Columbia University’s building surge at its new Manhattanville campus appears to be on course as Renzo Piano’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center edges closer to completion. The Italian architect with his firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), started design on the building in 2010. Piano was on hand to give a talk at the building yesterday, while Antoine Chaaya, a partner at RPBW, showed The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) around.
Despite iterating his distaste and “suspicion” for metaphors, Piano described the Jerome L. Greene Science Center as a “palace” and a “factory.” “If it is a palace, then it is a palace of light—it is not obscure,” he said at the event. “And if it is a factory … then it is a factory exploring the secret of the mind, the brain, and behavior.” Rising to nine stories, the 450,000-square-foot building will be home to Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Approximately 900 scientists will occupy the facility making use of the flexible teaching facilities available.
The ground floor, meanwhile, delves more into the public realm. In what Piano describes as an “urban layer,” the design gives the public full access to the street level concourse. Here visitors will find a community Wellness Center (offering blood pressure and cholesterol screenings as well mental health and stroke prevention training), an Education Lab (offering public programs on brain science), shops, and restaurants. These public areas are accessible via a main walkway that allows volumetric divisions from within the building’s massing to be seen. Also along this wide-birthing corridor, interactive installations—part of what they’ve called “The Synapse”—will showcase the research that is being carried out within the building. Amid community opposition to Columbia moving to the site, Piano said, “a well-crafted building is a good thing to do, it’s a promise of something good. It’s not just aesthetics—making things well is more than aesthetics—it’s ethics.”
Transparency and legibility then were important aspects of RPBW’s design. Zoning for the “Special Manhattanville Mixed Use District”, which RPBW worked with, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the city and Vice President of Manhattanville Development at Columbia University Marcelo Velez to develop, meant that public accessibility was a priority at ground level. “The transparency requirement for the district [stipulated] that at least 70 percent of the surface of the street wall (i.e. ground wall/urban layer) required glazing and at least 50 percent of the surface of the street wall requires the glazing to be transparent,” Velez told AN. “This was so the public can be reassured that nothing sinister is going on within the scientific research building and act as a form of community engagement.”
The result of this saw RPBW‘s design, from a tectonic angle, respond to its environment in multiple ways. On all four sides, the facade sees extensive glass fenestration encased by an arrangement of exterior bracing and steel beams that run up through the structure. In doing so, the building makes a nod to the tectonics of the subway line (#1 train) and Riverside Drive highway that can be seen on the east and west sides respectively, while providing vistas all around and allowing the public to peer into the center. However, while the subway line and highway can be seen, they cannot be heard. The curtain walling system, found on the northeast and southeast sides, uses a 16-inch-thick cavity between layers of glass the exterior of which has been coated to minimize solar gain. Inside, blinds—part of an automated building management system—can be dropped down to counter glare issues. Echoing Piano’s “factory” sentiment, Antoine Chaaya described the building as a “machine to show science” as he pointed out a silent #1 train passing by.
The sense of openness is conveyed inside, too. Interior spaces are segmented by floor to ceiling windows (that offer blinds for privacy if needed). In these working, teaching, and meeting areas, indirect light (through uplighting in some cases) is used to illuminate the spaces, with direct daylight only being used for circulatory areas.
Pedestrian interconnectivity was also a key area of focus said Velez, who worked on the master planning of the site. The Jerome L. Greene Science Center is due to open in spring next year, as is RPBW’s Lenfest Center for the Arts which sits next to it.
Other builds are also in the pipeline in the vicinity. The Columbia Business School—two buildings, one from Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the other from FXFowle—are set to open in 2021. Three others: The University Forum and Academic Conference Center; The Studebaker Building, and The Nash Building should be open by 2018. Saying how trees will line the pathways and walkways in the area, Velez thinks that the design parameters (such as zoning) and continuous pedestrian scale will result in the creation of a cohesive architectural language for the site.