Barnard College’s Bunker Replaced by Elegant Student Center

"Grand Salons" (seen as bright rectangles) stair-step diagonally up the Broadway side of the $70-million Diana Center, at Barnard College, New York. Manhattan architect Weiss/Manfredi designed the terra cotta-colored glass panels to match the brick of the historic campus. Source: Weiss/Manfredi Architects via Bloomberg

You could walk by the new Diana Center at Barnard College without noticing it.

That’s good news: here’s a seven-story glass box wedged into a tiny four-acre campus crammed with brick-and-stone Ivy League knockoffs.

Barnard, the 2,300-student, 120-year-old women’s college, did not merely replace its student center, a concrete pillbox that symbolized the need to ward off the menace of New York in the declining 1960s.

This new Diana Center is meant to engage with the life of the city along a stretch of scrappy Broadway with Parisian pretensions that runs up to Barnard from 72nd Street. (The name evokes the Roman goddess considered a protector of women, while honoring lead donor Diana T. Vagelos, who, with her husband Roy, made a $15 million gift.)

The new $70 million center, which opened Feb. 3, is almost five times the size of the old one, but its long, wedge-shaped form makes Lehman Lawn, Barnard’s only bit of green, feel more generous. Its angled campus-side wall extends the lawn in a terrace to the stout bulk of Milbank Hall, which anchors the north end of the campus, but which was obscured by the old student center.

Wife and husband architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi wrestled an unwieldy mix of requirements into the glass-wrapped seven stories. This isn’t the sleek, chilly surface of modernist cliche.

High Salons

Most of the glass panels are coppery toned and softly opaque. The color seeps into polished clear panels, where it wispily dissolves. It’s just an etched pattern, but you might think wood shutters had been left standing partly open inside. The illusion evokes the comfortable texture of the surrounding brick and carved stone without imitating its lifeless stolidity.

On the Broadway side, four high salons stair-step up the length of the building, opening a dramatic diagonal vista. Only clear glass panels divide a cafe at ground level (that spills out to the lawn) from the dining room one level up, then a reading room and gallery at the top.

Fort Barnard has lowered its defenses in lovely contrast to Columbia University’s brawny neo-Renaissance fortifications across the street.

On the Diana’s inward-facing side, wedges of clear glass pop out of the coppery box, showing off stairways that weave like waterfalls around classrooms, studios, offices and student clubs. The stairs empty into ponds of informal gathering space at each level, aglow with daylight pinstriped by the etched glass that wraps the inner walls of the salons.

Roof Plantings

Weiss and Manfredi encourage an easy sociability by mixing rather than neatly separating disciplines. They tucked a general-use classroom up high, near the architecture studio.

Environmental-education students tend roof plantings. Dance and theater mavens share a 100-seat black box theater underground. A basement wood-paneled oval, called the Forum, hosts parties when it is not seating 500 for lectures and discussions. The Diana Center begs comparison to 41 Cooper Square, the aggressively undulating building by Morphosis that the Cooper Union opened in the East Village last year.

Both take aim at the problem of tall academic buildings that smother social spontaneity as they convey people mechanistically on elevators and down bleak hallways to their designated slot.

At Cooper, an elaborately expressionistic stair lunges to and fro from one department to the next like an architectural bull in a China shop. This roguery is exciting, while the Diana Center’s low-key invitation grows on you. It enfolds its rich experiences in radiance rather than theatricality.

Below the Radar

I’m not surprised. In Seattle, Weiss and Manfredi created an Olympic Sculpture Park that took the city skyline, gorgeous harbor views, a railroad trunk line, and a busy arterial and effortlessly united them into a place that’s great for looking at art.

The Diana Center so clearly belongs at Barnard that it is easy to take it for granted, which may be why Weiss and Manfredi fly below the celebrity-architect radar. I don’t know how they do it, except to suspect, as a teacher with Buddhist leanings once told me, “you must sometimes strive to be non-striving.”

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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