You can count on two fingers, maybe three, the number of buildings in New York with a flourishing public life inside: The Guggenheim, with its continuous ribbon of ramps, translates what a Piazza di Spagna might be within a multistory building; Trump Tower, with its atrium activated by escalators, a food court, shops on all floors, and a waterfall cascading over a marble cliff. The street life of New York flows into lobbies, only to stop at whooshing elevator doors. You’d never know by the strict floor-to-floor segregation inside that many buildings house populations the size of a small town or city; our vertical geometry divides and isolates us.
It could be otherwise. Interior spaces can be designed to cultivate a sense of community. Baruch College just opened its huge new Vertical Campus on Lexington Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets, in an unusual fourteen-story building with a tall façade that bows back in a long, continuous sweep to form the roof: The four corners in the upper reaches fade from sight in a zooming perspectival curve that complies with city requirements for setbacks while reducing the building’s apparent mass. With a tough kind of grace, this illusionistic roof springs from a base whose multiple interlocking parts ingeniously negotiate the 785,000-square-foot behemoth into the surrounding context.
There is no confrontation with the neighborhood because the building’s principal designer, architect William Pedersen, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, introduces the neighborhood’s diverse materials and forms to each other under the same roof, where they reach a kind of internal agreement: The arched profile echoes the curved roof of the 69th Regiment Armory up the street, while big chunks of brick-clad façade reiterate the varied scales and masses of adjacent buildings.
The building’s daring beauty would by itself be a major gift to the city, but the true wisdom of the design lies in the social agenda that inspired it: The Vertical Campus gets people talking – not just about it, but within and around it. Pedersen has parted New York’s implacable street grid to great effect. He pulled the front-entrance façade fifteen feet from the property line along 25th Street to form a long linear plaza for students, allowing just enough space for gathering, like the sideline of a football field, where students hang out facing Baruch’s venerable brick-and-terra-cotta library across the street. He also placed the school’s bookstore along Lexington Avenue, and another entrance at the southwest corner, all to capture student traffic. The street feeds the building, and the building reciprocates.
Pedersen had the option of setting a conventional tower on a conventional base but chose instead to build the fewest number of stories in order to encourage the building’s interior life. Between classes, 3,000 people shuttle among twelve floors of plateaus, terraces, open landings, and lounges teem with students reading, comparing notes, making calls, looking out over the passing parade.
The architect cracked open the huge mass of the structure like a geode to create a hollow that starts at the base and rises to the thirteenth floor, bracketed by glass walls, some of them leaning. The building occupies almost a full block, and by placing the elevator core off-center, he scooped out open space in the mid-floor area that would otherwise be nearly windowless. Resorting neither to classical unities nor to modernist purities, Pedersen exposes the Vertical Campus’s component parts, retailing a vibrant mix of elements.
The push and pull of forms de-institutionalizes the structure and creates a spatial diversity that supports multiple uses. Playing social engineer, Pedersen adds programming to issues of form and space, orchestrating the building into what the Russian avant-garde called a “social condenser.” The stream of pedestrian traffic is supported at the entry by a food court and bookstore, and then by student services, lounges, and the classrooms themselves.
The secret to the student animation is that the six elevators stop every three floors, encouraging students to walk between stops on open staircases flanked by generous landings. The hard terrazzo floors and glass walls that border the terraced atrium bounce ambient noise around, creating a sense of acoustic community. Other serendipities add to the pleasure: light dappling a student lounge on the eighth-floor plateau; reflections in the mirrored 25th Street façade catching the classical façade of the library opposite. So far, the terraces inside are only sparsely furnished, but there is an elegant suite of teak benches in pyramidal shapes by sculptor Jackie Ferrara that suggest the full potential of these landings.
The architects cleverly bypassed luxury materials in favor of the greater luxury of abundant light and open space. The budget of $215 per square foot may be modest even by New York-school standards, but Pedersen has managed to design a handsomely finished, urbane building, proving that a public college need not give its students bargain-basement design. From concept to light fixture, the Vertical Campus is an extraordinarily rich building, complete in the way a thriving city is complete, with many moving parts performing in an intense urban ballet. It is already a keystone of the school and the neighborhood, and it represents a rare and welcome realization of the socializing potential of buildings. New York could have many more neighborhoods than the ones on the map.
If the vertical campus stands out within its context, the new headquarters for Scholastic Inc. designed by the late Aldo Rossi stands in, making measured gestures that blend quietly with the surrounding lineup of cast-iron buildings in SoHo. Rossi in the sixties expanded the emotional range of architecture by acknowledging the personal and cultural memories that buildings contain. He designed, really, by recalling the forms on the kitchen stove from his childhood.
On the Broadway façade, Rossi, working with Morris Adjmi out of their New York office, the Studio di Architettura, created a post-and-beam design that is a graphic essay in gravity flow and architectural support. Four half-round, buff-colored columns support red steel beams whose strong horizontal lines hyphenate the buildings on either side. As the floors shorten on the upper stories, the building gets more dense, culminating in a cornice line of three I beams laid atop one another. On the even more interesting Mercer Street side, Rossi responds to the street’s industrial character with webbed beams resting atop tapering steel legs.
Rossi wanted to be an ensemble player, creating façades different from the others but still clearly belonging to the same tradition. The result is a modest but fitting piece. If in some way the city is an encyclopedia, we are fortunate to have this posthumous entry under R.
The Vertical Campus
Architect William Pedersen’s new campus center for Baruch College.