Adding to a 1960’s campus in upstate New York, this new building acts as an incubator for ideas about how business education is evolving
The uptown Albany campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) owes its existence to Nelson Rockefeller, its architecture to Edward Durell Stone, and the design of its new business school to Perkins+Will. In response, P+W set out to express and update both Rockefeller’s educational and Stone’s architectural vision, and their resulting design owes much to the parameters of this pair of influences.
Rockefeller, by the 1950s perhaps the dominant and certainly the most prominent of the five brothers who had assumed leadership of the family which has worked the nexus of power and wealth longer, wider and deeper than any other in America, started a 14-year stint as governor of New York State in 1959. In this role he recognised the need to educate the baby boomers’ generation. But with an eye on national politics − he made serial attempts to gain the Republican Presidential nomination − he may well have cast his eye across the country to California, whose enviable state-wide public university system was delivering marked social and economic benefits, and where his two main rivals for the party’s leadership, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had their power bases. Several motivations may have lain behind his decision in 1962 for a massive expansion of the publicly funded State University of New York.
At the time, most universities on the American East Coast were small, private and exclusive, on the model of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters. Rockefeller envisaged vast new publicly funded campuses whose architecture as much as their curriculum and fee structure would proclaim their social ideals. He created the State University Construction Fund, a public agency to fund and procure the university’s buildings, resulting in four main and about 50 smaller campuses. Within a few years, this resource allowed Edward Durell Stone to transform a long established teacher training college at Albany into one of the four principal campuses. It is a powerful vision of
a low podium a third of a mile long, enclosing many courtyards and much of the faculty accommodation, with four satellite podia at the corners, each enclosing a tower for the student dorms.
Stone, a longstanding architectural favourite among the Rockefellers, had spent most of his career up to this point charting a particular kind of index to American Modernism. He started with early Jazz Moderne work like the Waldorf Astoria ballroom and Radio City Music Hall, progressing through the austere and deliberately European-referencing Museum of Modern Art to, by the 1950s and under the influence of his second, Italian wife, a more playful and less dogmatic idiom. Though he knew his Gropius, Breuer and Mies, he also respected Wright and the Beaux-Arts tradition of his early training in his native Arkansas and Boston where he cut his teeth.
All these influences can be traced in the Albany campus, explains Rob Goodwin, design principal at Perkins+Will’s New York office, and they set a powerful series of parameters for any new design on it. Its axial symmetry certainly owes something to the Beaux-Arts, and the plethora of courtyards betrays Stone’s growing interest in Mediterranean public spaces. But unfortunately, says Goodwin, Albany’s climate is far from Mediterranean: ‘it is one of the cloudiest and coldest places in the US east of Washington State’. As a result, students adopted a system of underground tunnels intended for services for their own circulation because it provides protection from cold and rain. So the new design is conceived as both a tribute and corrective to Stone’s vision.
“From the outset, the design had two main goals. One was to differentiate the business school from its competitors functionally and symbolically, the other was to provide a gateway to the campus.”
Replying to the public advertisement calling for expressions of interest in the project in 2009, Perkins+Will drew on experience both working for SUNY and in designing business schools. They had recently completed an engineering department on SUNY’s Buffalo campus right in the north of the state on Lake Erie, and the Stern business school for the private New York University in New York City itself. ‘We tend to design from the inside out, as well as the outside in’, Goodwin sketches P+W’s approach to educational work, ‘we saw the programme as a starting point for analysing the needs of the school. We examined and analysed the needs of the university and challenged the institution’s assumptions.’
From the outset, the design had to achieve two main goals. One was to differentiate the business school from its competitors functionally and symbolically, attracting high-level faculty, talented students and responding to its emphasis on digital businesses. Selecting a site at the entrance to the campus reinforces this combination of function and symbolism, because it makes sense of providing space for start-up business units that could draw custom from the public, as well as expressing the purpose of the discipline to enable students to devise ideas that are relevant to social and economic conditions. ‘Engagement’, says Goodwin, is what a business school does. These points lead naturally to the second main goal, to provide a gateway to the campus, and in particular to overcome the dichotomy between the ‘designed’ portico entrance and the patina of courtyards and colonnades, and the de facto circulation system of the tunnels.
A new administrative building just across the main axis from the business school site, angled off-grid and with a serpentine perimeter wall, provided a cautionary tale against departing from Stone’s orthogonal geometry. But as P+W began to understand how the client’s needs could be best served, it became apparent that interior volumes and circulation routes could set up rich and dynamic patterns within the orthogonal geometry.
Taking the wider campus into account showed the client that there was no need for tiered classrooms in the new building as there were enough nearby. That brought some freedom and flexibility to its sectional possibilities, so creating the opportunity for a rich and varied series of internal volumes within the regular external shape.
Goodwin describes the resulting parti as a ‘three-dimensional courtyard’, a response to Stone’s horizontal courtyards but also creating different levels of open space and grading access to it. A main entry at ground level leads to a foyer with access to a ‘trading room’ − simulated dealing floor − and the business incubator units. One level down below grade is a sunken courtyard, with a café and an entrance for all staff and faculty to the tunnel system, formally recognising its importance to campus life for the first time. From the entrance, an inviting staircase rises in the opposite direction to an open first floor with an expansive foyer that acts like a living room for the business school, where students and faculty can meet informally. Along one edge are teaching rooms, with more on the top floor where most of the staff rooms are.
As part of their investigation of how business schools work, P+W produced a diagram showing the evolution of business education from the early schools of the 1930s, characterised by hierarchy and inward focus, through a growing emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary working to risk-taking, and looking into the future to new types of community engagement facilitated by digital media. The architectural analogue of this, argues Goodwin, is flexibility, but of a particular type. Classrooms, provided they are fully digitally enabled, can be fairly conventional. What they need are break-out and back-up spaces where students can gather into groups after a lecture to assimilate information and develop their own ideas. These perceptions resulted in smaller project rooms alongside the classrooms, where student activity can be seen, but thanks to a double-glazed walling system, not heard. Faculty members have their seclusion protected by a circulation system that allows them to enter the classrooms from their own corridor, rather as judges can enter courtrooms through private quarters.
Balancing accessibility, visibility, privacy and sustainability is a larger theme of the design. The exterior, explains Goodwin, has large areas of low ion glass to reveal its activities to the outside, but they are triple glazed to conserve energy. ‘Butterfly’ rooflights are shaped to scoop as much daylight from the generally overcast sky as possible into the heart of the building, especially the business school’s ‘living room’. In a similar vein, the precast concrete fins which give the facades a distinctive rippling rhythm are also designed to optimise the building’s operation within its climate. Angled and placed to allow as much daylight penetration as possible, their chemical composition makes them both white and photocatalytic, so they both reflect light and have some self-cleaning properties.
The design, explains Goodwin, expresses its sustainable credentials through a relationship to place rather than overt formal gestures. Where Stone took a Mediterranean pattern of courtyards and an abstract geometry, P+W add local materials − the stone on the projecting stair towers is ‘what you would find if you dug into the ground’, and details that mediate between geometry and climate. It is pursuing a LEED Gold Rating, but perhaps even more importantly, it also seeks to ‘extend the DNA’ of Stone’s campus for ’21st-century pedagogy’. There could hardly be a better simulacrum of the obligations of contemporary business than these sorts of balances and negotiations.