Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture

Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture

Photographs by Bruce Damonte

More than a decade of planning, bidding, and construction finally concludes this month with the dedication of the $52 million, 135,000-square-foot Architecture, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture school at the City College of New York, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects around the bones of one of CCNY’s former libraries.

That late-1950s structure—known as the Y Building—had presented a largely windowless face to the street, with a main entrance at grade that was little more than an elevator lobby. Now a stairway orients the building toward one of the campus’ central arteries, leading up from the corner of 135th Street and Convent Avenue to a new main entrance above grade that opens onto the school’s gallery, library, and classrooms.

suspended, criss-crossing stairways animate the central atrium (top), while the dramatic, rooftop amphitheater (above) offers views south toward midtown manhattan.  

Of the original structure, Viñoly preserved only the skeleton of concrete columns and floor slabs, and hollowed out its core to create a five-story atrium. Metal bridges and stairs crisscross the atrium, connecting alternating floors and stretching into surrounding studios. Two mezzanines offer views down the wide hallways below, which are open to the atrium on one side and lined with homasote on the other, making them a popular place for classes to pin up work for critiques.

The exhibition space—”the soul of the building,” said project director Fred Wilmers—lies at the bottom of the atrium, keeping it continually animated by people crossing the bridges overhead. Doors at opposite corners of the gallery ensure a steady stream of foot traffic. “We anticipated that people would cut diagonally through the gallery, and they do,” said Wilmers. The gallery’s exterior walls are lined with the same recycled rubber as its interior, doubling the amount of pin-up space and extending exhibitions into adjacent hallways.

A saffron-yellow clerestory at the top of the atrium directs and controls the flow of natural light, one of the pillars of Viñoly’s design strategy. Its underside is angled inward to refract incoming rays so that they diffuse throughout the building. Extended edges around exterior windows also help block sun without hampering views. By next year, said Wilmers, those window boxes will become the frame for perforated aluminum louvers with vertical slats on the east and west walls, and horizontal slats on the south wall. (Though originally part of the design, the louvers had been shelved during the bidding process to cut costs, but were reintroduced after a large donation from Bernard and Anne Spitzer.)

On the open-air roof, the clerestory segues into one of the building’s most popular features, a luminous yellow amphitheater that was not part of the project’s mandated program but has become such a crowded gathering place that the school has had to start rationing usage. From the vantage of its south-facing bleachers, the amphitheater’s frame turns the Midtown skyline into a suitably inspiring backdrop.