Within the Family
A Bridge of a Building
President Lee C. Bollinger has called it “a bridge — both across areas of scientific knowledge and from our history to our future at Columbia.” He thus has set a lofty agenda for the new Northwest Corner Building, the interdisciplinary science center that rises 14 stories above Broadway and West 120th Street.
By the way, don’t be confused by the fact that the Northwest Corner Building is on the southeast corner of the intersection. It’s name is geographically correct because it sits at the northwest corner of the rectangle that forms the core of the Morningside Heights campus: Broadway to the west, 120th Street to the north, Amsterdam Avenue to the east and 114th Street to the south.
For years, the site had been an eyesore. There was an emergency exit from Levien Gym on West 120th Street, a nondescript wall along Broadway and a forlorn patch of grass with a couple of trees near the corner that was gated off from the public, barring direct access to the campus. If you stood on that corner, you had to go down Broadway to the Earl Hall gates or along West 120th Street to the Schapiro Center if you wanted to get onto campus.
Now, all that has changed. The site now belongs to the Northwest Corner Building, which had its formal opening in December. Faculty have moved in and classes are being held there this semester. And activity in the building has been increasing by the day.
There’s a modern glass entrance at the corner, a marble-clad lobby and stairs to a mezzanine café that overlooks the street through floor-to-ceiling windows and is the home of the newest branch of Joe, a six-store chain of New York coffee houses. Sandwiches and other light fare are sold along with beverages, and there are chairs and tables that invite patrons to linger and observe the street scene below. More and more are accepting that invitation each week.
From there, an escalator leads up to a spacious campus-level lobby, 35 feet above the street and opening onto Pupin Plaza. All these spaces are open to the public and send a far friendlier message of access than the walls and gates that had been there. This is reinforced by a broad staircase to the east of the building that allows direct access from West 120th Street to Pupin Plaza, allowing people in a hurry to bypass the new building entirely.
In a glowing appraisal that appeared in the February 9 issue of The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called the building’s entrance “a means of reinforcing the university’s public mission. By easing you through the transition from one level to the other in just three quick turns along the stair, [architect José Rafael] Moneo has fused two disparate worlds — the campus and the street outside — and created places of intense social communion.” He goes on to call the new building “a work of healing. Seen in the context of Columbia’s often tense relationship with its Harlem neighbors, including recent battles over its plans to build a new 17-acre campus in West Harlem, the building is a gleaming physical expression of the university’s desire to bridge the divide between the insular world of the campus and the community beyond its walls.”
The building also is the closest point on the core rectangle to what will become the Manhattanville campus, hence Bollinger’s “bridge from our history to our future.” Just as the Northwest Corner Building was opening, excavation and construction in Manhattanville was heating up. In a few years, there will be a steady stream of people making the 5–10 minute walk from this new interdisciplinary science center to facilities such as the Jerome L. Greene Science Center in Manhattanville.
Ouroussoff raves about the design of the Northwest Corner Building. “Its muscular steel-and-aluminum frame is a vivid example of how to fit into a difficult historical context without slavishly kowtowing to it,” he writes. “The building’s base, which is made of the same rose-colored granite as the buildings that flank it, is conceived as an extension of the existing street wall … The upper floors are clad in what may be the most elegant aluminum siding in America: a taut steel grid filled in with an irregular pattern of diagonal steel braces and aluminum louvers.”
To me, “most elegant aluminum siding in America” is a backhanded compliment. I’m not a fan of these metal walls on Broadway and West 120th Street, which a friend describes as a giant cheese-grater, and much prefer the clean glass sheet that faces the campus (much the way the glass wall of Alfred Lerner Hall faces campus).
But I’m not the architecture critic of the Times, who concludes by writing, “In short, this is a building conceived in opposition to our contemporary culture, with its constant visual noise and unforgiving pace. Mr. Moneo aims to lift us, if only momentarily, out of our increasingly frenetic lives — to slow us down and force us to look at the world around us, and at one another, more closely. It’s a big, tough building, but it’s tenderhearted too.”