Columbia University’s Cranes Claw Out Brainy, Bland Lab: Review

Northwest Corner Building
The Northwest Corner Building, near completion at Columbia University. The recess at the bottom of the building links the campus courtyards with neighbors to the north, including the university's expanded campus in Manhattanville. Photographer: Michael Moran/Columbia University via Bloomberg

On a frigid morning, I walked through Manhattanville, a 17-acre tract at the western edge of Harlem, pausing to watch a crane clawing at the skeletal remains of a parking garage.

These blocks of lumpy warehouses and worn gas stations under elevated road and rail structures slope toward the Hudson River. This area, which stretches from Broadway and 125th street to 12th Avenue and 133rd Street, will become a 6.7-million square foot satellite campus for Columbia University.

“Manhattanville is the release of Columbia’s pent-up potential,” Columbia president Lee Bollinger said in a recent conversation in his dark-paneled study.

Columbia, the densest of the Ivy League campuses, has been able to grow little on its Morningside Heights campus for more than 40 years. Bollinger said the expansion, five blocks north, permits “us to redefine the intellectual directions of the institution.”

Plans call for lining 125th Street, Harlem’s main street, with an academic conference center, a performing-arts building and a new home for Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Science Center

The university can’t finance those buildings yet. Instead, a block-long site on W. 129th Street is being cleared for Columbia’s first building in the area: the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, designed by the ubiquitous Renzo Piano. Greene, a prominent New York lawyer and real-estate investor, gave $250 million to the project.

The center, which will open in 2016 or 2017, intends to scramble disciplines to collaborate on research of mind-boggling complexity.

“We’re creating a unique venue to understand the problems of the brain and mind,” said Thomas M. Jessell, a professor in the departments of neuroscience, biochemistry, and molecular biophysics. He’s worked closely on the design.

“Technical advances depend on engineering, chemistry, physics, computer science, applied mathematics, and statistics, as well as psychology,” he said. “We’ll study the basis of consciousness and free will, as well as psychological and neurological disease.”

But the renderings I saw at Columbia’s project office fall short of suggesting the energy this idea factory hopes to unleash.

Close Encounters

Piano has wrapped seven tall lab levels in sheer layers of glass. This could be an office building anywhere.

When I spoke to Jessell, he said that throwing such diverse disciplines together will only pay off if researchers discover answers in unplanned encounters.

Perhaps the deep exterior recesses that open into nicely daylit two-level lounges linked by stairs will indeed generate serendipitous encounters. I fear that the isolation of the lab will prove more alluring than the bland meeting places.

Piano stops the glass walls above the tall first floor to reveal what he has called an “urban layer,” which is a fancy way of saying a mix of stores and community-oriented facilities ranged along the street.

A clinic will serve the neighborhood, and an educational center will publicly exhibit the causes and cures of mind and brain maladies.

That “urban layer” doesn’t really address Columbia’s long, rocky relationship with the folks who already live and work in Manhattanville, though their number is decreasing.

Eminent Domain

Local activists fought Columbia’s expansion for years only to lose in December after several appeals. They fear rising home prices and commercial rents in an area that still has long-established businesses that restore furniture or fix auto bodies.

That a state agency may use eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf is not sweetening relations.

Piano’s attempt to invite neighbors in is laudable but tentative. The life of the building should flow into the new streets and squares that Columbia has planned.

And why doesn’t the building riff on the area’s industrial energy, like the elegant arches holding up Riverside Drive that runs overhead?

Perhaps a better sense of community will be achieved by the teams that designed the justly celebrated High Line Park: Diller Scofidio + Renfro and James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm. The architects have started designing two buildings for Columbia Business School that will cost as much as $500 million. They beat out competing designs by New York architect Steven Holl, the Amsterdam firm UN Studio, and the Tokyo firm SANAA.

School of Business

Just north of the Greene science center, where today an auto-body shop spills into the street, the business school will bookend a new public square by Corner that will be the heart of the new campus.

Elizabeth Diller once described how her design let the disguised Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center do “an architectural strip tease.” She wanted people to find it irresistible.

Columbia could use some of that pizzazz.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. In May, Island Press will publish his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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