Barnard and New School Student Centers: Separated at Birth?

Rendering by SOM via the NY Times

Upon beholding Skidmore, Owings, and Merill‘s rendering of their recently unveiled $353 million design for the New School’s new student center, I noticed that its design looked oddly familiar to another building which I recently reviewed….

Rendering by Weiss/Manfredi, since I don't have a picture of this view of the completed building handy on my laptop.

Weiss and Manfredi‘s Barnard College Diana Center. Her construction was completed earlier this year.

Both buildings are collegiate student centers designed to combine academic activities and student life. Both of their facades use warm metal cladding, punctuated by cascades of glass, to connect said campus life to their larger surrounding city. Both buildings strive to gain further brownie points through their attempts at green roofs. And the bright SOM interior, flowing across multiple levels of space, also seems more familiar than its modernity would suggest.

Another SOM rendering, also via the NY Times.

Admittedly, the New School proposal does exhibit some distinctive features, such as the 9-story, 600-room dormitory perched on top of its offending student center wing. But despite those differences in size and program, the two specimens are looking oddly similar to each other…

Thanks to Mariya Meshcheryakova for the tip!


Book Review: Provisional

Provisional: Emerging Modes of Architectural Practice USA, a new book edited by authors Elite Kedan, Jon Dreyfous, and Craig Mutter, surveys America’s next coming wave of innovative design practices. Some of the firms profiled, such as SHoP and Lewis.Tsrumaki.Lewis (LTL), expand the boundaries of the architect’s role by exploring new approaches to firm organization or the design process. Other designers break through those traditional professional expectations completely; Meejin Yoon Studio, for example, is as likely to create an exhibit design as they are a fashion line. Meanwhile consultant practices like Front and Gehry Technologies take an opposite tactic by capitalizing on our society’s current tendency towards specialization, focusing on particular segments of the building industry such as facade systems or digital software tools. They use their specific expertise to make other people’s designs build-able.

The book’s physical form, too, is a composite of multiple ingredients. A mixture of interviews, construction footage, blueprints, glossy renderings and even anecdotal snapshots are sandwiched between a series of theoretical essays anchoring the narrative’s beginning and end. The resulting visual object is generally attractive, its lime green interview pages interspersed with the grey and white sediment of other informational types.

The book’s layered mass hides further secrets. Intertwining through its structure is an ambitious navigational system, one which aims to inject some of new media’s hyperlinked interconnectivity into the book’s older medium of print. Each page is divided into a grid of numbers, as though it were part of some strange atlas …

Sets of coordinates then appear every time a key topic is mentioned, giving the reader a non-linear option for navigating the text:

If those hyperlinks were easy and effective to use, the book’s design would be an appropriate match for the bleeding-edge technology that it covers. Unfortunately, however, the idea only works in theory. The problem is simple – the network of hyperlinks is not comprehensive enough. I frequently found myself wishing for links where none existed. When one interviewee referred to a building that he had completed, I found myself yearning to be able to flip to a picture of it, or at least see more information. Instead I had to put the book down in order to go dredge the depths of Google on my computer. Although the internet’s total comprehensiveness might be impossible to imitate, adding such simple elements as index to the book (as dangerously old-fashioned as that might sound) would at least improve the accessibility of whatever information networks might currently be transcending its pages.

The architects themselves show a more pragmatic outlook towards their own design projects. In spite of the high levels of technology that they like to play with, these designers share a common tendency to forgo the high-profile architect’s usual appetite for forward-looking design heroics in favor of embracing today’s existing status quo. LTL seeks opportunities in their design constraints, while SHoP admires the practical values of Australian sustainability guru Glenn Murcutt. One ultimately gets the impression that these architects are willing to appropriate or adapt anything, so long as it can be built. As the book’s authors ultimately conclude, “there is nothing essentially subversive or avant-garde about… ” the ideas of the profiled firms. “The point, after all, is to build.” Such theories are undoubtedly some form of counter-reaction against our recent decade-long procession of spectacular amoebas; an parade which, upon being rained on by the economic collapse, has left its onlookers scurrying for more practical shelter.

Despite the interviewees’ emphasis on pragmatic building, however, the book itself shows more interest in thoughts than in actions. Although the authors’ interview questions occasionally reveal the kind of telling glimpses into the profession’s trenches suggested by the book’s practice-oriented marketing and candid construction photography (example: “What are some of your biggest failings?”), the discourse ultimately can’t stay grounded for very long before it inevitably floats back up into the airier realm of ideas.

Which brings me to the question of what, exactly, these architects’ theories mean. The architects’ decisions to embrace the profession’s practical demands are either the achievement of some zen-like level of philosophical enlightenment, as suggested by LTL’s intricate rationale for their acceptance of design constraints, or else the move could simply be a great way for a designer to stay financially afloat. Regardless of the answer, Provisional must be applauded for drawing attention to the underlying philosophies of some architects who are more commonly known for the face value of their practices. The resulting books is most useful as a snapshot of today’s current architectural thinking.

Amazon link for Provisional.

Some other reviews of the book can be found on Archidose, anArchitecture, Dexigner, and Architectural Scholar.

Provisional‘s entry in the portfolio of the book designer, Project Projects.

Everyday Sketches

Much of my sketching experience has come from the immediate world around me. The commencement of a sketch could be provoked by the moments when I was bored and needed something to do, along with those sublime moments when, in the midst of my mundane experience, I unexpectedly saw something which I decided that wanted to remember. Creating such works does not demand any kind of drastic change or departure from one’s ordinary routines and lifestyle, no great upheaval or sacrifice for the sake of art, but rather a concession; it requires the courage to accept your everyday life and then transform it through your drawing.

Although the acts of creating these sketches took place in a mundane world of classrooms, doctors’ offices, and lazy Saturday afternoons, the resulting works exhibit an interesting similarity to my more formal travel drawings of exotic destinations in Paris or Spain. Where those travel drawings attempted to make the foreign familiar, as I dissected the essences of buildings that I had never seen before and made a place for them in my own personal memory, my investigations of more mundane subjects involved taking such a close and intimate look at the surroundings I was already familiar with that those things and places could become foreign again. These drawings, too, are travel sketches, and their only difference is that most of the traveling involved has occurred in my mind.

Travel Sketch Tuesdays

What follows is the start of new series of posts for this blog. You see, I have completed numerous travel drawings which I am not quite sure about. Right now they are sitting around, collecting dust, visible to the eyes of no one. But I don’t know what to do with them, because the genre of the architectural travel drawings is a very funny thing. A good travel sketch doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate or even beautiful. Rather, the goal is to capture the feel of a place, and burn the memory of that feeling into the artist’s mind so that it may later be tapped into whenever the creator, in some future time of need, is hungry for precedent or inspiration.

Even by those unconventional standards, I have done some drawings which I am not sure about. When I look at them, I can tell that they mean  or suggest something, but I am not sure of exactly what they want to say to me. Or maybe the drawing was slightly off but had some interesting ideas. Sometimes I will even will put one of my drawings away for a few months, and then come back to it later and feel something different towards it. The following drawing, which I made last winter while sitting in one of the grand old squares of Savannah, Georgia, was one piece that made me feel that way:

There. It’s posted. I feel better. And next week, I will post some other drawing to go along with it. And every Tuesday from now on, I will post another new previously unpublished travel drawing on this page.  Some of the submissions will be drawings that I have just recently completed, perhaps minutes before posting them, while others will be old work that I have been afraid to look at for months. Whatever the outcome, I shall be returning to an old art form that is often overlooked in our contemporary world of architects who click rather than draw.

(Note: Although I will continue to share my travel sketches with you, I have since decided that only posting new sketches every Tuesday may not be the best fit for the non-linear nature of my mind.)

The lost lightbulb

The infamous CFL light bulb is never afraid of chronological or stylistic incongruency. Its presence on the Columbia University campus reminds me of a passage in Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture, in which a performer dressed as a Danish Renaissance king perches precariously astride a sleek 20th-century bicycle.  According to the author, “The costume, of its kind, is undoubtedly a handsome one, and the bicycle too is of the best. But they simply do not go together.” Past styles will inevitably appear to be out of context with the present.

The infamous CFL light bulb is never afraid of chronological or stylistic incongruency. Observed on the Columbia University campus.


Shelter from the snow

This morning, I didn’t want to think about architecture. I tried to — I racked my brain attempting to produce original, compelling ideas to share with you. I came up with false starts and wacky theories, and tried to find events in the world around me that I could somehow relate to design. But all my ideas simply fizzled and fell flat. None of my theories made sense, and none of it seemed to really matter.

And the snowstorm outside kept distracting me.

The snow streamed down in hypnotic rhythm. My room’s window sill reminded me of the proscenium arch used in a theater, framing my view of the white landscape so that it seemed to be some exotic other world disconnected from my reality.

I wanted to just hole up in the familiar surroundings of my own warm, cozy room and go back to sleep.

It was at that point that I realized that I was experiencing one of the most fundamental aspects of architecture. The building, for once, is shelter.

Barnard Diana Center’s Beauty is Skin Deep

From the outside, Barnard College’s newly opened Diana student center looks benign. Designed by architects Weiss and Manfredi to replace the school’s previous MacIntosh student union, a zealous exercise in 1960′s-style raw concrete, the new building’s contextually sensitive materials and proportions mark a successful return to the visual unity of the old campus. While the center’s facade panels, for example, were fabricated from thoroughly modern metal construction, their familiar red color selection enables the debutante Diana to smoothly relate to the ivy-draped brick of her more traditional elder neighbors. Once the daytime festivities conclude, the glass and steel of that facade can also perform a kaleidescope of visual skits in response to the glistening of the setting sun.

The elegance with which the Diana’s exterior manages to balance between the past and future becomes even more appreciable upon comparison with Columbia University’s own controversial attempt at the same facade problem across the street. Bernard Tschumi’s Columbia student center, Lerner Hall, was intended, like the Diana, to reinvigorate its community with contemporary resources while intertwining with its historic surroundings. Although Tschumi’s vision started out as the bolder of the two, with its glass campus-side facade of criss-crossing catwalks intended to elevate mundane student life to theatrical levels, the plan’s audacity soon turned into the source of its own downfall. A series of community complaints reduced the glass footage on Lerner’s street facade in favor of more contextual stone and brick elements. That revival of traditional architectural values also re-awakened another less pleasant University tradition; Lerner’s fortified street wall continues the Columbia past-time of turning a hard stone face to its surrounding community. The Diana, in comparison, attempts to connect its student life to the activity of the city outside by placing glass windows at the level of the sidewalk.

Columbia University’s Lerner Hall takes a defensive, traditional approach to its urban context.

Once the sidewalk outside Barnard’s campus re-opens, it will allow students in the Diana Center cafe to people watch while they eat.

Similar rivers of glass also run along the campus side of the Diana’s facade, carrying with them more than a subtle whiff of the exterior stairways in Alvar Aalto’s MIT Baker House. The intent, according to the Diana’s architects, was to create a porous, flowing structure. According to architect Marion Weiss in an interview on the Barnard website, “We want to encourage what I call peripheral vision, or accidental encounters, the cross-fertilization of disciplines that makes the liberal arts experience unique. By creating long sight-lines through several stories we hope that students will look up from their coffee and become intrigued by their colleagues’ work in other parts of the building.” Those intentions, while noble, do not play out as successfully in reality; several of the busiest communal spaces are detached from the building’s view corridors. Cost-cutting sounds like a plausible cause, along with security issues; I was disappointed to find that the building’s drawing and architecture studios, for example, are sealed off from visitors in a manner than could discourage collaboration between the arts.

Back on the ground, the Diana’s landscaping moves are more successful at uniting the campus. Where her MacIntosh predecessor blundered in front of the elegant courtyard of nearby Milbank Hall, the Diana’s massing gracefully defers to the campus’s older visual axis in order to make room for a restored walkway across the school. Tiered greenery adorns the path.

Another open space will take a more contemporary approach, if you know where to find it. It’s going to be a green roof. It’s not open yet, but hopefully it will be by the time the outdoor temperature increases enough for students to comfortably venture up there.

Once you walk inside, however, the Diana forgets her manners. Although the lobby initially greets you with a sympathetic gesture of human-scale proportions, the performance immediately stumbles on a raucous material selection note. For what is meant to be the community center of a small close-knit womens’ college, bare concrete and life-preserver orange do not make for a welcoming reception.

The circles try to help. It’s a familiar design trick; from the contemporary VW Beetle to the iPod, the circle has been tapped countless times for its nature as a basic, primal symbol capable of inspiring the most instinctive levels of emotion. And here the round furniture’s cheerful shapes and loose configurations do manage to provide some lonely respite for the eyes amidst the surrounding tyranny of gray.

As soon as you turn your head away from those stools, however, their comforting atmosphere is shattered. Apart from some token paint jobs, every space is a world of gray. The walls are hard glass. The ceilings are a clinical white. The light fixtures look like icicles. Squeals and screeches echo in your head. And the concrete is applied liberally, everywhere, in flat sheets, without care or tact. You might as well be studying inside a throbbing cement mixer drum. In the interior spaces where students will actively eat and work and socialize, the Diana reopens the very same brutalist wounds that its conception as a building project sought to smooth over.

And those concrete spaces don’t just look uncomfortable. They could also be a safety issue. The floors are slick. Granted, I initially found it fun to slide along the concrete when nobody was watching. But I was also wearing sneakers. What will happen on more formal occasions, when an illustrious guest speaker or a powerful alumna donor attempts to teeter across the slippery floor in high heels? The next time a reception or a reunion rolls around Barnard might wish to keep an ambulance, and a team of lawyers, close at hand.

Despite those drawbacks, it’s not hard to see how the Diana’s materials decisions happened. Barnard understandably wanted its new student center to speak to the modern era while also reinvigorating the college’s community life. Exposed concrete, at its best, could have fit that bill; it has a venerable history of appearing in buildings that were both honest and progressive. In the hands of the right architect, that modern material could even become passionate or civilized.

Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, for example, gracefully balances the cool concrete of its structural bones with inlays of refined woodwork. The overall impression is that you have been miraculously invited into a lord’s elegant drawing room.

Kahn's concrete is both refined and odd. Photograph by Flickr user David Gale Studios, used under Creative Commons.

Approaching Le Corbusier’s masterpiece at Ronchamp, where concrete is molded into paleolithic sculptural shapes, leads to a more emotional vision of the material’s humane potential. The church’s primal form trembles in response to the surrounding hill, immediately signaling that you have entered a sacred site. It feels like the kind of place where you might suddenly behold a column of witch doctors streaming out of the dark forest around you with their torches raised high, to gather and chant for the summoning of Gaia.

Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel will forever be mysterious. Photograph by Flickr user scarletgreen, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Diana’s concrete, however, does not rise to such occasions. The empty, clanging Barnard student center just looks like some place where you would go to play basketball.

Was that really Barnard’s intended atmosphere? The answer can be found in the campus’s many nooks and crannies where concerned whispers and gossip might begin to emerge. There you can find an older architectural voice that would be outraged by the contemporary insurrections of the Diana, yet it speaks with tact and grace.

It speaks of a forgotten time of elegance and craftsmanship …

… and the play of light and shadow …

… and it makes you wonder; are those footsteps echoing behind you just the sound of another student, or could they be a ghost?

By simultaneously conveying both a quaint, comfortable atmosphere and a more exciting sense of wonder and mystery, the older Barnard campus buildings provide an effective cultural match for a small womens’ college situated amidst the faster-paced resources of New York City. The new Diana, on the other hand, ignores its campus’s spiritual imperative in order to race after more contemporary design trends without taking the time to consider how, or if, they should be applied.

The school’s leadership could have found inspiration for an alternative philosophical approach surprisingly close to home; before coming to New York, Barnard President Debora Spar was previously involved with the Harvard Business School, where architect Robert A.M. Stern infamously won several building commissions by promising to style his designs in accordance with what he termed Harvard’s “branding.” The campus’s architecture, he argued, was to be approached as a part of the larger comprehensive image and philosophy of the school. Although Stern capitalized on the concept of branding to convince Harvard to adopt his preferred traditional architectural approach, the basic idea that a building should reflect the principles that its client stands for could also apply to other styles and institutions. Harvard built with chronological dishonesty in order to become more philosophically honest to itself.

One of Stern's commissions for the Harvard Business School. Photograph by Flickr user eszter, used under Creative Commons.

While it is always ill-advised for any organization operating in the 21st century to imitate the styles of the past, a similar analytical process to Stern’s could have served as an inspiration for Barnard to create a more responsive design informed by the results of genuine architectural soul searching. Unless, of course, the Diana’s cold personality was actually intentional all along.


Architecture is very inconvenient. How wish that my passion could be redirected into a more financially lucrative field! But while I’m supposed to be finishing my economics problem set or my computer programming assignment, I have often found that my hand moves away from the mouse and onto the nearest piece of paper, and I am dreaming about elusive visions of how the world could be remade anew. I want to catch some of those ideas and pull them towards reality, and my first step is to share them with you.