Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 3

My second trip to the Library for the Performing Arts was almost as comical as the first, but for different reasons. At least this time I knew exactly where to go, so I headed straight for the Dance & Drama desk. Unfortunately, the very nice woman handling the desk this time had no idea what I was talking about or how to provide me with a Metrocard. I probably stood there for a good fifteen minutes while she searched through the computer database, having no luck, becoming increasingly flustered and annoyed at me for distracting her by attempting to provide her with additional information that might speed things along. Finally she called for back-up. This required her to dial three or four different extension numbers before she could actually reach someone who was available.

Before she could return to her database search, a 127-year-old gentleman approached the desk. I said she may as well go ahead and help him, assuming he'd be faster, and he was sort of making me uncomfortable hovering around like that. He was looking for the photograph of some actor or something. She told him she was sort of busy with my issues, and that the card catalog just to our left would be the best place for him to start. Well, it turns out this guy can't see well enough to read the cards in the card catalog. One might be inclined to wonder what good a photograph is going to do someone with eyesight that bad. One might also be inclined to wonder what someone who can't see well enough to read would hope to accomplish at a library. I mean, plenty of people carry little pocket magnifying glasses around with them, don't they?

So the woman who was helping me had to take this guy by the hand and lead him personally over to the card catalog and go through the whole thing with him step by step. Who knew how long it would take her back-up to arrive, so I just sat down to wait. I was only on a break from work, so I could hear the clock ticking in my head. By the time the other person arrived who could help me, the first woman was finished with the old guy. As it turned out, nothing needed to be found in the database anyway. I got my Metrocard.

I'd checked the weather ahead of time and was fairly certain I'd have sunny skies a few days later, so I called and made an appointment with Jason at Avery's Drawings & Archives Department.

Getting my access pass the second time around was considerably easier because Madame Unhelpful was not working Butler's front office that day, and Jason had also kindly emailed them up front (which the girl said was not normally necessary) to let them know I was coming.

I had arrived much earlier than my appointment, though, so I could see another one of the buildings. It's the academic building I talked about in my first post, but it was only later I realized that it was the other Harrison & Abramovitz (H&A) project. It's the International Affairs Building (IAB), completed in 1971.

All photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.

It's a great Brutalist building, but there's a lot more to this, also. In one of the drawings of this façade, it reads a bit differently than as executed. It appears more like a sheer mesh screen supported by those two giant piers.

If you concentrate, you can still see it, but it's a bit too meaty, and the top floor of windows in the center section somewhat disrupts the effect.

Directly underneath this is a sunken court in the plaza that connects IAB to Greene Hall. Philip Johnson was doing a lot of this kind of thing, also, but this really reminds me of what H&A did at the President's House at Rockefeller University.

I could be mistaken, but the curving brick benches don't really look like H&A to me. They look more like something that was maybe added later. I can find no way to confirm that. Either way, the glass bubble is extremely cool. I don't care if it's a little goofy, I love it. The way it reflects the image of the IAB above the courtyard is great. A student sitting out there eating her lunch told me it lets light into the Lehman Library underneath.

I also asked her if there were a way to get up to the plaza level (which is actually the sixth floor) without having to go all the way around the outside of the building. She told me to use the elevators. Whoever wrote the Columbia University Wiki page about this building had a very good sense of humor about what s/he refers to as "Those Goddamned Elevators." Evidently Columbia's president at the time, Grayson Kirk, saved a ton of money by getting extremely cheap elevators instead of ones from a trusted manufacturer like Otis. They're considered to be so cramped and irritatingly slow that allegedly students will sometimes opt to climb thirteen flights of stairs rather than be subjected to the elevators.

That's the southern façade. The northern façade displays a bit better how IAB is really a more evolved version of Greene and works quite nicely adjacent to it. It has the same vertical fin window mullions, but a bit more muscular and here only slightly more pronounced than the horizontal lines of the floor slabs.

Below this is a sort of unfortunately unfriendly base that presents a blank concrete wall to the pedestrian. I'm very much liking the thin ribbon of windows at the top, which tells you that the concrete base, despite its apparent structural strength, is not actually supporting anything. Instead it reveals columns at the corners of the interior that hold up the plinth. Apparently, H&A thought this building would be built in a desert, because they clearly made no provisions whatsoever for the flow of rain water off that base. If they do decide to clean it up, they definitely need to rethink drainage.

This is something that more generally needs to be addressed. When the Modernists rejected all the trappings of traditional building methods, they neglected to take into account that a lot of them were there for a very good reason. The pediment over a window or door, for instance, would keep the rain out and direct it away from the window or door frame. There have been some studies done on how rain water flows off buildings, but I think the subject could use a bit more study. Few talented architects ignore the angles and quality of sunlight in relationship to their structures, but in my opinion, new architecture also deserves new solutions to water flow. The design and shape of the roof, most specifically, could be re-examined to capture and direct water in very interesting, useful, even beautiful ways and, in more rural settings, ways that won't disrupt the natural water systems.

Where the building rests on the plinth are some really nice terraces that look as if they're barely ever used (don't look at the graffiti). I really like the use of the glass here, because the concrete structure above it looks so heavy and massive. Then the beams of concrete protruding out at the corners give these two "legs" a nice shot of steroids to make up for the transparency of the glass in between.

The west façade of the IAB is really the building's finest moment. It's where it all starts to make sense.
There's something vaguely 1970s about this that could mislead you into thinking maybe it's ugliness. I don't think so. The smooth, pale concrete was a wise decision here over, say, red brick with concrete accents--as by Davis, Brody & Associates--or the rusticated concrete so loved by Paul Rudolph and deplored by everyone else. Its compositional rigor and formality is stately and impressive, its symmetry unapologetic. While using the same vocabulary, it has a significantly different character from the other façades.

Rather than for geometric acrobatics or to put on a mask of unsubstantiated formal grandeur, here the Brutalism is used most honestly to express the structure of the building. It's as if you could take a bunch of concrete slabs and posts and stack them up to create this like a game of Jenga. It's all right there in front of your face. In addition to this, and very likely because of it, it speaks of raw, uncompromising strength.

Truly my favorite thing about it, though, is what you see when you get directly underneath it.

Unlike with Greene, which changes its structural character only from one side or another, here it's from every angle. The windows disappear entirely leaving you with nothing at all except pure architectural form. And in its robust structural simplicity, it looks absolutely ancient. From some angles it looks like something you could easily find in North Africa or the Middle East. From others it looks radically modern.

The other factor is that the United States is a young country. So any ancient quality this building might be said to have will automatically need to be foreign, and therefore international: the International Affairs Building. Even the plaza entrance strikes me as something akin to a Mayan temple.

Just for kicks, since the sun was a bit different, I got another shot of the Henry Moore piece for you from a different vantage.

I asked the women standing behind it if they'd ever seen it being turned. They said yes. I said I tried pushing it but obviously I'm not strong enough. They thought that was funny. They said usually it takes a group of people all shoving at once to get it to move.

Next up: The New York State Theater.

©2010, Ryan Witte

1 comment:

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.