Fitted into a compact, wedge-shaped envelope, the 96,000-square-foot Diana Center at Barnard College will be a hive of activity, enfolding spaces for art, architecture, theater, art history, and student government, as well as faculty offices, a dining hall, and a cafe. With an accompanying green roof and open terrace, plus numerous informal lounge and gallery spaces, the project improves upon the intimate Morningside Heights campus while presenting a new face for the 120-year-old liberal arts college for women.
Designed by Weiss/Manfredi, the Diana Center is built on the site of a former student center—a heavy concrete structure by Vincent Kling completed in 1969—and shares belowground mechanicals and other facilities with the adjacent Altschul Hall, a tower also designed by Kling. The architects removed most of a raised plaza between the site and Altschul, which had effectively split the campus in two. They replaced it with a sloping strip of lawn connecting the main campus green with the garden in front of Milbank Hall, the school’s original building. Skylights embedded in the lawn bring light into the belowground levels, which include classrooms and a 500-seat auditorium, along with a 100-seat black box theater to the south of the building.
Barnard asked for a glass structure, but the architects noted that all the college’s other buildings were masonry, so they opted to clad the center in glass with terra-cotta-colored bands that create varying degrees of opacity. Some portions are more transparent, making many of the collective spaces legible from Broadway. Inside, a series of interlocking double-height spaces draw the eye up and through the building, including the cafe, dining hall, a reading room, and the crit space, and on toward the rooftop, where the Environmental Science department will maintain a series of small terraced gardens.
With stairs, elevators, hallways, and interconnecting spaces, circulation is dynamic throughout, including a pair of cantilevered stairs that puncture the campus-facing facade. These switchback stairs, clad in entirely transparent glass, offer enticing views of the Barnard and Columbia University campuses, and give a distinct sense of release from the programmatically dense interior. “One of the things that’s very challenging about a vertical building is that each floor tends to have its own geography,” said principal Marion Weiss. “The slipped vistas offer views out, and the views within encourage movement and communication across the departments. So the sum becomes greater than the parts.”