On Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus in New York City, a building is nearing completion that only Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will love. Salazar will love it because he has to: The new building conforms to his Rehabilitation Standard #9, which decrees that “new work shall be differentiated from the old.” Everyone will agree this building is “clearly differentiated” from its neighbors. But that’s where agreement ends.
The building in question is Columbia’s new $200 million interdisciplinary science building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish starchitect José Rafael Moneo. But it’s a building few people will love. The structure is likely to disappoint Modernist proponents, who are always looking for ever-more-radical designs. And it certainly has already incensed traditionalists like me who believe new construction in historic settings should be harmonious with existing urban fabric.
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, had three objectives for this new science building, declaring: “This had to be great architecture in itself.” He also added: “I wanted it to be daring, and I wanted it to be by a major architect.” Well, he’s batting .333 on these criteria: It’s not great architecture, it’s not daring but it is by a brand-name architect.
Architectural context is everything
Modernist architecture critics will surely find the building boring. There is little “daring” about it. If the building were dropped into midtown Manhattan it would be quite unremarkable; it shares architectural DNA with hundreds of similar glass-and-aluminum towers erected since 1960. Ironically, if Moneo’s new building was sited amongst the tall office buildings of New York, it would be in a compatible context and would arouse no complaints from traditional urbanists.
However, Moneo’s new Columbia building is flanked by older, classically informed masonry structures designed by McKim, Mead & White. Moneo’s design assumes an adversarial attitude toward the surrounding buildings, and the otherwise bland new facility derives its impact only from its glaring contrast in materials, scale and lack of character-defining ornament compared to its classical neighbors. The building comes off as “daring” only by thumbing its nose at the nearby McKim buildings.
Moneo’s structure is simply a bad neighbor. The dignity and gravitas of McKim’s earlier construction established the tone for the surrounding campus. Moneo’s new design is like a rude stranger who moves in next door and plays loud rap music 24 hours a day on a boom box. Rudeness does garner attention, but it undermines civility.
Steven Semes’ new book, The Future of the Past, lays bare the fallacy of “clear differentiation” and makes a persuasive case for maintaining design coherence in historic urban fabric. One wishes Lee Bollinger and José Rafael Moneo had read Semes’s book before setting out on this ill-conceived project.