Thursday, October 21, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 1

This series will definitely be more of a story than I might normally tell. But I just had to discuss the infuriating comedy of errors that has been seeing Philip Johnson's construction drawings for the New York State Theater. [As more and more horrifying press surfaces about David Koch, we're becoming less enthusiastic about honoring him as namesake of the theater he helped renovate. If you're reading this, Mr. Koch, you're always welcome to improve my opinion with a couple-million-dollar donation to Architextures.]

I knew that Columbia's Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library had a good amount of materials on the subject, and would be a great place to start. I read through the provisions on their website about gaining access, and also called around for a bit of clarification, to make sure I arrived with all the necessary credentials.

My first stop was the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Since I work there, it seemed the easiest choice, and I could just wait until a day when I was there and had a free half hour. Not so easy, after all.

I stopped at the information desk. For the first of many, many times, I recited my explanation of what I wanted to do: "I'm doing research on the Lincoln Center campus. I thought the Avery Library at Columbia might have construction drawings and so on of the Koch Theater. So I need a slip or something to get access." I eventually found out it's called a Metrocard, which is a bit confusing since it has nothing to do with the subway. The woman at the information desk didn't know and sent me to the check out counter.

I explained again. The woman at the check out counter didn't know and said I should ask her supervisor. I told my story to the supervisor. The supervisor wasn't sure but suggested I try the information desk on the third floor. To get into the reading room on the third floor, where I would only need to be for about thirty seconds, you have to check your bag. So I checked my bag. There were three people at the information desk up there. It was almost like I had a cowbell around my neck: the three of them just stared and watched me walk all the way across the room and around to the front of their desk. So weird. I explained again.

The guy there knew exactly what I was talking about but told me I had to go down to the Dance & Drama desk on the second floor. I got my bag back from coat check and headed downstairs. I explained my situation yet again there. The guy at Dance & Drama was very nice and helpful and gave me the yellow Metrocard thing that I would need to get into Avery. I asked him if there were a time limit on it, and he said not really, but that I wouldn't want to wait too long to use it.

A week or two later, I had a free afternoon and the weather was gorgeous, so I decided to make my way up to Columbia. Even when I lived in Manhattan, the Columbia neighborhood seemed like a different planet. From Queens, it's really quite a trek. It probably took me about an hour door-to-door.

My first stop, while the sun was still at a nice angle, was Harrison & Abramovitz' (H&A) Law School Building, now called Jerome L. Greene Hall, built in 1961. Greene was a lawyer who gave Columbia's law school $40 million over the years and gave the university a single gift of $200 million, the largest they've ever received.

I'd like to see as many of the New York area buildings by Lincoln Center's architects as I can in person, to just intuitively understand their work better. But in addition to that, Greene Hall is strikingly similar in style to the Metropolitan Opera House. Even if you didn't know it was by the same architect(s), you could probably tell just by looking at the two buildings.

This building has a reputation for being ugly. The fondness some students grow to have for it has been referred to as "architectural Stockholm syndrome." I think that's somewhat unfair. I don't know what it's like to use the building as a student or faculty member, but architecturally speaking I think it's quite beautiful.

For one thing, I think the main volume has exquisite proportions. Its proportions somehow manage to make this look monumental despite the fact that it's not a particularly large building.

The renovation at the southern end is clearly newer. It was added in 1996 by Polshek Partnership, who have just recently changed their name to Ennead Architects.

I never got to know what this looked like before that addition. Of course I'd been up to the campus many times over the years, but I'm not convinced that I was ever this far east, and if I was, I never had reason to really study this building in depth.

In any case, although it's a shame whenever an older building needs to be altered from its original architect's vision, I think Polshek did a marvelous job of complementing the original structure.

That balcony that sticks out the front has earned the building the nickname "The Toaster." There are certainly worse things you could call a building. I think those boxes are amazing, and I'll explain why below.

Greene has a raised plaza that crosses over Amsterdam Avenue. These plaza bridges I guess seemed like a good idea, in theory, in the 1960s. H&A were the ones to originally design the Milstein Plaza which did the same thing at Lincoln Center, and it's now been torn out, thankfully. Abramovitz also did something similar over the FDR Drive for Rockefeller University. It's one of the things Le Corbusier prescribed: vehicular traffic on ground level, pedestrian traffic raised above it on a separate level.

It's a bit strange that the concept doesn't work. I think the main problem is that, especially in a city like New York, too many people will invariably use the vehicular level, anyway. So in addition to the ever-present noise, smell, exhaust, and danger of interacting with moving vehicles, you've also removed all the sunlight and half of the pedestrians. The sunlight is one of the few remaining things that make strolling along New York's sidewalks pleasurable, and backward as it may sound, the more pedestrians there are, the safer it is. Similarly, on the plaza above, half the pedestrians will remain on ground level and never even see it, removing exactly the thing that can make such a plaza an interesting, vibrant place to be: people.

It was named the Charles H. Revson Plaza and installed in 1964. It is quite nicely landscaped, so it's an added shame that more of the general public will never bother to go up there.

I know all about Revson because he paid for Lincoln Center's fountain which is named for him, also. He founded Revlon Cosmetics in 1932. The "S" in the name was changed to an "L" for his partner and chemist, Charles Lachman. They offered far more colors of nail polish than any other manufacturer at the time, and later they added matching lipsticks.

Luckily, Columbia itself is extremely populous, it serves nearly 30,000 people altogether, students and faculty. So the plaza to the north of Greene, also bordered by a residence hall and I think another academic building, was being used more extensively, perhaps because it was in the shade.

That sort of old-timey lamppost needs to go. It's doing nothing at all for this building.

In this photo and the previous one, you can see one of the things I love about this building. It's the same for the Metropolitan Opera: the deep fin window mullions. The Met's are travertine, to match the rest of the buildings there. Here they're limestone, which matches the much older building that can be seen reflected in the windows.

First of all, the fins give the building a strong sense of verticality in contrast to its relatively squat proportions. Second is the way it plays with the quality of light hitting it and your vantage on the building. From one direction, it reads as a wide open glass structure, transparent and/or reflective. From others, it forms a solid textured block of stone. Even the balcony on this side, being closer to ground (eye) level, while still very much a distinct protuberance, seems to dematerialize somewhat.

I asked one of the students about them, and he said they're cafes and student lounges. It would appear you can't really go out onto the balconies, which I think is very unfortunate. Almost as appealing would be a row of sliding glass doors, but it's still a great touch that there are plantings. I think they're a wonderfully subtle, angular Brutalist detail on an otherwise strictly upright, regular structure. I love how the bottom couple inches of the mullions are allowed to show underneath it, despite the fact that they're obviously cut through on the interior.

I also really liked this detail on the side of it. A recessed glass panel separates the balcony from the main volume. This might have been more successful I think if the glass had been more silvery, more reflective. But I also think if the glass were perfectly clean, and seen in sharp sunlight or lit from the inside at night, it would be more effective. In any case, H&A make the point very clearly that this projecting box is to be read as an individual entity, divorced from the main structure.

This could have been executed in so many different ways. It could have been merely an open balcony with a practically invisible balustrade. The balusters could have been prominent and linear like the bars of a jail cell (thematically appropriate, sure, but a bit like wagging one's finger in your face, and "incarcerating" whom? The students?). It could have been a clear glass box punching through the facade opening up the interior to the outside. Instead, H&A enclose their projections in solid limestone--the same material that gives the overall structure its apparent strength--and adorn them with a strip of soft, friendly greenery. It's almost as if the building is saying to the passerby, "what goes on inside this building is being offered to you, the general public, for your protection by the law. Please avail yourselves of it."

I also really loved the wonderfully late-'50s entryway with its cascading stairs. The three people sitting with their backs to the camera were the law students I asked a few questions. This entrance is not a primary one and is locked (I think students can open it with a key). I actually find it much cooler than the main entrance in the 1996 addition. That sad, empty plastic flower pot and the trash cans should not have been put there. It still has a great style to it, though.

Next up: the artworks.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte

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