James Gardner — NYU erases an eyesore

<i>Washington Square bids farewell to a Brutalistic chapel and gets set to welcome a plainer structure </i>

A few months ago, a demolition company quietly went to work on the Holy Trinity Chapel at 58 Washington Square South. As this unloved, unlamented and perhaps even unremembered Modernist building disappears without a trace, an entirely new project is about to break ground, to be completed in 2012.

I confess that I have not been so gladdened by the disappearance of any building in Manhattan since 2000, when I witnessed the razing of the Coliseum at Columbus Circle, to make way for the incomparably better Time Warner Center. As for the Landmarks Commission or the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, if they had any compunctions whatsoever, I certainly didn’t hear about them. It is difficult to escape the impression that something approaching collusion occurred between various interested parties to dispatch the building as swiftly as possible when everyone was looking the other way.

It is unlikely that many pedestrians realized, as they walked by this now-departed example of Brutalism, built between 1961 and 1964, that it was the work of the same architectural firm, Eggers and Higgins, that designed the NYU Law School’s main building, Vanderbilt Hall, just down the street. The two structures could hardly be more different. Indeed, not only the buildings in question but the architects who conceived them seemed to have come from different planets.

The expansive Vanderbilt Hall, which remains mercifully intact, is awash in Georgian-style Anglophilia, while the Holy Trinity Chapel was a small and compact exercise in ultramodern Brutalism that squatted on a small plot of land at the corner of Thompson Street and Washington Square South. Despite a stained-glass rosette window facing the park, the triangular nave that made up the bulk of the building looked like a World War II gun turret rising over a rectangular base and spiked with a sequence of flanges that made little visual or spiritual sense. Crowning the gaucherie was a spire that may or may not have received radio signals.

That the firm of Eggers and Higgins should have come to this, at the very end of their long careers, was as remarkable as it was depressing. For their firm had grown out of the architectural practice of John Russell Pope, possibly the finest of all American architects. We have him to thank for such Beaux Arts reveries as the Theodore Roosevelt Wing of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as the expansion of the Frick in 1937, not to mention his masterpiece, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. When he died in 1937, it was his architectural heirs, Eggers and Higgins, who completed with distinction the Jefferson Memorial, about a mile south of the National Gallery. In fairness to Daniel Paul Higgins, one half of the firm, he had died in 1953, and so can hardly be blamed for the Holy Trinity Church. Rather, it was his partner, Otto Reinhold Eggers, who bears all the responsibility.

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The good news is that the structure that NYU hopes to raise looks, on the basis of the renderings, to be slightly better than what it replaces. The new project, like the old one, will serve the Archdiocese of New York as the Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, but it will also include classrooms and accommodate other members of the NYU community. It was designed by the Boston-based firm of Machado & Silvetti Associates, whose only other completed project in New York is Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, a project of only partial success that faces the Hudson at the tip of Manhattan.

After the experience of what it replaces, perhaps we should all be glad that the new project errs on the side of dullness. Flanked by the Kimmel Center for University Life to the east and, across Thompson Street, the Judson Memorial Church to the west, the new building reads as a six-story rectangular box stretching from Washington Square Park to 3rd Street in a way that fully occupies its lot, unlike its predecessor, which seemed to occupy only half of it. As such, it would abolish that irritating sense of lack, of incoherence and insufficiency, that the church gave off. In order to realize that design, however, NYU has requested, and should receive, a variance. Ironically, without this variance it would be able to build an 11-story building with more square footage, which it surely needs. But the urban fabric of the Village would be better served by having a lower building in that area. The university has released images of the building in both forms, as seen through the iconic Washington Square Arch, and the more regular, six-story version is surely easier on the eye.

As for the design itself, it looks fairly lackluster in the rendering, and so it is hardly likely to look much better in the flesh. Its tawny color and its irregular patterns of windows are doubtless intended to harmonize, or at least not to jar, with the Kimmel Center next door. This is probably a good idea, even though it pretty much ensures that nothing brilliant will arise there. Indeed, as NYU seeks to initiate its 2031 plan, which it released a few years ago, it seems to be seeking the politest and most unobjectionable building it can get, with the most dull and emulsifying half-tones, such as you find at the Kimmel Center as well as in this new proposal. Such is the institutional ethos of the university today as opposed to the 1960s that it seems determined to avoid anything as programmatically incendiary as Cooper Union’s new Student Center, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis.

The resulting design for the Center for Academic and Spiritual Life is a tepidly acceptable compromise, its very color suggestive of tapioca pudding. Although, of course, the ultimate success of the building will depend on the skill of its execution, for now the façade along the park is good enough, although the ground floor entrance, a glazed area divided by a passage of masonry, looks clumsy and makes little visual sense. Along Thompson Street, it divides more neatly into two halves that are separated by a glass atrium, with a discreet canopy.

But then, you could argue that, architecturally speaking, New York University was wrong from the start. Fundamentally different from Columbia, with its magnificently rich and coherent Beaux-Arts master plan, designed by McKim, Meade and White, NYU arises out of the rough and disjointed fabric of the Village, installing itself in whatever buildings it finds in its path. It is easy to imagine that many an uninitiated out-of-towner has entered the campus without realizing that he was in the university at all. The new Center for Academic and Spiritual Life promises to uphold and enhance that sense of modest self-effacement.