New Barnard College center shows a lapse of civic responsibility

By James Gardner | July 08, 2010 05:30PM

The Diana Center

It
occasionally happens that an architecture critic stands in front of a
building and cannot decide what to make of it. Such is the case with
the freshly minted Diana Center at Barnard College, extending its
length along Broadway and 117th Street. To dislike the building —
which is home to the school’s art, architecture and performance
programs — is the easy and obvious part.

As for its ruddy, brownish color, I do not believe I have ever seen
that specific hue adorning the facade of a building before, and to see
it in Morningside Heights is to understand why: it is too glaring to
accommodate any pre-existing context, and yet too subdued to achieve
the sort of Gehryesque goofiness that might serve as its own
justification. Furthermore, the color is applied to the windows in a
strange allusion to fritted glass whose contextual implications have no
conceivable relevance to the rest of the project and serve no
ostensible purpose.

But properly understood, the orangey skin of the building is so subtly bizarre that perhaps it almost carries conviction.

Furthermore, if you can ignore the color — and that is by no means a
foregone conclusion — the modernist glass and steel idiom of the
building’s horizontal structure is rather nicely done. From inside the
gates of Barnard, the inner facade is still more demurely and
successfully modernist. The interiors are of a fairly generic modernist
sort.

The architectural firm in question, Weiss/Manfredi, clearly had a
thankless task. Essential to Barnard’s campus along Broadway was the
ambition to mirror sister Columbia University’s campus, across the
street, in its classical aspirations. But with this building, as well
as several other recent additions to the campus, Barnard has thoroughly
betrayed those ideals. And unlike Columbia, which occupies an immense
plot of land, Barnard is a small affair that, with this new addition,
is starting to feel claustrophobic and cramped.

The Diana Center is intended to serve a variety of functions, from a
social center, with a cafe and grassy rooftop, to a black-box theater
and art gallery. Doubtless it was mandated by the expansionist
pressures that Barnard, like other educational institutions, has been
feeling of late. But the building is so glaringly inappropriate both to
Barnard’s campus and to Upper Broadway in general as almost to seem
like a lapse of civic responsibility on the part of the institution
that commissioned it.

James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.