The Real Deal New York

Fordham’s honeycomb hideout

Delicate curtain wall at I. M. Pei-designed law school will prevent dull fortress that some feared would rise
By James Gardner | June 01, 2012 07:15AM

A model of Fordham University’s under-construction law school, which is scheduled to be finished in about two years.

Throughout the past year, some of New York City’s most conspicuous real estate ventures have been buildings developed by institutions of higher education — a sector that’s undergoing a massive (and very public) infrastructure expansion.

But projects on such an imposing scale do not go up in this town without a great deal of controversy.

Debates have raged about Columbia University’s northward move into Harlem, about the prospect of an entirely new campus for Cornell University on Roosevelt Island and about NYU’s proposed expansion deeper into the West Village — which The Real Deal covered in last’s month issue.

In addition, only a few months ago I reviewed in this column the newly opened annex, at 58th Street and 11th Avenue, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (part of the City University of New York). And now the New School’s so-called “zig-zag” building, constructed according to designs by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, has topped out at 65 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 14th Street.

This month I focus on the Lincoln Center area, which has seen its biggest addition in nearly half a century in the form of Fordham University’s new law school. The building — which also houses an undergraduate residence hall — broke ground a year ago and has now witnessed the topping and partial cladding of the bulk of the building, with the tower still to come.

If all goes according to plan, the present structure will only be the beginning of Fordham’s proposed $1.6 billion expansion, which will ultimately comprise six buildings in the vast area the institution now occupies only partially, just south of Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park and David H. Koch Theater, on 62nd Street. The university hopes to complete the full expansion by 2033.

Architect I.M. Pei, whose firm designed the structure.
This new law school–residence hall is the work of the illustrious New York–based firm of Pei, Cobb Fried and Partners, which has been altering the city — mostly for the better — over the past 50 years. This is the firm that was responsible, half a century ago, for the elegantly modular Kips Bay Plaza at 33rd Street and Second Avenue, as well as NYU’s even better faculty housing complex, known as Silver Towers, which was conceived in a similar style. The firm was also involved more recently, and less memorably, in the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street and, perhaps most regrettably, in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which is now slated to be razed.

Farther afield, this firm has given the world the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, the newer wing of Washington’s National Gallery of Art and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong.

A rendering of Forham Law School
When the plans for the $250 million Fordham Law School were initially proposed, there was the expected opposition from the local community boards. “No to the Fordham Fortress!” was the battle cry of the locals, at the prospect of this high-rise on 62nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues.

When this first phase of Fordham’s expansion is finished in about two years, it will contain, in addition to the law school, a massive library with 560,000 volumes and a tower that will house 430 students.

The predictable epithet of “fortress” is doubtless a response to the base of the building. Like the recently opened John Jay structure only two blocks away, as well as the New School’s addition, the bulk of this latest project is a nine-story base, or pedestal, that unapologetically occupies its designated plot. There appears, as the building exists now, to be little effort made to mitigate or conceal its hulking bigness.

The project appears to be fully in keeping with the career of I. M. Pei, now 95 years old, and his firm. Although he came of age during the reign of the International Style, throughout his career he’s exhibited a resistance to the pared-down strictures of that mode of design. Although his modular work at Kips Bay and on the Silver Towers uses the pure concrete beloved of the Brutalists, his firm managed to enliven both buildings with a textural richness that was largely alien to Classical Modernism.

From there it was not so difficult to make the transition to the rich travertine tones and dimensions of his work at the Louvre (in the area that he designed underneath the glass pyramid) and in the National Gallery, as well as the traces of historicism that can be found in the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown.

This ability to evolve with the times — if not always ahead of the times — is evident in the Fordham project, as well.

If the renderings are to be believed, it will look quite charming when it’s completed and can be seen from the main plaza of Lincoln Center, flanked, as in a theatrical stage set, by the Koch Theater and the Metropolitan Opera. From that standpoint, it reads as a composite of a building, in which several rather different parts and styles coexist. This is more in keeping with certain collage-aesthetic Deconstructivist projects of a decade ago than with what architects are doing today. The pale base appears mainly as a patterned tissue of alternating windows and infill. It gently curves and winnows, a motif that lends an air of insubstantiality to the hulking structure.

That feeling is enhanced by the way the structure hovers over its ground-level supports. To the west, a darker curtain-walled annex is already emerging from the main pedestal, reaffirming the strict grid from which the curving pedestal departs.

Further mitigating the severity of the grid is the 22-story residential tower, which is really a slab more than a tower, and, when completed, will be covered over most of its surface by a sheerer curtain wall than that of the smaller attachment to the west.

All in all, given the delicacy of the curtain wall that will cover the tower, the effect should be one of far greater lightness, inventiveness and interest than the dull fortress that the local community board feared would be built.

Thus far, with the site of Fordham’s Manhattan campus sadly under-developed, its relationship to Lincoln Center has always seemed hesitant and confused. But with the completion of this new building, and especially with the completion of the grander expansion — if it ever comes to pass — Fordham will do as much for Lincoln Center as Lincoln Center now does for it.