Columbia to Finish Section of Campus, 113 Years Later

New York Times
December 15, 2008

Columbia University is finally completing the northwest corner of its six-block main campus in Morningside Heights, 113 years after construction began there.

It is doing so with a 14-story science building at Broadway and 120th Street that has almost nothing in common with its red-brick predecessors. The aluminum-clad facade will exhibit strong diagonal bracing, not unlike the George Washington Bridge. And, in a sense, the building is a bridge, a 126-foot-long clear span over the gymnasium below.

On Wednesday, the highest structural steel member is to be hoisted into place and the Interdisciplinary Science Building, as it is currently called (naming opportunity alert!), will be ceremonially topped off. It will open to students, scientists and researchers in the fall of 2010. Its cost is about $179 million.

The building was designed by José Rafael Moneo of Spain, one of the most respected figures in contemporary architecture, who has stolen quietly into New York with little of the fanfare that usually greets a "starchitect." Mr. Moneo is best known in the United States for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, which was dedicated in 2002.

On the Columbia project he is associated with Davis Brody Bond Aedas. Engineering is by the Arup firm. The construction manager is the Turner Construction Company.

Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia, envisions the new science building as the first visible gesture to the Manhattanville campus that the university is planning, in the face of strong opposition. "It will face outward," Mr. Bollinger said of the building. Outward and uptown.

Unlike most buildings on the main campus, the new science building will have a street entrance, on 120th Street. A cafe just above street level and a gathering space at the top of the building, both enclosed in glass, will look north and serve as a "beacon," Mr. Bollinger said, for people approaching from western Harlem and Manhattanville.

Mr. Moneo traced the building's distinctive features to a common root: solving the problem of the basketball court in the Dodge Physical Fitness Center, whose west end is directly beneath the science building.

"To fight and overcome the difficulties of a site is sort of a gift given to you," he said.

In his first visit to campus three years ago, Mr. Moneo began by saying the gym might have to be moved. He was quickly disabused of the idea by Joe Ienuso, the executive vice president for facilities, who said, "Not only can't we move the gym, but we need to keep the gym open during construction."

With that, Mr. Ienuso recalled, the architect took a long, deliberate walk through neighboring Chandler and Pupin Halls and the fitness center. At the end of the day, Mr. Moneo said, "We're going to be able to work around it."

The solution was to install three enormous parallel trusses in the lower part of the building. These take the weight of the laboratories, classrooms and offices above and distribute the load - almost as a tabletop would - to columns that flank, but do not penetrate, the basketball court.

This approach has created a column-free space directly under the trusses, which will be occupied by the library. The room will be almost transparent, with window walls overlooking the campus and Broadway. "For the first time, actual academic life will be visible from the street," said Mark Wigley, dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Diagonal elements in the truss work and other structural bracing will be expressed clearly on the facade, giving the building its overall character.

In other words, it will not look like the red-brick buildings that have predominated since McKim, Mead & White drew up the master plan in the 1890s. But with so much steel in the science building, any brickwork would merely have been a thin cladding.

"When the brick is only a veneer," Mr. Moneo said, "I don't feel comfortable working with it."