Columbia’s new business school is a dynamic face for a growing campus

We had almost everything. During a fleeting interval in the early 1930s, Columbia University had the idea to build a massive skyscraper right in the middle of its Charles McKim-designed campus in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. As documented in Barry Bergdoll’s Mastering McKim’s Plan, the project would have called for a looming steel-framed tower in a deco-ized version of the same neoclassical style as Low Library, the domed masterpiece to which the skyscraper would have served as a dramatic backdrop. Better yet, in a proposal by William Boring, dean of the school of architecture, the addition was to be built directly atop University Hall, a never-completed McKim project that would serve as a large base on which successive floors could be added. in stages. . As the institution grew, the new building could have grown with it, rising year by year into the heavens.

What did we get instead? In 1964, on the very site that might have been the university’s answer to the Chrysler Building (or better: a Beaux Arts answer to Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning), the university erected Uris Hall, a building whose name could be called Dickensian if it was the case. not unfair to Dickens’ own Uriah Heap. It’s so bad – a concrete cash register, lined with tin, appropriate only insofar as it was built to house the Columbia Business School (CBS), which it has stood ever since. Its construction was a calamity in more ways than one, obliterating the largest square on the McKim grid while displacing the large sports facility that was meant to go there. The administration would go on to claim (wrongly) that it had to set up the school’s new gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park, sparking the massive student protests of 1968 and all their dismal aftermath.

Manhattanville Campus of Columbia (Iwaan Baan)

But that’s in the past, supposedly. Columbia has just completed a new home for its business school, located on a brand new campus, the Renzo Piano-designed satellite in neighboring Manhattan. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), in collaboration with FXCollaborative and with landscaping by James Corner, the facility is actually made up of two buildings, David Geffen Hall and Henry R. Kravis Hall, the latter named d ‘after the billionaire financier who underwrote most of the project. “Originally there would only be one building,” noted FX’s Sylvia Smith on a recent visit: Apparently, when discussing Piano’s master plan with university administrators , Kravis noted the pair of volumes next to the smaller wedge-shaped plot that had originally been intended for CBS. He shone on both and donated $100 million to make it happen.

Connected by an underground service passage, the structures actually work as a fairly harmonious duo, with a loop-shaped lawn in the middle serving as the main pathway from one to the other. “We’ve always been interested in blurring the lines between social spaces, learning spaces, academic spaces,” said Charles Renfro, who served as project manager for DS+R. As with the park and circulatory plaza, the architects took the whole dual site scheme as an opportunity to create a series of connections, opportunities to mix and mingle various parts of the program within and with each other. In each building, prominent staircases zigzag along the facade past glass-enclosed reading rooms, with offices adjoining outdoor terraces adjoining game rooms equipped with foosball. The compressed, layered spatial logic of the interior finds expression in the wedding-cake-like envelopes of both structures, with jagged-layered sliding floor plates and glowing projections. For all their similarities, the two also complement each other in a gratifying and rhyming way – Geffen the smoother and calmer, his more muscular counterpart. “This one is Michelangelo,” Smith said, pointing to Kravis. “The other is Borromini.”

exterior view of a glazed university building in front of a lawn
Geffen Hall (Iwan Baan)

While they may or may not live up to the masters, there’s no doubt that the pair of buildings represent a step forward for CBS and one that heralds a bigger change. Program leadership has made clear in recent years its intention to run the business school in a way that is not just business as usual, becoming “business builders who create value for their stakeholders and society,” as its mission statement puts it. Inclusion, community and social entrepreneurship are now regular staples in the institution’s literature and in its curriculum – as they are in new buildings, where during the same visit several meetings and lunches were underway for South Asian, African American and female students and visiting executives. Banishing the dull, double-loaded hallways of Uris, the school evidently seeks to banish the sad double-loaded businessman of yesteryear, ushering in a new era of goal-driven profit (or perhaps the reverse). ). The pivot is especially significant given the new school’s location, along with CBS and indeed the entire Manhattanville development located on the west end of Harlem, smack in the middle of a former industrial area in a marginalized low-income community. revenue. All this transparency and these shared green spaces, all this mixture of urban and bourgeois functions, all this aims to announce the new role of the university as an integral part of the city and the world.

exterior of a glazed university building facing a square
Kraviz Hall (Iwan Baan)

Again, a step forward, perhaps, but on a metaphorical staircase no less delicate and sinuous than those of Kravis and Geffen. Renzo’s first building for the Manhattanville campus, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, declared the political and economic intent of the entire company. Clean and white and glassy, ​​but with a huge chimney protruding from the roof, the building was a factory: much like the factories that once filled the neighborhood, only instead of manufacturing Studebakers, this one would manufacture knowledge. This vision of the post-industrial global future, conceived more than 20 years ago when Columbia began its breakthrough in Manhattanville, seems more than a little quaint at this point. With the completion of the new business school, one feels all too intensely the contradiction of a campus that becomes more compelling and aesthetically appealing, even as the very commercial premise behind it – that of institutional growth endless – seems less and less sustainable.

a study room in a university business school
A study room at Geffen Hall. (Iwan Baan)
The commons on the ground floor of Geffen Hall. (Iwan Baan)

The challenges to this model seem to multiply daily. What about the demands of Columbia’s newly unionized graduate students? What about the scarce affordable housing stock likely to disappear as expansion continues? And what about the poor Morningside campus, where the university has apparently decided to leave Uris almost entirely as it is, making only modest changes inside to accommodate humanities students (understandably) who are ready to live there. Until he does something about the 1964 error, Columbia may still have to worry about another 1968.

Design architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Project architect: FXCollaborative
Location: manhattan

construction manager: Turner Construction
exterior fencing contractor: W&W glass
Facade consultant: Arup
Glass: Sedak Glass, AGC Interpane Glass Germany, Cricursa Spain, Pilkington Glass
GFRG: IDA Exterior Systems and DKI/David Kucera Inc.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to Harper’s, the new yorker, The Wall Street Journaland New York magazine, among other publications. He has authored or co-authored numerous books and monographs, the most recent of which contributed to Jorge Pardo: public projects and commissions, 1996-2018 (Petzel, 2021).

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