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New York, USA – Moneo’s modern masterpiece falls foul of fickle prejudice

Rafael Moneo adds a new science block to Columbia University

For a while now, New York’s architectural cognoscenti, or at least those who’ve ventured up to the less-than-fashionable precincts of Morningside Heights, have been muttering churlishly about Rafael Moneo’s waffle-iron of a science building for Columbia University. You defy expectations in this town at your peril, and with this new glass and steel tower both architect and institution have given locals something they find wholly out of character.

From the outset, they appeared a perfect match, and perhaps that was part of the problem. Who better than Moneo, with his Pritzker prize and record for sensitively handling historic architecture, to fill in a back corner of Columbia’s landmark McKim, Mead & White campus?

If anyone could make something at once contextual and assertively modern, it was Moneo. That he’d never built in the city and has something of a guru’s reputation, only raised the level of anticipation.

This was a great deal of freight for any project to carry, and if it wasn’t enough, Moneo was saddled with a nearly impossible brief: accommodate the various requirements of a modern science facility (laboratories, academic offices, library, auditorium) and at the same time establish a forceful new gateway to the campus — all on a relatively small footprint, and above the university’s gymnasium, which would have to remain operational throughout the construction process. That the building even exists, given these demands, is something of a minor miracle, one facilitated by the savvy engineering of Arup and the project management of associate architects Davis Brody Bond.

From Broadway, the building’s facade is defiantly mechanistic, an enormous tic-tac-toe board of projecting aluminum louvers, many set on the diagonal, meant to express the internal truss system that keeps it aloft (as Mies’s I-beams do at the Seagram Building in midtown). That expression is somewhat less than honest, however, the result being a kind of disconcerting randomness. A storey of granite at the base doesn’t do much to enliven things at street level, nor does it effectively relate the building to its Columbia neighbours. More successful is the lobby, which feeds via a grand staircase to a generously proportioned café with broad picture windows. The entire ensemble is clad in a soapy white marble of great beauty; better still, it will be open to the general public — a most welcome civic gesture.

Moneo’s skill as a space planner is evident in the academic areas of the building, which is cut lengthwise so double-height laboratories on one side sit across from a bi-level stack of faculty offices and student workstations on the other. If the offices are a bit sterile by Oxbridge don standards, they are nevertheless a vast improvement for most of Columbia’s science faculty, typically housed in woefully inadequate quarters. A larger issue may be harsh shadows cast by the building’s exterior louvers. The library, especially, seems vulnerable to afternoon zebra stripes liable to make sustained concentration a considerable challenge.

The list of beloved American laboratory buildings is brutally short, and if you subtract Lou Kahn’s two contributions to the genre (the Salk Institute and the Richards Medical Lab), perhaps altogether blank. There are, perhaps, some types that are hard to love. Moneo’s new building for Columbia might just be a victim of that prejudice. That doesn’t mean it’s bad.

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