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Holl Schools Columbia
Steven Holl Architects design a muscular athletic facility for Columbia University.
Iwan Baan

The Campbell Sports Center at Columbia University’s Baker Athletics Complex is Steven Holl Architects’ first ground-up project in Manhattan. The 48,000-square-foot building houses strength and conditioning spaces, offices for varsity sports, theater-style meeting rooms, a hospitality suite, and study rooms. Located on the corner of 218th street and Broadway, the idiosyncratic geometry of this metal-and-glass skinned structure was derived from the tension between its interior programming and urban surroundings.

“The building is based on the idea of the Columbia scholar-athlete and responds directly to its site,” explained Chris McVoy, Steven Holl Architects’ partner-in-charge of the project. “It responds to the urban condition, acts as a portal to the field, and embodies the shifting geology in that part of upper Manhattan.”

Sited where the pre-war, brick fabric of Manhattan comes to an end, the Campbell Sports Center relates more to the area’s transportation infrastructure.
Iwan Baan

Just south of the project, the brick and stone prewar fabric of the city comes to an end. Instead of relating to it, the structure expresses a connection to the elevated tracks of the number 1 subway line to the east, the hulking steel form of the Broadway Bridge to the north, and the field diagrams used by coaches of football, soccer, and baseball. “Points on the ground, lines in space,” is the way McVoy described the design concept. It can be clearly read in the jutting, angular forms of the building, in the exposed wide flange steel columns and diagonal tube sections that support the elevated western arm of the building, which forms a sort of portico framing an entry to the practice fields, as well as in the exterior egress stairs that interlock across the street face.

Iwan Baan

The cladding is a combination of three systems that convey a kinship with the hulking grey steel towers of the Broadway Bridge. The predominant system is an offset grid of 4-foot-by-8-foot aluminum panels, ¼-inch thick with a sanded and anodized finish that holds and diffusely reflects the prevailing light conditions. The glazing is composed of low-e coated Viracon insulated glass units that have a silvery sheen similar to the metal. The stairs and the urban street corner are clad with ¼-inch-thick perforated aluminum alloy panels. Steven Holl designed the perforation pattern based on studies he did with a corrugated piece of wood and the marks it left on tin foil. The overhangs and the underside of the elevated arm are also clad with 4-foot-by-8-foot, ¼-inch-thick aluminum panels, though here they are powder-coated Columbia blue, a technique that McVoy said was borrowed from New England porches to lend the building an uplifting quality.

The stregnth and conditioning room is a double-height space with views out to the city and practice fields (left).  Throughout the interior the steel structure’s connections are exposed and carefully detailed (right).
Iwan Baan

Inside, the architects portioned out the program to reflect the scholar-athlete ideal. The first floor—which is raised above the street, but on-grade with the practice fields—is the body, so to speak, and is centered around the strength and conditioning room. This double-height space features glazed walls that offer views of the fields to the north and of the city to the east and south. The elevated subway tracks dominate this panorama, providing a bit of exciting urban theater to the experience when the trains periodically roll past. The upper reaches of the room—the second floor—are ringed by a balcony, off of which are the offices for the varsity athletics program: the mind in this equation. The third and fourth floors contain the study areas, hospitality suite, and theater style meeting rooms, where the scholar-athletes can study film of their own performances as well as those of their opponents, metaphorically bringing mind and body together in one continuum.

Exposed, interlocking egress stairs on the street face draw a metaphorical connection to the field diagrams used by coaches.
Chris McVoy; Iwan Baan

Throughout the interior, the building’s steel and concrete plank structure is exposed and carefully detailed, as are the mechanicals, which were treated with the same loving attention. The bolted connections and plates were designed collaboratively between the architects, engineers, and fabricators to communicate the material’s strength in compression and tension and convey a sense of muscularity in the architecture. The lateral system is composed entirely of tube sections, and these are also expressed along the perimeter of the building in the form of diagonal lines that show through the glazing on the north and south facades.

As one would expect of a Holl building, the lighting design plays into the overall architectural approach. The architects integrated T5 fluorescent fixtures within some of the wide flange columns, concealing them behind panes of frosted glass. Recessed LED fixtures dot the undersides of the 8-foot-wide, 12-inch-thick concrete planks, more “points on the ground.” One of the study rooms on the top-most floor also features a Sigurd Lewerentz–inspired chandelier composed of several darting lines of conduit that snake across the ceiling. Who knows, the zigzagging scheme may one day make its way into the Lion’s playbook!

Aaron Seward


Iwan Baan; Chris McVoy


Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Chris McVoy