Architecture 101

You have been to this meeting before – or, if not exactly the same meeting, one very much like it. It’s a community gathering held on a hot summer night in an un-air-conditioned room at the Judson Memorial Church, across the street from Washington Square Park. It’s a free-for-all in which local residents vent their emotions about New York University’s Kimmel Center for University Life, which is about to be erected on the corner of La Guardia Place and Washington Square South. Similar meetings took place uptown when Columbia University was planning its newly completed Alfred Lerner Hall. Both are large complexes – upwards of 200,000 square feet – housing theaters, rooms for student activities, and dining facilities.

The Kimmel Center will replace the Loeb Student Center, completed in 1959 and not much loved by anyone – at least, not until the proposal for Kimmel was made public. Now, right here at this meeting, the Loeb is being heralded as a “significant modern building,” suitable for landmarking. It isn’t. And its loss isn’t the problem.

A beleaguered NYU functionary holds up a rendering of the proposed ten-story Kimmel Center. Designed by architect Kevin Roche with pinkish granite walls, glass corners, transparent mansard roof, and shiny entrance canopies, it’s a flashback to the pomo eighties. It could be the most architecturally distinguished building in a greater-Atlanta office park. But it doesn’t really belong in Washington Square. All around the room, people hiss. The design is so banal that neither preservationists nor fans of contemporary architecture can embrace it.

Every plan for new construction in New York is contested by someone, often on the grounds that the new building, whatever its size or style, is incompatible with those around it. NYU, because it has no real campus, has had endless opportunities to incur the wrath of its neighbors. The most notorious dispute, in 1966, was over Philip Johnson and Richard Foster’s Bobst Library. The tall red-sandstone box, seemingly designed more as a container for its 100-foot-square, vertigo-inducing atrium than as a repository of books, was opposed by some 29 community groups and survived a lawsuit filed by, among others, Jane Jacobs and City Councilman-elect Ed Koch. At the time, Progressive Architecture noted that NYU’s “75-year record of design and planning in Greenwich Village invariably has been characterized by blundering, poor taste, and poorer community relations.”

Kimmel, then, is part of a long tradition. “I don’t think that it’s possible to do anything that wouldn’t be a target,” Roche insists. “You put your head up, you get shot at.”

In the neighborhood outside NYU, the customary solution to this problem is to fake it; note the faux-neo-Georgian townhouses along Washington Square North that are actually part of 2 Fifth Avenue, a contemporary white-brick apartment tower. NYU, to its credit, hasn’t done that. Roche talks about the “punched” window openings he designed, as a nod to the real neo-Georgian townhouses on the square, and says that the building should look quasi-residential. A hotel, he acknowledges, “is not necessarily a bad analogy.” From Lynne Brown, NYU’s associate vice-president for government and community relations, comes the idea that the design was intended almost as an antidote to Bobst. “It has an air of lightness,” she says, “and not massivity… . It wasn’t the Johnsonian impulse.”

Yet what comes across is a lack of character, an attempt to use very mild architecture as a form of camouflage. It’s as if NYU’s administrators said to Roche, Design something that will offend no one. Of course, that’s impossible.

One hundred and twelve blocks uptown, Columbia University is putting the finishing touches on Lerner Hall, the new 225,000-square-foot student-activities center designed by the school’s dean of architecture, Bernard Tschumi, in association with the firm Gruzen Samton. To be sure, Tschumi remembers neighborhood residents’ going “berserk” over the unbroken expanse of glass he drafted for the building’s north façade. In fact, Lerner Hall looks like something ingeniously planned to short-circuit those sweaty public meetings. It has two distinct wings housing student meeting rooms, administration offices, and dining facilities. Each wing defers to the 1893 McKim, Mead and White master plan for the campus. The west façade, along Broadway, is topped by a faux-copper seamed roof that matches its neighbors’. The east, facing Butler Library, sports a couple of columns to echo the older building’s colonnade and uses the official campus palette of brick and granite.

Connecting the wings, however, is a flamboyantly of-the-moment atrium, where a series of glass-and-steel ramps run diagonally behind a 60-foot-tall glass wall. The north façade is made of 800-pound sheets of glass held in place by spider clamps attached to the ramps. The ramps are suspended from a network of rods. It’s all very high-tech and very floaty, and it defers to nothing.

“I’ve always been suspicious of oversimplification,” Tschumi says, casting aside the idea that buildings can be entirely historicist or contemporary. “I think life is more complicated than that.”

Indeed, Tschumi has done something very complex. Most architects and developers apply fake historical details to buildings in order to make them “contextual,” and as a result, few contemporary buildings in this city are unabashedly of their time. Tschumi, by contrast, has used historical reference as cover, as a defensive tactic to protect the portion of the building that means the most to him.

“I am the most anti-contextual person by nature,” says Tschumi, who as an architect is best known for the bright-red, abstractly shaped follies he designed in the mid-eighties for the Parc de la Villette, on the fringes of central Paris. As an academic, he’s known for creating an architecture department at Columbia where students in “paperless studios” tinker with otherworldly computer-generated designs. And here he is with a rectilinear, eight-story brick tower on Broadway. Says Tschumi, “I have never built in bricks before.”

Like NYU, Columbia is famous for being a bad neighbor. As the largest property owner in a minority neighborhood, it has long been accused of driving out low-income tenants in favor of students and faculty (and cash-generating businesses). Columbia, though, is trying hard to do better. During the years that Lerner was being designed and built, the school was also working on a book-length “Framework for Planning,” a document that examines the history of the university and its surrounding neighborhood and works out ways to build and grow without disrupting the life of the neighborhood.

“When we were developing Lerner,” recalls Emily Lloyd, the university’s executive vice-president for administration, “the thinking was that anything on the campus should try to be very respectful of the McKim, Mead and White architecture. At the same time, we really wanted to allow the opportunity for innovation as well. We don’t want to be Colonial Williamsburg.”

Unfortunately, the new approach winds up being an argument for polite contextualism. Architect Robert A. M. Stern (who is pro-contextual by nature) is designing a new residence hall at Broadway and 113th to resemble a typical Broadway apartment house. And the Robert K. Kraft Family Center for Jewish Student Life, a six-story building on West 115th Street designed by Gruzen Samton, will be clad in Jerusalem stone that is “very contextual in color and texture,” according to Lloyd, and the architects yielded to community requests to make the center’s cornice line up with those of neighboring buildings.

What Tschumi did – not so different, really, from building fake nineteenth-century row houses to mask a fifties apartment tower – seems more like a meditation on the meaning of context than a contextual building. What’s especially clever is that he used McKim, Mead and White’s organizational logic as the premise for his own scheme. The 1893 campus plan called for lining the perimeter of the campus with matching sets of buildings, each pair separated by a courtyard. Of the original buildings, only Avery Hall, home of the architecture library, was constructed this way. That is, until Lerner came along. Tschumi recognized that the space between the east and west wings was his: “There was an enormous amount of freedom in the gap.”

During student orientation in early September, new students and their parents meander up and down Lerner’s ramps. Most are searching for the office that dispenses keys to the mailboxes mounted on the back wall of the Lerner atrium at an angle that mimics that of the ramps. The students, if they are impressed by this oddly skewed, daylight-flooded space, don’t let it show. Sure, it’s new, but from their perspective, the domed rotunda of nineteenth-century Low Library is equally new.

Actually, the official explanation for Tschumi’s ramps, which take up a lot of space and don’t always offer the quickest route from point A to point B, is that they are an updated, all-weather equivalent of the Low Library steps, the university’s premier public place. The steps, of course, are best remembered as the scene of 1968’s student insurrection. One can only assume that students will someday find unintended uses for the ramps too.

Back downtown, NYU’s administrators and their architect are contemplating changes in the design of the Kimmel Center. In June, the Municipal Art Society sent a letter to NYU vice-president Robert Goldfeld advocating more “architectural animation and interplay” at sidewalk level. Roche had already added display windows to what had previously been a blank wall, but the Municipal Art Society wanted more.

And the society also “strongly endorsed” replacing the granite skin with red brick. “The use of red brick would resonate more successfully with the neighborhood,” argued the letter. As if a redbrick façade would more effectively hide the building’s size and newness. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to mask new buildings with red brick. Tschumi’s trade-off – I’ll give you context if you give me freedom – is better than the more commonplace alternatives. It is certainly preferable to Roche’s Kimmel Center, a polite contemporary design that will adapt an old-fashioned veneer, if that’s what it takes to pacify the neighbors.

Architecture 101