Brace yourself — I like NYU’s new Wilf Hall

By James Gardner | December 10, 2010 03:36PM

A rendering of Wilf Hall (middle) and the former Provincetown Playhouse (bottom), which was incorporated into the new Law School building

Though one is not supposed to say such things in polite company, I positively admire the recently opened Wilf Hall, a new academic building at 133 Macdougal Street between West 3rd and West 4th streets that houses several New York University Law centers and institutes.

My hesitancy in saying such things is due to the fact that the project rises over the demolished ghosts of several 19th century brick houses, one of which contained the fabled Provincetown Playhouse Though the playhouse was declared structurally unsound by the university (which already occupied the entire site, including the playhouse) and though they have reconstituted it in a comparable form in the very same place, the demolition of the older structure still has the locals fuming. (The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation will be protesting the development this weekend, when NYU has a so-called re-opening open house of the playhouse).

If the truth be told, however, the new buildings, four nearly identical brick houses, each six stories tall, are far better, seen from the street, than the somewhat lower buildings that they have replaced. A fine, imperturbably smooth brickwork extends over the entire façade to achieve the pristine clarity and flatness of a mountain lake. That flatness is relieved to subtlest effect by the geometric regularity of the building’s sash windows and a demure and continuous metal cornice on the top.

Enhancing the effect is a stippling of spare and slightly protruding bricks that separate the second story from the third, as well as a strongly cantilevered canopy over the entrance to the law facility on one end and a dedicated entrance to the new Provincetown Playhouse on the other. The latter entrance, by the way, is far more attractive, in design and lettering, than what it replaced. As though to insist, however, that this is not your great-great-great grandfather’s run of the mill brick development, an infinitesimal cleft is left between the buildings and glazed over, so that a strip of white light runs down the façade at night.

The new Wilf Hall was conceived by the exuberantly contextualist firm of Morris Adjmi, if the word “exuberant” may properly be applied to a style whose dominant ambition is to fit into a preexistent context as unobtrusively as possible. Its red brick façade plays very nicely with the similar cladding of Eggers and Higgins’ Vanderbilt Hall of NYU’s Law School, across the street, as well as Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates’ nearby Furman Hall at 245 Sullivan Street.

Clearly the firm likes red brick, to judge from such recent projects as a mixed residential development at 408 Greenwich Street and a commercial development at 40 Gansevoort Street. They are also responsible for the 10-year old Scholastic’s world headquarters at 557 Broadway. But Wilf Hall, both in its charm and in its subtlety, may well be this firm’s greatest success to date.

As usual, there is the local community’s reflexive resistance to The Man, i.e., NYU, which has always had an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. But they must overcome that. At least this corner of Greenwich Village is better than it was.

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