Columbia University’s new Northwest Corner Building signals a controversial direction
When Rafael Moneo accepted the commission to design a new interdisciplinary science building for Columbia University he knew it wouldn’t be easy. From the get go, the Spanish architect was tasked with the enormous challenge of designing a 14 storey building over an existing gym that was to remain in use during construction.
He was also asked by Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, to design a ‘daring’ structure of ‘glass and steel’ that would represent the future of the sciences, ‘open the university to the neighbourhood’ and complement the school’s planned expansion to the northwest, (a 17-acre satellite campus designed by Renzo Piano). In short, the building was to be an engineering marvel and an architectural departure that would test the temperament of the community and the preservationists as the school prepared to embark on the largest expansion in its 258 year history. A building destined to be different - which indeed it is.
Slated to open this month, the Northwest Corner Building - as the science building is known - houses 50,000 sq ft of laboratories, a science library, a 170 seat lecture hall, offices and a café visible to the street. In plan and in section, the building is a cogent essay on how to build community through architecture.
Moneo has intelligently stacked the complex program, imparting great flexibility to the labs, and linked the structure to the chemistry and physics buildings with sky bridges, laying the groundwork for greater interaction to occur among the sciences. The building’s transparency furthers this potential for connectivity. But where the building evidences the architect’s great skill at fostering community, it falls short on forging a meaningful conversation with the buildings around it.
The hulking steel and glass building is a jarring addition to Columbia’s classically planned campus and to its mostly masonry architecture. As styles go, Modernism is a great equaliser, able to fit comfortably with almost any style and capable of restating the rules of classical architecture without being sentimental or historicist. But rather then learn from the past, the Northwest Corner Building has regrettably left it behind.
In almost every way (in its materials, its coloration and its bulk) the building tests the limits of acceptability where it concerns its responsibility to the surrounding urban fabric and the greater public realm. Barnard’s new Diana Center, located across the street - a modern building clad in orange-coloured fritted glass - makes a subtler and more convincing transition at establishing a new architectural direction for the campus.
In Moneo, Columbia had an architect experienced in dealing with difficult contexts with great aplomb. At the Prado in Madrid he finessed an underground addition to the museum with great success. And, at the National Museum of Arts in Merida he built a modern exhibition space over a buried Roman town. But in New York, with what will be his first building there, the Pritzker Prize winning architect has not lived up to his reputation as a great conciliator of context and is getting mixed reviews for his Northwest Corner Building.
One possible explanation for the building’s lukewarm reception may be that the conditions were just too difficult and contradictory to produce a crowd pleaser. Another may be that in a strong physical context like Columbia’s campus, it’s not enough for a building to work well. It has to look like it belongs too. Whatever the reasons, one thing is for sure. In the design of the Northwest Corner Building, Floor Area Ratio (which allowed a building of great bulk to be built on this site) trumped restraint. And we the public are left to deal.
Davis Brody Bond is the associate architect for this project.