Like the road to Hell, New York’s Cooper Square has been paved with good intentions. With the nation’s greatest design school, The Cooper Union, as landlord or neighbor, and with the city’s noblest civic structure, (the school’s landmark 1859 Foundation Building as renovated by the inimitable John Hejduk) casting its magnificent shadow, architects faced with nearby sites have visibly tried to raise their game. And have, mostly, failed.
All photographs Iwan Baan
Rem Koolhaas’ and Herzog & de Meuron’s unbuilt Astor Place hotel collapsed in anxious hype and resistable ugliness. Charles Gwathmey’s glassy residential tower for the same site was met with critical jeers, though its geometrical clarity and quirky elegance will stand the test of time. Carlos Zapata’s nearby hotel slouches toward Miami. Even Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s local coffee shop, sly and steely, was eventually defaced into a B-list Starbucks. The greatest local modern building remains Rolf Ohlhausen’s 1990 dormitory tower, which through color and profile suggests a belltower to the Foundation Building’s basilica.
Into this fraught setting arrives a new academic building by Los Angeles architect and recent Pritzker Prize–winner Thom Mayne, with New York collaborator Gruzen Samton. The result is a remarkable combination of excess and restraint. It consolidates into a smallish 100-foot-by-180-foot-by-120-foot volume (along the east side of 3rd Avenue at 7th Street), a dense array of labs, classrooms, and studios for Cooper’s schools of Engineering, Humanities, and Arts.
Like a partially cored and peeled apple, it features a dramatic void within (a steep four-story staircase below a narrow five-story atrium, lined by a swoopy glass-fiber-reinforced-composite matrix that’s like a 3D-modeling software mesh come to life), and a semi-detached skin without (a finely-perforated stainless-steel weather screen, masking a standard glass curtain wall behind). As with Mayne’s 2004 Caltrans headquarters in Los Angeles, the decoratively-patterned exterior screen folds expressively, features automated solar shading, and makes the building look bigger than it is.
That screen is one of many ingeniously adapted panel systems and off-the-shelf components deployed throughout this tightly programmed and budgeted building. A sturdy mechanical vocabulary of tread plates, meshes, and brackets ennobles the steel vernacular of laboratory tables, studio stools, and lockers. All this rewards the imagination of those (many of them Cooper graduates) who contemplate entire buildings assembled from the Sweets or McMaster-Carr catalogs, and allowed these highly technical 175,000 square feet to come in at a reported $150 million.
It also results in a legibility that, in this setting, becomes a form of teaching. But while there is a financial economy between the ingenious moves and the expressive ones, the conceptual economy is less clear. It’s unpleasant to recall those precisely calibrated structural or technical details while observing others, such as the massive steel tubes that flail around the central staircase railings, whose effect is exorbitantly visual. This may be precisely the wrong lesson to expose to budding engineers and artists, of all people: that the architectural component of a building is an expressively decorative cloak (like the screen wrapper or the atrium lining) that brushes up against its essential body but is visibly surplus to it.
Noting the artsy (or “architecty”) bits of the building, one can’t help erasing them in one’s mind while retaining the intricate spatial composition and technical élan, and conclude that the result might be stranger and stronger—with some provocative breathing room for the transformations and appropriations that the nation’s brightest art and engineering students will wreak over the semesters. One can imagine a building whose greatest visual effect is to frame and incite the visions and emotions of generations of students, more than to preserve the singular signature moves of any one man or moment.
Nevertheless, the place packs a punch. The what-the-hell casualness of some of the geometries and gestures may prove a tonic to the self-seriousness of local architecture culture and Cooper Square itself. The monolithic affect and formal self-reference evoke the micro-monumentality perfected for academic and public buildings in another era and idiom by the likes of Roche, Pei, and Stubbins.
The willful or thoughtful double-take gags—the folds, gashes, and swoops—visibly insist that someone, somewhere, was trying to do something. Which, by the raised standards of Cooper Square (and especially by the reduced standards of Manhattan, where a perpetual perfect storm of mendacity, provinciality, density, and complexity undermines attempts at architecture worthy of a global capital), is almost heavenly.
A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.