Cooper Union’s leaning tower

<span style="font-style: italic;">Thom Mayne's rebellious addition to the Bowery is an architectural miss</span>

Satire, George S. Kaufman famously quipped, is what closes on Saturday night. In a similar vein, we can define deconstructivist architecture, the regnant building fad of the moment, as what is always being proposed and never actually built in the city of New York.

In the past few years, starting with those fanciful projects for ground zero and now culminating with Cooper Union’s new academic building, architects both local and international have proposed all manner of deconstructed blobs and fractured facets, only to see the finished product reduced to something far tamer.

A perfect example is Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, which started life as a daringly torqued and irregularly spiraling tower. In short order, however, it was “translated” by the conservative firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into a drably well-behaved skyscraper whose latest rendering looks like so many other symmetrical and entirely unobjectionable towers that the firm has designed over the past half century.

It is with wonderment, then, that we can report the completion of the latest addition to Cooper Union’s portfolio, 41 Cooper Square on the Bowery, designed by Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis.

There is probably no architect in America as brashly rebellious and “high concept” as Mayne, a 67-year-old Los Angeles-based architect whose name is virtually synonymous with the deconstructivist movement.

In 2005, Mayne won the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture, and to date his completed projects are mostly institutional — including his University of Cincinnati Student Recreation Center and University of Toronto Graduate House, as well as the San Francisco Federal Building, and Oregon’s Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse — which is a little weird when you consider his relentlessly vanguardist posturings.

Yet for a project as programatically shocking as the new Cooper Union building aspires to be, it is striking how unsurprising the result has been. When the plans were first published five years ago, some of us were so backward as to fear that the building would be inexcusably ugly — and let’s just say that nothing in the finished product gives lie to those early apprehensions.

Naturally, even if Mayne admitted to thinking in such reactionary terms as beauty and ugliness, he would hardly be troubled to have his project called ugly. In true deconstructivist style, its point is to provoke, to be a jarring dissonance, to scar and interrogate the urban fabric, etc, etc. But the fact remains that this is one ugly building that has just gone up, and that the palpable cheapness of its manufacture — cheap as in value engineering, rather than cheap as in low-tech populism — does not speak well for the values enshrined by Cooper Union itself, which after all boasts one of the country’s most influential schools of architecture.

That Mayne should have gotten anything built in Manhattan is something of a triumph, not only for him, but for all those champions of progressive architecture who have so often seen their hopes dashed in the five boroughs.

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Like so much second-rate deconstructivist architecture, the new academic building at Cooper Union resembles a peacock in the sense that, under all the fuss and feathers — structurally speaking — stands a fairly ordinary building that squats in its cubic box without too much incident.

The drama of Mayne’s newest work occurs almost entirely on the surface. A curtain-walled screen, parti-colored and translucent, is overlaid upon the structure of the building in such a way that light is admitted only indirectly and the inhabitants can peer out only imperfectly. This manifest incommodity is the price which — presumably — they are happy to pay for the honor of inhabiting a building whose vanguardist bona fides are so clamorously evident.

The entire structure along Third Avenue seems to be collapsing from north to south. So heavy, visually speaking, is the weight of the building’s exoskeleton that the paired diagonal pylons along the base look as if they were being crushed under all that weight.

Seen from across the street, along Fourth Avenue, the new building dissolves into a disorderly agglomeration of masses that flare up and subside in unforeseen ways.

But it may be that the main problem with deconstructivist architecture in general, and 41 Cooper Square in particular, is that computer-generated imaging can create structures that far surpass the skills of the present generation of engineers or the capacities of the very materials they use to build. Whether in Frank Gehry’s fabled Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or in Mayne’s new building for Cooper Union, steel and glass are being forced into a configuration that, to judge from the results, is quite beyond their powers.

As you look at the façade along Third Avenue, you cannot help but notice a massive and irregular gash that scores the center of the structure, as though someone had stuck a knife into its fleshly surface and kept twisting it around.

But because the building is not flesh, but glass and steel, the gash has none of the violence that the architect clearly sought. Instead it looks deliberate and calculated, the step-by-step addition of one beam, one pane, one bolt after another to achieve some drama that never materializes.

That same sense of a belabored stunt is evident in the tangle of white beams that form the central stairway of the building’s interior. It is the rare deconstructivist building — like Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recent revision of Alice Tully Hall — that fully lives up to the promise of its renderings, that delivers the dramatic punch that is so much easier to achieve on the drawing board than in the real world.

The best that can be said for deconstructivist architecture in general is that it offers the viewer many different buildings in one, depending upon the angle from which it is viewed. What is essential to the aesthetic success of this mission, however, is that each of these vistas has some visual power in its own right. With the exception of the head-on angle, however, 41 Cooper Square offers no such privileged vistas, and it is little consolation to acknowledge that the frantic disorder, and even ugliness, of these oblique views are entirely intentional on the part of Mayne.

I am willing to admit that there is something reassuring in the fact that, despite New York City’s general hostility to progressive architecture, 41 Cooper Square still managed to get built. And yet, between the undisciplined aspirings of this new building and the stale retreads that account for so many developments in New York, it is hard to say which is the more undesirable.