Columbia Jocks Get Jazzy Stairs in Holl’s Sports Center

Steven Holl’s Campbell Sports Center at New York’s Columbia University flamboyantly bumps and grinds around the busy corner of Broadway and 218th Street, showing off its shiny metal stairs that ascend like lightning bolts.

More than just a place to pump iron, this $30 million architectural chameleon is a poetic barometer of its dissonant circumstances. It’s well worth a trip to Manhattan’s northern tip as the city celebrates architecture this month with Archtober.

A perennial candidate for the Pritzker Prize, Holl can be among the most lyrical of architects. In Seattle, a tiny chapel is beloved. His addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City is one of the best U.S. buildings of the past decade. Two office projects in China are standouts. He’s working on the first major addition to Washington’s Kennedy Center and designing a performing-arts complex that will create a new Princeton University campus entrance.

At Columbia, Holl and his senior partner, Chris McVoy, deftly play off the clattering hulk of a nearby elevated transit line. The gyrating stairs bring a pulsing energy to upper Broadway, an area of shuttered auto-repair shops huddling in the shadows of the grim train line.

The architects catch the sun with the sports center’s exterior stairs, clad in reflective metal cut in jazzy patterns. Broad planes of glass open nighttime fitness workouts to the street and passing trains.

Office Wing

Along residential 218th Street, an office wing juts from the fourth floor on thin columns and diagonal braces. It angles away from the street, and its form evokes -- surprise -- muscles and sinews.

It also shapes an inviting visual portal through greenery to the action on the soccer field and beyond to the handsome towers of the Broadway Bridge crossing the river.

That’s a gift to the Inwood neighborhood, which Columbia has walled off from the river with high fences enclosing indifferently designed facilities.

Holl’s buildings aren’t usually so aggressively angular, but his poetic side -- a rare quality in an architect -- emerges where the building faces the sports fields. It opens in soft facets, “like a hand,” as McVoy told me.

Take a tour if you can get one. The interior stairs and circular hallways move athletes, coaches and teachers along a spiraling pathway rich with incident, even though the finishes are functional gray-painted drywall and ground-concrete floors.

Casual Chat

The underlying agenda is to encourage casual conversations among the people that use the building. Coaches’ offices overlook the two-story-high gym for strength and conditioning, where windows frame the blurred passage of the subway trains just outside. Narrow corridors at the core of the building splay open to places where people can share views of the soccer field and discuss the action.

You can feel the piston-like compressed energy in the tubular diagonal braces McVoy and Holl have put on display. Athletes’ study needs get pride of place at the top of the building, which feels like an aerie with numerous carefully framed views in all directions.

It’s too bad the site entrance at Campbell continues to be fenced, though Columbia has removed barbed wire, planted street trees, and will soon open a picturesque bit of river shoreline at the neighboring Inwood Park, designed by the landscape architect James Corner Field Operations. The project includes a storm drain transformed into a tiny marshy estuary,

It offers stunning views of the dramatic meeting of the Harlem and Hudson rivers between the rock escarpments that divide Manhattan from the Bronx.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Jeremy Gerard on theater and Daniel Akst on books.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.