Big Men on Campus

The New School’s University Center.Photo: James Ewing/Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Knowledge gets crammed into the brain or vaporized in the cloud, but the institutions that feed on it need plenty of actual space. As NYU devours the Village, Columbia infiltrates Manhattanville, Fordham grows new towers, and Cornell annexes Roosevelt Island, it sometimes seems as if Manhattan is turning into a single giant campus. The track record for all this educational architecture is dramatically mixed, and two modestly scaled new buildings a ten-minute walk apart could almost be opposing characters in a two-person play. One school tends to its neighborhood, balancing fresh needs with history; the other treats property as a bank account.

The New School’s history twines through the city’s past, and as its intellectual concerns have broadened, so has its real-estate portfolio. Long a progressive think tank and émigré haven, the school has just opened its University Center, a dorm-lounge-classroom-library combo that brings the school’s brand of sensitive boldness to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. The lead architect, Roger Duffy, at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has produced a distinctively urban building, respectful but not obsequious. A global firm, SOM scatters the planet with expensively efficient projects made of metal and glass, textureless materials engineered to look perpetually new. Here, Duffy has tweaked that international vocabulary for a busy corner on a city block. Angled windows and brass panels form an undulating façade with sedimentary bands like a canyon streaked with ore. The brass, its glow already muted by a patina, will darken and soften further over the years so its character will deepen as it ages, like a human face.

Students come to the city to be in the city, and Duffy obliges their craving by wrapping the building in stairwells that climb like trails along the side of a cliff, offering ever-changing views. One diagonal runs along 14th Street, another along Fifth Avenue, a third on 13th, opening onto ample landings and leveling off at the library.

This kind of sociable staircase has become a common feature in New York, turning a back-of-the-house necessity into a form of public display. At Juilliard, a long continuous flight forms a red slash in the glass façade. At Columbia’s Lerner Hall, Bernard Tschumi encased ramps behind glass in order to showcase student life. But no other building in the city turns itself inside out so assertively as Duffy’s new New School. Students galloping two steps at a time, schlepping indolently, making out, or pausing for a chance encounter—it all becomes part of the sidewalk show.

On Cooper Union’s lot, 51 Astor Place.Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

While the New School has been slowly assembling a campus from scattered bits of real estate, Cooper Union has been spinning off development rights and hoping for the best. It long ago turned over a prized lot to Charles Gwathmey’s blue-green monster, a.k.a. the condo tower at 445 Lafayette Street; more recently, Cooper rented the half-size block on the north side of Astor Place to Minskoff Equities for a new commercial building whose construction also involved reconfiguring the streets. (Although 71,000 of its 430,000 square feet were set aside for academic use, the school found the space too pricey. Instead, St. John’s University has taken it and will timeshare with Cooper Union.) Minskoff in turn hired Fumihiko Maki, the respected Japanese designer of Four World Trade Center, a decision that should have quieted anxieties about the square’s architectural future. Yet the neighborhood got a brooding, elegant, sharply folded office building that would be the pride of midtown and looks utterly foreign to the East Village. It’s as if Maki had designed a viewing station for a picturesque cityscape: The still-­unfinished floors are high-ceilinged, unencumbered, and spacious enough to host an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, with wraparound views of brick and brownstone landmarks. IBM’s Watson team is moving in, hoping perhaps that the area’s creative aura will enlighten its engineers. The mirrored façade seems to sharpen reflections to a higher resolution than reality itself.

Architects love to pretend that reflective structures “dematerialize”—that is, disappear—but Maki’s building is a solid object, black and glossy and timeless as a Steinway grand, expressing itself in an architectural language that is incomprehensible around here. It’s not the area’s first glass-and-metal interloper: In 2009, Cooper Union built Thom Mayne’s extravaganza, clad in steel fishnet. (The project nearly bankrupted the school, forcing it to begin charging tuition.) And then there’s Gwathmey’s glass tower.

But Maki’s 51 Astor Place, one of the rare Manhattan buildings that stand free and can be seen from all sides, occupies a special place that it honors only in the way that matters least. In a wan—and mandated—compromise with history, a pair of dotted lines trace a stretch of Stuyvesant Street through a new pedestrian plaza, disappearing under benches and into the building itself. While that footpath-as-footnote offers a perfunctory memorial to a long-vanished street, Maki’s ebony tower obliterates the personality of an open-skied, funky square.

Big Men on Campus