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Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University, United States

Monday 06 Dec 2010

Moneo at the crossroads

Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States
Wade Zimmerman Photography 
Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University by Rafael Moneo in United States
Your comments on this project

No. of Comments: 12

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14/12/10 Kevin, Santa Fe, NM
The arrogance of the design reflects the irresponsibility of the University. Such an abomination will long bear witness to Columbia's lack of values.
09/12/10 David Sucher, Seattle
Bizarre that the building offers such a blank wall to the street.
Terrible design.
Reviewer knows that there is something wrong but misses the (very obvious) urbanistic failings.
08/12/10 Luis, NYC
This looks more like Davis Brody building, than a Moneo design. It could be one of the clones built for Columbia Presbyterian in the Washington Heights area. I'm sure the Harlem ommunity is more interested in economic development for local jobs, than what the building looks like. After all, Columbia traditionally has never requested design input from the Harlem residents. CU meets only the minimum standards of community input for public relation purposes. Hiring minority architects and getting community board approval, does not translate to local aspirations and vision. Le'/s see what the rest of the Renzo plan looks like.
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08/12/10 Tim Fenn, Oxford
You would have thought the academics commissioning the building would know something about global warming and the energy crisis and then at least attempt to create a future proofed energy efficient building instead of a flashy green-house? Who are they trying to impress? They should have their pension fund linked to the future cost of energy to run this building. This would then really focus their mind on the realities of the future. Architects seem to be only interested in what the building looks like and it's pretty meaningless visual impact to the surrounding area. As if a square glass box is impressive? It makes you think what the hell does the university think the future of science will look like. Roll on sustainability indexing as this should prevent irresponsible commissioning and design of buildings.
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08/12/10 roberto, miramar, florida
With the hi-lighted requirements from the Owner and their degree of difficulties to make a of the buildiing a perfect fit with the site and the community temperamente and at the samae time,being a marvel of the engineering, I believe the buildiing do respond to all these requirementes and the Owner got exactly what he was looking, when he embarked Mr. Piano to take upon this complex program hoping that he along, with his experience and reputation as a great conciliator of contex could produce the miracle of producing a building, which it will respond to each and every piece of his desires. The building looks like any other tall boxy building, nothing to marvel about it, and it looks like that the primaraly intention of the Architect's was to produce a building of strong presence totally oposed to the "Columbia clasically designed site"
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08/12/10 Leslie Sims, Northampton UK
I agree with Alex NY. This building will be a nightmare to maintain its cladding. Has Moneo never had rain or atmospheric polution (or nesting pigeons) near his buildings? Too many horizontal surfaces. Just pretty pattern making on the elevations that had to be turned into a building....
08/12/10 Lorraine Minatoishi, honolulu
Not a stunning piece of work. It seemed the pressure was too great on the architect. We had the same problem with the university of hawaii school of architecture many years ago. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
07/12/10 Alex, New York
This is fresh and crisp and looks less wasteful than top brand design of late, finally. All the same, cleaning and maintaining this skin will be no small matter at all. Why do owners and architects continue to create such costly (first cost and operational cost) projects when there is so much to be done with that money that is not being done? Can we be even smarter with our resources?
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07/12/10 Nik Scott, Sydney,Australia
Horrific blight on Architecture and the skill we are supposed to possess
07/12/10 James VanderMolen, Grand Rapids, MI USA
The second photograph tells all. Look at the scale disparity between the people and the building. Why is this most basic of concerns so frequently ignored?

Columbia University‚Äôs 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.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

Key Facts

Status Completed
Value 0(m€)
Rafael Moneo

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