Wednesday, April 25, 2007

STAFF EDITORIAL: Another Eyesore - Northwest Corner plans should be reconsidered

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STAFF EDITORIAL: Another Eyesore
Northwest Corner plans should be reconsidered
Issue date: 4/25/07 Section: Opinion

The administration recently announced its design and construction plans for the new science building slated to be built in 2010 in the northwest corner of campus, the last undeveloped section of the Morningside campus. The building will provide the school's space-crunched science departments opportunity to expand. But unfortunately, the administration's specific plans suggest that the structure will be a gaudy monstrosity more akin to the glaringly out-of-place Lerner Hall than the graceful Low Library. The plans exemplify the administration's continual failure to connect with the student body and its poor choices with regard to campus architecture. The University should halt construction and engage the community in its plans for the development before it makes another mistake that will hurt Columbia's prestige and, like Lerner, be an eyesore to students and visitors alike.

The Morningside campus, designed by the famed turn-of-the-century architectural firm McKim, Meade, and White, speaks directly to Columbia's reputation and history. The campus' beaux-arts architecture reflects the origins of our famed Core curriculum and our historically significant role in New York City-the style also appears in many of the city's most famous and historically significant structures, including the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Historical Society. The campus also represents one of the only institutions of higher learning built in a neoclassically derived style, making it dramatically distinct from the neogothic or colonial character of its peers. But the planned structure, more akin to the oft-ridiculed Lerner, Uris, Carman, and Mudd halls, is a glaring affront to the campus's architectural and aesthetic unity. If built as planned, not only will it clash with the surrounding buildings, but its size will dominate the community skyline as well as the views of campus buildings on Broadway and 120th.

When the new building first was announced, University President Lee Bollinger stated that "an extreme sensitivity to context" would be shown in its design-but if anything, the new plans show a brash insensitivity to the school's history and the campus' architectural context. The fact that the administration and Board of Trustees have allowed the plans to stand is troubling, as the University's planned alterations seriously threaten the aesthetic appeal of the Morningside campus. Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth, institutions that lure many qualified applicants to their campuses, understand the importance of maintaining an architecturally significant and aesthetically impressive architecture for recruitment and community-building purposes. Princeton's new residential college, for instance, will be constructed in neogothic style in order to preserve the unity of the campus. The new college will join the university's other architecturally impressive buildings that grace its promotional brochures and Web site. As it currently exists, most of Columbia's buildings foster an intellectual and collegiate atmosphere that stands apart from the rest of the city, an atmosphere that many students treasure. Columbia's plans for the northwest corner signify a slap in the face to its students and its campus.

Variety can be refreshing, and the Manhattanville campus is an appropriate place for the University to consider employing a new architectural aesthetic. The Morningside campus, however, is too small, too compact, and far too historically valuable to experiment so wantonly with stark contrast and architectural excess. The administration should rethink its plans for the new science building. Instead of kowtowing to au courant architectural fads that will be repudiated and forgotten in a decade or two, the administration should make a long-term investment in its campus. Everyone-students, administrators, and the University as a whole-stands to benefit.

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