Tuesday, June 08, 2010

José Rafael Moneo Blights Columbia

I was saddened to go back to one of my favorite places, Columbia University, and to see how the entire campus has been blighted by one building in its far northwest corner, the high-rise multidisciplinary science building designed by José Rafael Moneo.

You can imagine how the view below looked before the glass box was added, with the skyline defined by two symbolically important buildings, Low Library to the right and the tower Riverside Church to the left. Now the skyline symbolizes the idea that: "we will sacrifice all other values in order to add as much utilitarian square footage as possible."

The new building violates McKim, Mead, and White's original master plan for the campus, which makes a clear distinction between utilitarian fabric buildings and symbolically important buildings. For example, the three dormitories in the left and center of the picture below are all in similar styles, while Butler Library to the right is in a different style that stands out from the fabric.

All the older utilitarian buildings on campus, both classroom and dormitory buildings, are in a similar style, while the important buildings such as Butler Library and Low Library are in contrasting styles - an object lesson in a basic principle of urban design, that there should be a consistent urban fabric that major buildings stand out from.

Newer buildings on the campus are generally uglier than the old McKim, Mead, and White buildings, but they were the same general scale as the older buildings, so they still formed a more-or-less-consistent urban fabric that showcased the major buildings, until Moneo's building blighted campus by ignoring this basic principle of urban design.

By contrast, consider a new building on the UC Berkeley campus that is even worse architecture than the Moneo building but that is not as bad urban design. The new molecular biology building, to the right below, is a grotesque pastiche of modernist and post-modernist themes. You can see how jarring it is by contrasting it with the buildings to its left below, which were built a couple of decades ago and are consistent with the UC campus' original classical design.

Nevertheless, because it is roughly the same scale as the buildings around it, it does form a decent addition to the urban fabric when you step back from it and see in its context. It actually improves the view up University Ave., as you can see below, because it is about the same size as the two city buildings in the foreground and as the campus building in the background, filling what was a hole in the urban fabric, and because it is small enough to be partially screened by the tree next to it.

By contrast, imagine what a blight it would be if this grotesque building were a high-rise that stood out from the fabric and redefined the skyline of Berkeley's downtown and campus, as Moneo's building redefines the skyline of Morningside Heights and the Columbia Campus.

Moneo's building would be less of a blight if it were better architecture rather than being a sterile glass box. But remember that Moneo is one of the world's most acclaimed architects, a Pritzker Prize winner. If you chose an even more prestigious architect, such as Thom Mayne or Zaha Hadid, you would get an even more brutal and grotesque design.

Given the current state of architecture, we would do well to remember the New Urbanists' principle that you can create good urbanism, even with bad architecture, if you control building envelopes to create a consistent urban fabric. This view up University Ave. is a good illustration of that principle.

Update: June 2011

The post above wrote about the effect of Moneo's building on the skyline of Columbia. Now that the building is open, I can also write about how well it works at ground level.

Nicholas Ouroussoff has written that "the building is a gleaming physical expression of the university’s desire to bridge the divide between the insular world of the campus and the community beyond its walls."

In fact, the building has a cafe on the second floor with a dramatically high ceiling and glass walls that give it a dramatic view of the surrounding neighborhood. But the building does nothing to draw the surrounding neighborhood toward the campus.

You can see in the picture that the cafe on the second floor cafe is a pleasant space for students but that the entrance (facing north on 120th St.) is not inviting to outsiders.

Even worse is the blank wall facing west on Broadway. You can see that Moneo varied the granite siding, which I am sure is very artsy but which does not make the building any less forbidding or any more interesting to walk by.

If Moneo really wanted to open up the campus to the surrounding neighborhood, it is obvious what he should have done. Put the cafe on the first floor, in a traditional store front with windows facing right on the sidewalk. Put some cafe seating out on the sidewalk.

That would have done much more than artsy granite patterns to make this an appealing place for people to walk and to heal the divide between the campus and the surrounding neighborhood.

Even if they did not want to have a cafe that is open to the public, they could have done much more to create an appealing place with a design similar to Brinckerhoff Hall, the traditional university building that is right across Broadway from this new building. You can see that this traditional building is broken up into smaller elements, which gives it human scale, and it has ledges where people can sit.

When you compare the inviting face that Brinckerhoff Hall presents to the sidewalk with the blank-faced entrance of Moneo's building on 120th Street and its sheer granite wall on Broadway, it is obvious that Moneo does not care about creating attractive and usable public spaces.