Bronx Community College deserves to be — architecturally speaking — on the map

By James Gardner | March 03, 2011 04:13PM

A rendering of Robert A. M. Stern’s North Instructional Building and Library

Even some of the most committed architecture buffs in New York, the sort who would travel around the world to see the Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House or Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasilia, will never make it up to Bronx Community College, at 2155 University Avenue. And yet, acre per acre, it is one of the most important architectural nurseries on the East Coast, if not beyond.

Once the home of New York University, its original master plan was conceived, with characteristic Gilded Age classicism, by Stanford White in 1892 and on a scale nearly as ambitious as the master plan devised by his partner Charles Follen McKim for Columbia University in Morningside Heights. Overlooking the Harlem River, it contains two of White’s masterpieces, the Gould Memorial Library (completed in 1899) with its splendid dome, and the open-air colonnade of his Hall of Fame for Great Americans, from 1912.

In the mid-1950s, however, it underwent an astounding change from high classicism to the brutalest Brutalism, when the great modernist architect Marcel Breuer created Begrisch Hall and Gould Hall of Technology (now Polowczek Hall) and several residence halls. Though these are all distinguished buildings, it would be hard to imagine a greater stylistic clash. It would be like joining the Whitney Museum of American Art (which Breuer designed) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which in part McKim, Mead & White designed.)

The Bronx Community College took over the campus from NYU in the 1970s, and the City University of New York has now decided to create a new plan, which represents, stylistically, a great swing backward, under the guidance of the arch-contextualist (some might say classicist) Robert Stern. The first of his contributions, the North Instructional Building and Library, representing the northern side of the campus quad, is now nearing completion.

Here we find Stern doing what he seems to enjoy most, creating august academic structures that almost cry out for a mantle of cascading ivy. With its broad façade of pilasters facing the quad, the building intentionally recalls Widener Library at Harvard University and Butler Library at Columbia University. In its palette of ruddy brick and pale gray cast-stone accents, the 96,000-square-foot building recalls the Gould Memorial Library across the quad. To judge from renderings, the core of the interior will include a double-height sequence of barrel vaults suspended on frail columns that invokes Henri Labrouste’s famous Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. In the building itself, as well as in its western annex, it will house classrooms, faculty offices and a law library.

I am not sure that the orangey brick is the most suitable for the structure, or that, as hoped, it accords well with the Memorial Library. And it probably does not achieve the purity or distinction of Breuer’s contributions of half a century later. But it is easy enough on the eye, and should serve as one further reason to put the campus, architecturally speaking, on the map.

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