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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Northwest Corner Building Tour

On Wednesday I attended a "hard hat" press tour of Columbia University's Northwest Corner Building, a 14-story building at 120th Street and Broadway designed by Rafael Moneo, with Davis Brody Bond Aedas as executive architect and Ove Arup & Partners as structural and mechanical engineer. Below are some photos from that tour (more in my Flickr set) with commentary.

The building sits across the street from the Barnard College Nexus (Diana Center) by Weiss/Manfredi.

Northwest Corner Building
[Looking north up Broadway | photo by archidose]

Even though the building isn't set for completion and opening until fall 2010, enough of the exterior is complete to absorb the building's design, which at first glance is admittedly puzzling. Moneo is a skillful architect who has a knack for finding solutions appropriate to the constraints he's given, veering from the formal repetition of other architects. His buildings do not say, "Moneo" but many do challenge how we appreciate architecture. Beauty in his buildings can be seen as a result of addressing site, program and other constraints, not an intentional formal tactic. Here that is clearly the case.

Northwest Corner Building
[West facade | photo by archidose]

So what are the driving forces for Moneo here? In terms of site they are the level change between street level and campus level and the existing gymnasium that sits under the building. Program-wise they are relatively open floors for the offices, classrooms, and research facilities for the disciplines of chemistry, biology, engineering and physics, and the multitude of services that follow from these functions. And what is the tactic for addressing these constraints? Engineering.

Northwest Corner Building
[View from campus | photo by archidose]

As this in-detail article in The Architect's Newspaper clearly shows, the structural engineering of the building is probably the most important solution to the various problems presented to the design team. With the gymasium inhabiting part of the building footprint, only three areas were available for vertical structure from above. The whole building acts like a truss with diagonal bracing inserted as needed for stabilizing the regular steel frame. These fairly irregular diagonals are expressed in the modular bays rendered in aluminum fins. Some bays are solid with decorative fins; some bays combine vision glass with diagonal fins; and some bays feature horizontal fins with windows and sun shades. One could say the result exposes what is happening behind the facade, both structurall and functionally, but the appearance gives the impression that one could rearrange the bays at will. In effect one could, because the modular pieces are hung in front of the building's glass skin, except for the large Miesian facade overlooking the campus, an area bumped out slightly to reiterate how it is different from the rest.

Northwest Corner Building
[Facade detail | photo by archidose]

The diagonal expression of the structural bracing gives the building much of its character, but the 120'+ clear span at the library is the most overt and important piece of engineering on display. This double-height space is at the upper campus level, high above street level and expressed as a transparent window connecting these two realms.

Northwest Corner Building
Northwest Corner Building
[Two views of 120'+ clear span at library | photos by archidose]

Here the three points of connection to below are dealt with via a full-floor truss on the level above the library.

Northwest Corner Building
Northwest Corner Building
[Two views of full-floor truss level above library | photos by archidose]

Access to the building from the street happens at the corner, underneath the double-height cafeteria. More structural bravado occurs here, as the corner of the building is not only cantilevered 40' to the north but the cafeteria itself is suspended from the structure two floors above. Visitors walk up stair so the cafeteria and then ascend via escalators to the upper campus level. In effect the corner and its cantilever open up the building for free-flowing spaces with vertical and diagonal movements, subtle but important in creating another access point to the campus.

Northwest Corner Building
[View north from cafeteria | photo by archidose]

The 13th floor, at the time of the tour, was used for staging of the remaining modular panels for the aluminum skin. This floor therefore exposed the vertical ducts aligned in a row next to a column line 40' from the west facade, a longspan achieved via 5' deep castellated beams that further allow ducts to penetrate.

Northwest Corner Building
[Description | photo by archidose]

At this level a couple floors below the roof the building's height becomes a part of the drama, with unencumbered views in all directions.

Northwest Corner Building
[Description | photo by archidose]

The first time I saw the building under construction a few months ago, an architect that did not enter my mind was Rafael Moneo, justifiably so. His role in the design for Columbia can be seen either as surface decoration for the complex stuctural engineering behind the facade or as the complex coordination of the site constraints, program, engineering, and services. Any architect knows it's the latter, even though most people will probably focus on the former view in terms of appreciating the design. Moneo has taken the constraints and shaped a building that expresses the constraints and solutions, almost as if the result is the only one possible.

But why not wrap the whole building in the Miesian glass skin that faces the campus, expressing the same via transparency? I think that route would be more fitting to a designer merely draping the building in a skin, not one involved with the complex workings of the various disciplines. It would also eliminate hierarchy of the different parts of the building and limit expression to the manipulation of blinds, a lack the functional considerations Moneo's design reflects.

This building will surely receive its share of press once it's completed, given the name behind the design. But it won't be appreciated or understood immediately, things I wager will happen in time. For now even I am struggling to find the beauty in the engineering expressed in metal.

2 comments:

  1. "For now even I am struggling to find the beauty in the engineering expressed in metal."

    This engineering student digs it. Nice post.

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  2. i too found it a little hard to uncover beauty in this particular work. but i think as with all moneo buildings, it begins to grow on you (2, 3 months after i first encountered it) and i suppose its that extra mileage in all his buildings which sets him apart from many other architects.

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