New York University Assails Greenwich Village: James S. Russell

An architectural rendering of the New York University Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. The building is being constructed at the southern end of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village as part of its ongoing expansion. Boston architect Machado and Silvetti have scribed "tree of life" imagery into the facade. Source: New York University via Bloomberg

New York University obliterated most of a handsome stone 1847 church to erect a yellow-brick, 26-story dormitory that pierces the Greenwich Village sky like a jaundiced thumb.

Now NYU wants to expand by 6 million square feet.

The dormitory opened last year, fronted by the church bell tower as a trophy of NYU’s vandalism. It’s only the most embarrassing example of a decades-long onslaught of overbearing, banal new buildings and the imposition of fake history on one of the most storied U.S. neighborhoods.

The six-year-old Furman Hall, for example, features a paste-on replica of a house Edgar Allan Poe once lived in. The university tore down the original.

As NYU has grown from a local college to a globally known research and teaching powerhouse, the Village has struggled to survive the university’s strikingly tin ear for history and architecture. NYU seems to forget that the youthful urban vitality and diversity of the Village and its surrounding neighborhoods are central to its appeal.

Wasted Space

After expanding opportunistically into a wide assortment of new, old and repurposed buildings, the university realized it had to take a more integrated look, according to Alicia Hurley, NYU’s vice president for government affairs and civic engagement, in an interview.

Good for them. The trouble is, NYU’s blueprint for expansion -- known as Framework 2031, after the school’s 200th anniversary year -- learns little from past mistakes.

NYU wants to focus its growth in three “superblocks” southeast of Washington Square. Underbuilt, they were assembled at a time when “slum clearance” was in style. Accommodating 2.6 million square feet of space means stuffing much of it into basements.

Almost half that square footage is destined for a block dominated by a 1966 trio of residential towers by I.M. Pei. The towers form an elegant composition but sit on a plane of wasted space, where intimidating fences close off overflowing trash bins and neglected greenery.

The blocks’s urban-planning mistakes aren’t easy to fix, but NYU’s plan, led by the San Francisco architecture and planning firm SMWM, cuts up this valuable real estate into little plots. (SMWM worked with the New York architect Toshiko Mori and the New York office of architects Grimshaw.)

Instead of nesting the Pei set piece within a beautifully orchestrated sequence of new structures and spaces, the planners plop a plaza-to-nowhere on a perpetually shaded corner and add a fourth tower in uneasy relationship to the Pei trio. A long impenetrable academic hulk will stretch along the eastern edge, crenellated with housing, replacing a similarly prisonlike hulk that today holds a gym.

More Boring

Locals will be relieved to know that NYU will shift much of its growth out of the Village. It hopes to add a million square feet or more to each of two campus satellites, one a hospital and health-research district that runs along the East River in the 20s and the other at Brooklyn Polytechnic, which NYU has acquired, in downtown Brooklyn.

These neighborhoods, neither garden spots now, deserve care, not the hulks suggested by sketchy renderings.

Beware. NYU is also eyeing Governor’s Island, off the tip of Lower Manhattan, a former Coast Guard base whose ultimate disposition has caused a lot of local head scratching.

NYU keeps squandering opportunities. In a campus desperately in need of greenery, a plaza designed to provide a roof for a new power plant features an ugly set of planters that looked yanked from a catalog.

It could have made amends for the eyesores that line the southern edge of Washington Square Park with its Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, a project with expressive potential. Instead, a sallow coffin on stilts is going up. Boston architecture firm Machado & Silvetti has engraved its main façade with tree-form patterns that imbue no life whatever.

Squandered Options

None of this has to be. Most every other major university has learned to treat architecture as an enhancement of student life, and one that successfully engenders academic inquiry and debate. See recent student centers at Barnard College and Cooper Union.

Why does NYU squander its greatest fixed asset -- its place in one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the U.S.?

(James S. Russell is the U.S. architecture critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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