The Design Observer Group


Posted 12.20.10


Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange

Lunch with the Critics: Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University



Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University, view from Broadway. [Photo: Michael Moran]

Columbia University recently opened an 188,000-square-foot interdisciplinary science building at the northwest corner of its McKim, Mead and White-planned Morningside Heights Campus. The 14-story building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo (with Moneo Brock Studio and Davis Brody Bond Aedas), completes the perimeter of the campus, and contains research labs, faculty offices, a science library, lecture hall and café, along with links to existing academic buildings. After a tour of the building with Moneo and his associated architects, Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster sat down for a sandwich in the cafeteria of Avery Hall, home to Columbia’s architecture school, to review what they’d seen.


Alexandra Lange: I have to admit that I've been prejudiced against this building for a while. Its Broadway facade — pink diagonal saw-tooth granite on the lower two floors, stainless steel diagonal louvers above — seemed so cluelessly forbidding, I had written the building off as an oncoming PR disaster. I wrote earlier this year about the b.s. quality of the ground-level transparency at Barnard's Diana Center across Broadway — it may be literally transparent, but you can't get in from the street; but still, it seemed insane for Columbia to continue its walled tradition onto its last open corner at 120th Street.

And in fact, those lower stone floors are a problem. The stone notches back at the corner, where a cantilevered glass piano nobile, holding the café, juts out over the building's entrance (also glass), but it remains fortress-like along much of the western flank. Where it does open up is to the north, where the entrance and café are intended to be a southern beacon for the occupants of Columbia's 21st-century campus, up in Manhattanville, a.k.a., West Harlem.

They even brought [Columbia president] Lee Bollinger in to talk to us architecture writers to make sure we got the message: 20th-century Columbia is complete, long live Manhattanville! I could have done without the sense of entitlement and manifest destiny, given how Columbia got control of those additional 17 acres. I just hope they don't build any pink granite walls up there, however stylishly textured.

Mark Lamster: That prejudice, and I think a lot of people share it, was the starting point of my review of the building for Architectural Review. This is not the building most New Yorkers were expecting from either Moneo or Columbia. I think there was an expectation of something contextual, something maybe in brick or stone, materials Moneo is known for handling with such aplomb. As it is, aside from the granite base — a failed nod to that contextualism — it’s almost a defiantly high-tech building, like something from the desk of Norman Foster. I've heard that some of the science people here are calling it the "heat sink."

But just because a building defies expectations doesn't mean it's not good. This project was charged with so many difficult tasks. A science building is a tough program on its own; then throw in the requirement of making an iconic new entry to the campus while negotiating a grade change — that’s a lot to ask. For the most part, it’s effective. (The students here at Avery would do well to learn from it.) Certainly it’s complex — a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle wedged into a tiny lot set above the school gym, which had to remain open during construction. Even Moneo, during our tour, had a hard time explaining how it worked in his somewhat halting English. He’s so charming, though, I just wanted to give him a cuddle.



Section, NWC Building. Courtesy Moneo Brock Studio.

AL: That's true, and that's why tours with the architects are often a bad idea. So many charming men are such terrible architects. Moneo isn't one of them, but he may have been given a task impossible to carry off.

For example, you asked him why he chose marble for that double-height lobby. Like the northern glass facade, it is supposed to be an open space through which members of the Columbia and Harlem communities can flow in and up to the rest of the campus. He said something about how it was a public space — hence marble. To me, the striated white and gray marble, which is shiny and applied like wallpaper, suggests mausoleum, not café. The built-in marble kitchen is like one of those Bulthaup ads in Elle Decor — an antiseptic bachelor pad. The elegant white Artemide KAO light fixture, deployed as a Richard Lippold sculpture might have been in a mid-century corporate lobby, only increases the chilliness.

Belen Moneo, a collaborator on the building (and Rafael's daughter), said they plan to furnish the room with white Vegetal chairs by the Bouroullec brothers. I was dying for something to warm it up. Shag rugs! Red sofas! The colorless space's lack of visual drama from the street makes it hard to imagine it will draw outsiders in, or smooth the awkward path from 120th and Broadway up to the campus. Given the engineering constraints you describe, there wasn't a way to make the path smooth. You have to enter, turn left, go up some stairs, go up an escalator, turn left again to get to the upper level of the main campus. I am sure students will find some simpler path of desire and start taking that instead.



Labs, NWC Building. [Photo: Michael Moran]

ML: How well it works as a pathway remains to be seen; there aren't too many better options, so I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss this one. The switchbacks are perhaps lamentable, but an unavoidable cost of a restricted lot, the major grade shift from street to campus, and the imposition of the you-can't-touch-it gymnasium. And I'm not quite sure that marble is so funereal as you suggest. Columbia spent a good deal of money on all that stone, and I think that speaks to their aspirations for the room as a civic space. With some attractive Columbia students lounging about the French seating and sipping lattes, it might be a good deal more appealing than you suspect.

I asked Moneo about all that marble because it's quite different in character from the other public spaces of the building, in particular the library and the very beautiful auditorium, which seem almost Scandinavian to me, with so much blonde wood furnishing and natural light.

AL: I agree completely about the library and auditorium. Indeed, it was when we got up to the third (or was it fourth?) floor, and sat in the sturdy, handsome booths for collaborative study in the library, that my prejudice began to dissipate. The spaces for students, the materials used, the ease of access from the rest of Columbia's campus: all of these were thoughtful and beautiful. I'd love to work in the (practically bookless) library, with its clear view across Barnard and Union Theological Seminary to the river. That floor is the one place you can look both off and on campus.

I love that you can go directly from the campus level into the elevators and up to your lab. The auditorium was lovely, warm and wood-lined. Its angles reminded me of Marcel Breuer's Begrisch Hall at Bronx Community College, but this space is much cozier. That all made perfect sense and the labs we saw had great views and clear organization. Even the linoleum looked expensive. Of course, scientists are notorious for lowering the shades on exterior windows forever, so we will see how long the windows remain clear.

What didn't seem so nice was the classroom we saw, part of a link to an existing science building. Tiny, hot from a whole wall of south-facing windows. While the Broadway facade seems fortress-like, the campus facade is a fairly generic glass curtain wall, facing east, that seems destined to heat all the faculty offices to broil. It shows the building's big trusses, but in no way says science, or Columbia, or even academia. I'm not asking for professorial brick applique, but some inflection toward type and use.


Library, NWC Building. [Photo: Michael Moran]


Classroom, NWC Building. [Photo: Mark Lamster]

ML: Let's just belabor, for a moment, how impressive those laboratories are, because they are the raison d'etre of this building. Moneo's ability as a space planner really shows in the disposition of the academic spaces. The double-height labs run the length of the building, and sit across from a bi-level stack of faculty offices and student workstations. As it's arranged, each professor will have an office right across the hall from his or her lab, with grad students conveniently placed right above. A brain scientist I chatted up on our tour seemed very happy with his new digs. Maybe, in this stimulating new atmosphere, he'll finally figure out why I'm always losing my keys.

Otherwise, the facade on the campus side isn't super-expressive, you're right, and leaves me a bit apprehensive about the harsh light that's going to hit the faculty offices, and also the plunging shadows that will be cast by the aluminum louvers on either side of the building.

AL: So maybe the problem of the Northwest Corner Building — a name that suggests: we’re still waiting for a donor to ante up — is that it couldn't possibly do all that it has been asked to do. Moneo gave them an excellent urban academic building, thanks to some virtuoso trusses and stacking. What he couldn't do is to fix Columbia's stone base and make a warm, inviting crossroads for a campus that doesn't yet exist — Manhattanville — and a community that's still suspicious. We'll see what happens, five years from now, when the first building (scheduled to be a neuroscience facility) opens uptown and the northwest corner becomes, for some, the southeast entrance. For now, I'm happy for the scientists.

ML: Fair enough. I will say the place is growing on me, so I’m curious as to how it will develop as the school expands. I’ll see you here again in 2015.