallic quirkiness comes out, mingling with lyricism on a corner where you’d expect it least.