Village vanguard

28 May 2010

New School reveals design for University Center

These days the student center has taken on a new meaning. Once a campus place to gather for coffee and recreation, these buildings now house robust programs and often stand as the singular image of a school’s brand. Such is the case of the recently unveiled new University Center at the New School in New York City. Designed by SOM’s Roger Duffy the 16-storey, 345,000-square-foot campus center combines academic, retail and dormitory spaces in an unusual building that is atypical for SOM, the New School and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of which it will be a part.

Built of glass and brass, with transparent staircases that zigzag up the façade, the University Center is one of those buildings that exploits the use of glass for its spectator and exhibitionist tendencies, allowing pedestrians to see inside and vice versa. This is good idea for The New School, which can capitalize on the building’s transparency to showcase its programs and activities. The idea works well for the building’s multi-purpose spaces where the school’s programs can be put on view, helping to define its public image while attracting notice. But for the more utilitarian spaces, such as the staircases, the idea is less convincing and a costly investment that is all legs – literally – and no action which raises the question as to when such a design move it is worth doing?

On the upside, these staircases bring in natural light and reveal the building to be a hive of activity, exposing the movement of the inhabitants within. But they also create an uneasy rupture in the building’s façade, albeit perhaps interesting, resulting in an aesthetic that may quickly become dated. As there appears to be no compelling reason to design the stairs in this way, other then exposing the movement within, why do it?

There are many reasons why the staircases are designed this way, Duffy said. The appearance, he points out, is the result of functional requirements and not formal intentions. “The staircases are an outgrowth of the client’s objectives which is to connect the circulation spaces directly to the interactive spaces”, said Duffy. “There are many recent educational buildings that claim to do this but this is the only one that directly engages the interactive spaces.” The stairs are “code-compliant fire stairs invented for the project” and “the first of their kind anywhere”, said Duffy. “We are quite proud of the stairs”.

Duffy is a talented guy who deserves kudos for tying to change the culture at SOM. The architect and the client should be commended for taking risks. But the design of the University Center is not Duffy’s best work nor is it the school’s best building. While the proposed design is a better fit for the neighborhood than the former proposal, a 305-foot tower that would have dwarfed its surroundings, it comes off as trendy and with no guarantee that its big idea will work. For the staircases to work as envisioned they will require a great deal of foot traffic. And given that there are other ways to vertically navigate through the building, the effect Duffy is striving for could be diluted if not altogether lost.

Such clever ideas can have unintended, undesirable consequences. I am reminded of the reaction I had to first having seen a Gehry-designed building, wondering if not also being concerned, how such a design would translate in the hands of another. Transparent stairs that skirt the threshold between privacy and publicity are all the rage but not every situation is right for such playful and eye-popping designs.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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