Designed by Renzo Piano, the Jerome L. Green Science Center at the new Columbia University Manhattanville Campus along 125th street and Broadway is basically a square and less expressive version of the Whitney Museum. The Columbia University Medical Center and Graduate Education building at 104 Haven Avenue between 171st and 172nd streets was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It epitomizes the architectural expression of continuity that was characteristic of the late 1990s and early 2000s and is intended to “foster connection and collaboration” among students, faculty and the medical community.
However, it’s Columbia’s 3595 Broadway, a massive, twelve-story concrete structure on the southwest corner of 148th street, that can help us ask questions about the role of the university and its expansion plans. This building is designed by a “specialized” local architectural firm to create “sustainable communities” through “well-designed and high-performance architecture” projects. These designations are highly questionable.
3595 Broadway is not named after a patron or an academic figure, it is only a series of numbers. The numbers are the product of a lot of parcel consolidation, programmatic swapping, development air rights, easement acquisition, and a site strategy that included the demolition of a townhouse built in 1901. 3581-87 Broadway, 3595 Broadway, 3591-3599 Broadway and 600 W 148th Street are all numbers involved in the real estate and architectural operations.
The new building will host the Meeting with God Church Inc., currently next door (occupying 3581-87 Broadway since 2007), formalizing the vacating and lot consolidation with 147th street for a future numbered project (also owned by the university). It proposes to construct and manufacture affordable housing 20 blocks north of the Manhattanville Campus as a measure to supply housing to “some residents” who were displaced by the larger operation on 125th street.
3595 Broadway is a massive opaque structure broken in two main volumes with a distinct brick cladding: Red terra cotta and sand-cream are the agents of contextualism. A third color of brick—black—is used to articulate the space between the two main volumes toward Broadway to formally give the impression that there are two buildings instead of one. A third, setback volume atop is fully clad in sand-cream color with black-brick details. A dark-brown cast-stone base fixes the building to the ground.
3595 Broadway followed its legal capacities to build to the very edge of the plot line, permanently blocking two windows per floor of the adjacent 100-year-old brownstone on the west, condemning those units to gloomy interiors. The site’s previous retail building—built around 1969—had a typical eight-to-ten foot easement space for light and ventilation to the building next door. That space gained adds roughly 3,000 square feet to the first four floors, a drop in 3595’s 150,000-square-foot bucket. It seems that the domestic living environment of at least four units with three to five people each (12 to 20 total) was not enough of a reason to keep the light and ventilation patio for the mental sanity of all; it was not enough of a community.
The building is said to have three green roofs. I have seen one from my building rooftop and it’s adorned with mechanical air handling units and exhausts. There is already a surveillance system in place, as well as exterior lighting that produces yellow light typical of the 1990s, most importantly, it is vandal-proof.
I am glad Columbia University will divest from for-profit prison companies (they should eliminate all their ties with them), but perhaps they should also revise the legibility and legality frameworks for their expansion plans. They could re-evaluate what their architecture can be: provocative, controversial, agonistic, or radical. They could at least clarify what “high-performance” means for the new building, and which “sustainable community” they are sustaining. Unfortunately, they fall into the “well-designed” project rhetoric that lacks a proposition. I believe a research university at the highest level should also have highest design ambitions and competencies.
To what “community” does this building serve by implementing these architectural strategies characteristic of the neoliberal propositions of the 1980s? 3595 Broadway’s apparent non-confrontational formal language visualizes critical conditions about how the university positions itself when speaking to their ivy-league-educated audience in their Manhattanville and Medical Center buildings in comparison to the public around their 3595 Broadway building at 148th street. The building in Hamilton Heights is evidence of how architecture is manipulated and treated with different standards (nothing new here) and how their formal, material, visual, programmatic, and even legal strategies (this is the only project where there is no executive architect separated from the design architect) are a concrete infrastructure for impressing and perpetuating what this seemingly innocuous building is doing: patronizing, marginalizing, and stigmatizing a neighborhood with the this-is-what-you-deserve-community-building proposition. Here, both the legible and legal framework clarify the role of architecture as a media for formulating ambitions, or lack thereof.
What is being manufactured is probably something different—something that will not speak to two-tone bricks compositions or legal compliance of construction codes. It makes legible some of the hard realities of the local and global expanding American university, where the school is both a real estate developer and an educational facility. Can or should the university aim for less apparent legibility in order to truly embrace progressive modes of building the future following its academic mandate? Can or should the university stop contributing as an inane city developer with their apparent mundane buildings? 3595 Broadway should not be a bland and insipid sample of physical reality. I am sure the university aims for an improved future for all, but it cannot fail in communities where it may be needed more.
The selection of the architect as designer and the executive architect also supports the problematic legibility all these projects are communicating willfully or not. The hiring of a “specialist” firm to work on 3595 Broadway reaffirms both the lack of “specificity” that a project may require (and questions the idea of specialization itself) and the problem of disciplinary knowledge in an architectural commission.
All the university’s expansions will for sure score the “green points” needed for institutional validation including that of the Enterprise Green Communities, although I am still struggling to find the “high” and the ‘”performance” in 3595 Broadway. Perhaps it is only in the less apparent numbers that no one in the neighborhood will see or experience with exception of rent hikes. There is much to discuss about the Manhattanville Campus and the Medical Center, their content, and the role of the university in them. Unfortunately, 3595 Broadway is a mute conversation.