The New School needs new design

With brass plates and irregular curtain walls, the New School’s student center will blight the surrounding neighborhood
By James Gardner | November 03, 2012 07:00AM

The original rendering of the New School’s latest academic building

Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion. NYU’s superblock redevelopment. Cornell’s new Roosevelt Island campus. If it seems as though this column has been devoted to discussing an abundance of new academic buildings recently, it may be because there are few areas of the New York real estate market in which the expansion has been so striking.

Indeed, the growth of New York’s infrastructure for higher education is almost as energetic as its development of condos and hotels (see related story: Dorms and the city). And it is far more energetic than the expansion of its museums.

If the vigor of this sector were in question, it would suffice to look at the new Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed, 354,000-square-foot University Center for the New School at 65 Fifth Avenue, which will take up the entire block between 13th and 14th streets. As for a thumbnail description of the new project, I’ll start by quoting real estate website Curbed, whose headline summed it up this way: “New School Unveils Blinged-Out Bronze Badass on Fifth Avenue.”

The exterior of the new building — which is scheduled to open at the beginning of the next academic year — is almost complete. Clad in brass, it squats along Fifth Avenue in a state of almost truculent defiance — as though daring pedestrians to assail its blatant insensitivity to its urban context.

As originally planned, the building was to be much taller than its current 18 stories. In addition, a rendering of an earlier version of the project shows a building clad in a tinted glass curtain wall that would have looked far better than what is actually being built.

In response to the neighborhood’s outcry, the building, which was built as-of-right (meaning without any zoning changes), is now shorter. In its present configuration, it consists of a base and two setbacks, each eventually to be accentuated by a row of trees.

The predominantly dark brown structure is clad mostly in brass plates, which look distinctly odd, as though they were trying to simulate the tones of wood. The base of the building, meanwhile, is scarred across its three main façades with a decidedly ugly and ill-conceived array of irregular curtain walls that move diagonally across the surface in a way that seems far removed from the Art Deco structures that Joseph Urban designed for the New School back in the 1920s and that have defined the school to some degree.

The setbacks above the base will serve as dormitories. From the exterior, at least, they look as if they won’t admit as much light as the older plan for this building, which had no setbacks.

The construction of the school’s latest academic building, which is scheduled to open for the next academic year.

Between the unsightly irregularities of the curtain walls and the brass plates across its surface, the new structure looks not only like nothing in its immediate vicinity, but like nothing ever built before! That hasn’t deterred SOM’s website from offering this boilerplate assessment: “The building has been carefully designed to complement its eclectic surroundings, affording the university a signature architectural presence that respects the massing and scale of neighboring buildings.”

To the contrary, the style of the building is that of Deconstructivism, which, by its very program, aspires to disturb and disrupt the relationship between it and the buildings around it. In regard to that ambition, the new building succeeds with exemplary efficiency.

Whether that ambition was ever a worthy one is a better question; I am certain that the answer is no. Personally, I’ve never felt that discord was an estimable ambition, but I feel strengthened in that sentiment by the general ugliness of so many of the buildings — including this latest — that the Deconstructivist style has left in its wake.

An eminent example of this, and in some sense a template of the New School’s building, is the new academic building at Cooper Union, at 41 Cooper Square, a monstrosity on the Bowery, which was designed by the dean of Deconstruction: Thom Mayne, the head of Morphosis Architects. The East Village will long suffer from that ghastly intervention, completed in 2009. What was most striking about that building was the helter-skelter gash or scar that rips through its western façade — a scar reprised in the New School’s so-called University Center.

One of the problems with the new building is that it was designed by SOM, which has distinguished itself not only with its mid-century Modernism, but also with the Neomodernism of buildings like 7 World Trade Center.

Roger Duffy

But the firm has always run into trouble when it’s tried to keep up with the latest trends, a fact that is evident in the gauche Contextualism of the Bear Stearns building at 383 Madison Avenue built in 2001, or in this latest attempt at Deconstruction. In what I believe is a break from SOM’s custom, which is to emphasize the teamwork in creating any project, here it has welcomed the attribution of the building to a single designer, in this case Roger Duffy (almost as though SOM was eager to deflect the attribution away from the firm as a whole).

The architecture that Duffy has created to date is a decidedly mixed bag. The Condé Nast cafeteria is a promisingly Neomodernist concoction of green glass ceilings and ominous space pods with big oculus openings along the sides. Parts of his Burr Street Elementary School in Fairfield, Conn., with its curving curtain walls, are similarly successful, and indeed, SOM has a long tradition of work on educational institutions.

But other projects, like the mirrored interiors of the Skyscraper Museum, which is incorporated into the ground floor of a high-rise in Battery Park City, miss the mark and look cramped and value engineered. And the Toren in Brooklyn, with its vexed and bristling gray plated surface, is simply unlovely to an extreme degree.

It is hard to say what this strange use of materials is supposed to signify, whether it is intended to recall the natural textures of wood or something provocatively antinatural. Or perhaps, like so much Deconstructivist architecture, its main ambition, in which it surely succeeds, is to draw clamorous attention to itself.

In a further example of the sort of pallid boilerplate that seems to define architectural pitches to universities, on the school’s website, Duffy stated of the building: “Its location, innovative design and bold programming will encourage the face-to-face, spirited inquiry that is a characteristic of this university.”

But if buildings are metaphors, this new structure, rather than communicating openness and light — as did earlier versions of the project — instead will live on as a darksome burden to the avenue, metaphorically shunning the surrounding neighborhood that it has blighted.