James Gardner — Columbia breaks conventions with its new academic building

Columbia University’s new $200 million inter-disciplinary science building is nearly clad.
For once in New York, the controversy surrounding Columbia University’s $200 million interdisciplinary science building at 120th Street and Broadway — and there has been a good deal of controversy — does not have to do with the quality of the building, but with its location and structural stability.

Now topped out and mostly clad, it is clearly a distinguished edifice, especially by the debased standards of the Big Apple. Only here would one consider how nice it is that a renowned architect, Rafael Moneo, was able to build without having to alter his vision in some fundamental and degrading way! When the building is fully operational, which should be next fall, it will rise 14 stories and contain 50,000 square feet of laboratories, as well as a 170-seat lecture hall; a library for students of physics, chemistry, psychology and biology; and a café, visible at street level, that will be open to the general public.

One of several problems Moneo confronted planning this structure was a preexisting gymnasium that occupies the same footprint as the new building. Not only was the architect required to preserve the gym, it had to remain fully operational while the science building was being constructed above it. As a result, it was impossible for structural supports to rise directly over the midsection, which contains the gym.

So there is the fear that the whole thing might come crashing down. Especially now, when the midriff of the gym is exposed, the physics of the building seems quite perilous. The secret, apparently, is a diagonal truss system that shifts the pressure to columns at either end of its 120-foot span. Let’s hope so.

But if that one problem has been effectively resolved, another one remains: whether this specific building should exist on this specific plot of land in the first place. It sits squarely on one of the four corners of McKim, Mead & White’s master plan for Columbia University. This plan, New York’s most dramatic and successful example of the so-called City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century, was conceived as a ravishing classical vision. The Moneo building, by contrast, is anything but classical. A gleaming, platinum colored high-rise, it is shorn of those ornamental grace notes that constitute the great charm of McKim, Mead & White’s architecture.

Surely the university could have adopted a more contextual approach, as it did fairly recently with the Broadway façade of the graduate center, Alfred Lerner Hall, at 114th Street, and also as Barnard College did across the street with Centennial Hall. Both of these structures are clad in the red brick that dominates much of the campus. They may not have ivy climbing their walls, yet they look as though they should.

But with almost polemical intent, Lee Bollinger, the university’s president, picked Moneo and charged him with the task of creating something memorably modern. “I wanted it to be daring but I wanted it to be by a major architect,” Bollinger told the New York Times. “I didn’t want to select someone in the process of being established.”

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The building’s orientation also enhances its symbolic significance. It faces north, toward that part of Manhattan where Bollinger famously wants the university to expand.

Born in Tudela, Spain, in 1937, Moneo seems to be what Bollinger was seeking. In 1996, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, and for many years he was the chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he continues to teach. Unlike many prominent architects of our day, Moneo does not seem to possess a style that defines him or that is unique to him. He is a pluralist who can go from something approaching the contextualism of Robert Stern in his work at the Prado expansion project or the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida to the ultramodernism that defines his latest project on 120th Street.

The Columbia building, his first in New York, seems purer and more geometric than most of his earlier efforts. It can be read as an homage to Peter Eisenman, an architect more famous for his ideas than for his ability to get much of anything built. Moneo has written that Eisenman can be defined by his interest in the “syntactical mechanisms of architecture.” Which implies fiddling with a grid, which is exactly what Moneo himself has done, with some dexterity, on the façade of the new science building.

The structure rises up as a silvery L-shaped slab that is longer on Broadway than on 120th Street. A semiattached curtain-wall accounts for much of the interior façade of the building, which faces the inside of Columbia University. In the grid, as in a number of influential drawings that Peter Eisenman made in the 1970s, a series of striated lines move vertically, horizontally and diagonally to create a kinetically regimented pattern.

How different are the conception and effect from Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, a jaunty, bulging Whac-A-Mole of a building, clad in poured, yellowish concrete that recalls the works of Louis Kahn. On 120th Street, by contrast, the effect is not one of calm so much as of the dense and overcharged circuitry of a microchip. With its gridwork of windows, the building announces to the world the intense cerebral activity that is taking place within it.

The origins of its formal vocabulary can be found in the frigid, end-of-art spirit of minimalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially in the neatly striated lines that the painter Sol LeWitt favored at the time. The great appeal that it once had for artists and intellectuals was its suggestion of a rigorous and dispassionate system. Whether this system was really a system at all I leave to others to decide. The important thing, in respect to the new science center at Columbia, is that it has reduced that system to pure ornament. And maybe that’s all it really was.

So does the building deserve to occupy one of the four crucial corners of the Columbia rectangle, or should the university have chosen to erect a more contextual structure in its place? True, the building looks like an alien intrusion. But it is clearly a well-designed building, unlike many another high-concept modernist artifact that could have been chosen to occupy the site.