Monday, August 06, 2007

Columbia's $7 Billion Expansion Plan by Piano Fails to Thrill

Columbia's $7 Billion Expansion Plan by Piano Fails to Thrill
By James S. Russell

Columbia University's proposed expansion, 12th Avenue

Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- ``Our challenge was to reinvent the campus,'' architect Renzo Piano says of Columbia University's proposed $7 billion expansion.

Actually, the plan now making its way through New York City's arduous approval process looks more like a dumbed-down real estate deal than a vision for the future. It will double the size of Columbia's campus in upper Manhattan.

Columbia's Morningside Heights campus was conceived more than a century ago as a spare-no-expense Olympian retreat, an academic acropolis presided over by the columned sobriety of Low Library.

That ivory-tower model no longer applies, Piano insisted in a recent interview at his Upper East Side hotel. The Genoa, Italy-based architect, 69, was in New York recently to present Columbia's proposal to the city's planning department, which is meeting today to discuss an alternative plan for the neighborhood developed by the community.

The 253-year-old university needs to join the city, not separate itself from it, Piano explained.
The expansion is projected for a neighborhood of gas stations and run-down warehouses on the Upper West Side. Wedged in a trough on the west side of Broadway between noisy rail and road viaducts, the 17-acre site includes the four city blocks north of 125th Street and some smaller adjacent parcels.

Though just a short walk from the Neo-Renaissance splendor of Morningside Heights, it's a world away.

``We will keep the mix, the diversity, the hybrid quality of Manhattanville,'' Piano promises.
Pushing Out Businesses

The community's plan reviewed today asks Columbia to integrate its new campus more seamlessly with the neighborhood and not push out commercial businesses now housed in the site's historically valuable industrial buildings.

Columbia proposes to build 6.8 million square feet of space by 2030. Piano will design the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a new home for the Columbia Business School, a conference center and arts facilities. But he will begin this first phase, scheduled for completion in 2015 and costing as much as $1.5 billion, only after the master plan is approved. The plan is heavy on medical-research labs, though it may mix in more academic departments and residences as circumstances dictate.

Reconciling high density with an unpredictable future isn't easy, yet I looked in vain for the campus reinvention that Piano described.

He and the New York urban-design staff of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, led by Marilyn Taylor, have filled the site with regimented rows of similar blocky buildings. For long stretches they range 200 feet high or more along narrow (though modestly widened) side streets.
New Pedestrian Street

Piano and SOM have tied the four blocks together with a new 50-foot-wide pedestrian street running north-south through the middle of the blocks. It flows past a modest square in the middle of the site and opens to a small plaza at 125th Street, the only urbane or campuslike elements of the plan. Columbia's old campus, among the densest in the U.S., looks bucolic by comparison.

Columbia has not closed off streets to make a gated, intimidating superblock, as its old campus does. Yet the size and bulk of the proposed buildings make the streets anything but inviting to the surrounding neighborhood, which historically has had tense relations with Columbia.

Essentially identical cubic laboratory towers, with their exhaust stacks and five-story-high rooftop machine rooms, are proposed to march up Broadway. Rather than engage the neighborhood, the towers face off against a row of tall, dingy public-housing slabs across the street.

Neither Columbia nor the city has plans yet for the trash- strewn space under the ancient IRT train line, which clatters above Broadway on its spindly, paint-peeling supports.
Glass Storefronts

Piano hopes to locate the diverse activities that are supposed to intermingle town and gown in what he calls an ``urban layer'' at street level. Instead, the sheer walls of glass look like storefronts -- ready for Starbucks but not much else.

Nothing about the lab buildings expresses the breaking down of disciplinary barriers that has become so essential to high- level research. Instead, the lockstep uniformity appears to preclude the dramatic teetering shapes that Frank Gehry created in the Stata Center, which hums with life at MIT.

And I can't see how Columbia could build a structure as inventive as Norman Foster's Clark Center at Stanford, designed to let scientists set up labs in just about any collaborative form they can imagine.

Columbia needs to tap its own greatness. Its Earth Institute, for example, focuses on global-warming effects, yet the university's plan doesn't integrate ``green'' design (an area of expertise for both Piano and SOM) and makes only vague promises.

Why would Columbia hire such a talented urbanist as Piano and then allow him to produce something so bland?

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg's U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: James S. Russell in New York at .
Last Updated: August 6, 2007 00:18 EDT

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