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Autumn 1997
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Now They’re Deconstructing the Columbia Campus
David Garrard Lowe
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In his brilliantly quirky polemic, Kindergarten Chats, the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan warned, "Our architecture reflects us, as truly as a mirror." The truth of that statement may be observed in various construction projects now under way on New York's Morningside Heights, culminating—if that is the right word—in the new student center that Columbia University is building to the designs of Bernard Tschumi on Broadway at 114th Street.

At the northwest corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street has stood since 1976 a structure whose architects, Kennerly, Slomanson & Smith, carried Mies van der Rohe's statement that "less is more" to its dwarfish conclusion. The gray, unadorned walls of Amsterdam House proferred no solace to those entering this nursing home, but rather proclaimed that they would soon be reduced to the ashes that inspired the facade's palette. Yet now something cheerful is rising between the old Amsterdam House and the Avenue.

The new 13-story addition to Amsterdam House, designed by Barbara Geddis of the Geddis Partnership in Stamford, Connecticut, is of bright red brick, enlivened by limestone string courses, moldings, quoins at the corners, and a cornice. Here is the articulate face of classicism, all those flourishes that once endowed the most modest building in New York with dignity and charm. And, as Geddis points out, it echoes the red brick classicism of the Columbia campus two blocks to the north. The putative reason for the banishing of this architectural humanity is always that it costs too much, but Geddis counters: "We brought in Amsterdam House at $178 per square foot, which, considering the quality, is very reasonable." This is less than what a modern New York City office building costs to build.

Directly across Amsterdam Avenue sits the titanic bulk of Ralph Adams Cram's French Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, its cornerstone laid in 1892. The Second World War delayed construction, as did the decision of a bishop to spend diocesan funds on social work rather than architecture. But when construction was begun again in 1979, it resumed in Cram's style. Now, with cut stone upon cut stone, the south tower slowly—and gloriously—rises in Gothic grandeur towards its 266-foot goal.

So facing each other across Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street are the two fundamental architectural styles of Western civilization, the classical and the Gothic, vibrantly alive and giving pleasure and inspiration. They are an illuminating prelude to the aesthetic beauties and beasts of the Columbia campus. Founded as King's College under the aegis of Trinity Church in 1754—it was renamed after the Revolution—Columbia, like many New York institutions, slowly moved up Manhattan Island along with the city's population. In 1857 it had made the momentous decision to quit its campus on Park Place in lower Manhattan for a midtown block bounded by Park and Madison Avenues and 49th and 50th Streets.

No sooner had Columbia settled into its new, discreetly Gothic home than its trustees realized that there was no room to expand, given the soaring value of midtown real estate. The college's nearby tract, which became Rockefeller Center, had become far too valuable as income-producing property to use for classrooms and dormitories.

The man whom Columbia College selected as its president in 1890 did not waste time wondering how the college might add a block here or a building there. Seth Low was splendidly equipped to transform the school from a small, somewhat parochial college to a metropolitan university. An 1870 Columbia graduate, he had served two terms as mayor of Brooklyn and would be-come, in 1898, the first mayor of the newly consolidated City of New York. Just 40, he had made a fortune in the family's tea and silk importing business and was now ready to throw his boundless energies into civic concerns. One spur to his ambitions for his alma mater was his embarrassment that a city as big and rich as Gotham had nothing to compare with the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard.

Columbia's search for space coincided with one of the most spectacular migrations in New York's history. Harlem Heights, some 100 feet above sea level, was Manhattan Island's highest point. Its largely undeveloped tracts, stretching from 110th Street to 125th Street between the Hudson River and what became Morningside Park, contained 17 acres occupied by New York Hospital's Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Low saw the opportunity these "four undivided city blocks . . . nobly situated on the crown of the Island" offered, and quickly raised $2 million to purchase them in 1892.

Low was prescient: at that very moment, other august New York institutions were planning to relocate in the vicinity. The year before Columbia purchased the asylum property, the Episcopal Diocese of New York had bought the Leak and Watts Orphan Asylum as a site for the new Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Teachers College, St. Luke's Hospital, Barnard College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary all eventually arrived. In 1897 John H. Duncan's imposing tomb for Ulysses S. Grant rose on a nearby bluff above the Hudson. Thus, in addition to its scholars, priests, rabbis, and doctors, Morningside Heights, as it was renamed, could also claim New York City's only presidential grave. No wonder that by the turn of the century, guidebooks to the city were calling the Heights Gotham's "Acropolis."

Seth Low was determined that the development of Columbia's spacious new site would not be haphazard. His model was the "Academical Village" that Thomas Jefferson had designed for the University of Virginia, consisting, as Jefferson had written in 1810, of "a small lodge for each separate professorship, . . . join[ed] . . . by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole arranged around an open square of grass and trees." Low's desire for a well-ordered campus reflected as well the triumph of Beaux Arts architecture and planning in the United States. Just at the moment that Columbia was mulling over the design for its new campus, the World's Columbian Exposition was taking form in Chicago. With its logical placement of buildings, its classically inspired architecture, and its uniform palette, the White City was a dazzling prototype.

President Low quickly sent letters to Charles C. Haight, Richard Morris Hunt, and Charles F. McKim, the founding partner of the renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White, asking them to work together to develop a comprehensive plan for the campus. Though Low knew all three architects well and had their esteem, this was, to say the least, a quixotic request: they were far too famous to cooperate. Not unexpectedly, each architect presented his own plan. While Haight and Hunt both opted for cloistered complexes vaguely modeled on Oxford, McKim—like Low, an admirer of the University of Virginia—found his inspiration in Jefferson's Academical Village. In addition, McKim brilliantly used the site's uneven topography to give his campus visual vibrancy. The high pink granite walls upon which his buildings sit are sometimes true terraces—necessary because of the slope of the campus—and sometimes merely the base of a building constructed to raise the structure it supports to the level of those buildings higher up the hill. Topped by urns and balustrades, these attractive walls give to the campus the ambiance of grandeur and elegance found in Roman villas.

McKim's Columbia campus differed in an important respect from Jefferson's University of Virginia. Appropriate to his almost rural setting, Jefferson arrayed his buildings in two long rows facing each other across a great lawn that swept down from his "Rotunda" library. McKim arranged his buildings in four groups of four buildings each, forming a series of intimate courts near his library. To the south of the library was to be one larger court closed off by a building on 114th Street, bigger in scale than any other on the campus except the library that it faced. If Jefferson built an Academical Village, McKim's Columbia would be an academic city. To emphasize its links with New York and to underscore its mission to civilize it, McKim oriented his campus south towards the heart of Gotham.

McKim's plan was at one with Jefferson's in the wholehearted belief that the classical was the only appropriate style for schools that would educate the free citizens of a republic. Both Jefferson and McKim heartily embraced what the classical represented, the great tradition of Western civilization springing from its Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman sources. Thus, the unity of the Columbia campus would be achieved by designing all the structures in a style of "pure classical forms expressing in the simplest and most monumental way the purposes to which the buildings were devoted."

Indeed, McKim, whose architect-hero was the restrained Bramante, favored an almost minimalist classicism, whose ultimate power lies in its perfection of scale and the correctness of its details, as in the splendid facades of his Boston Public Library and his Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Whereas his partner, Stanford White, was a flamboyant Gothamite, McKim always remained something of a sober, reflective Pennsylvania Quaker.

Columbia embraced McKim's proposal for the campus not only because it was attractive but also because it was practical. Both Hunt's and Haight's quadrangles had to be built all in one piece, something financially impossible for an institution that had just spent $2 million for real estate. McKim's plan could rise building by building as donors were found. In addition, since almost all of the buildings, except the limestone library, were to be of red brick with limestone trim and embellishments, they were inexpensive compared with the stone structures envisioned by Haight and Hunt. And McKim's plan had one final and delightfully persuasive advantage. His proposal to make each of his buildings slightly different within the same classical framework would make it easier for President Low to attract donors who would want to be remembered with a bit of architectural individualism.

To ensure that the library would take shape exactly as McKim desired and would set an inescapable style for the rest of the campus, Seth Low donated $1 million—one-third of his personal fortune—for its construction in 1895. It was to be a memorial to his father, Abiel Abbot Low, "a merchant who taught his son to value the things for which Columbia stands." The next year, at the dedication ceremony for the new campus, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard proclaimed: "I congratulate the city, too, that its chief university is to have here a setting commensurate with the worth of its intellectual and spiritual influence."

Low Library is an extraordinary architectural manifestation of the intellectual and spiritual beliefs of the founders and sustainers of Columbia. It is essentially a Greek cross, symbolizing the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilization. A true classicist, McKim yearned to have the Columbia campus adorned with statuary: before entering the library, one must pass before Daniel Chester French's Alma Mater, a larger-than-life-sized classical goddess, clothed in a flowing academic gown, with an open book on her lap, and—peeping out from the folds of her drapery on the left side—an owl, the symbol of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. Behind Alma Mater, a row of ten 35-foot-high Ionic columns of Indiana limestone screens the entrance to the library and trumpets the grandeur of Greek civilization. The Ionic order, as any graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts knew, was appropriate to libraries and other edifices relating to arts and letters. Above the screen is no Greek pediment, but a Roman attic, adorned with an inscription telling of the founding of the university under the reign of King George II and, behind it, a thermal window recalling the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, a device that McKim would use later in his magisterial Pennsylvania Station. Capping the composition is a Roman saucer dome, some 73 feet across, the largest ever constructed in America.

Inside, to emphasize again the greatness of Western civilization, a white marble bust of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, dominates the foyer. Low Library's reading room brilliantly echoes Rome's Pantheon, the only complete surviving building from the ancient world. It is an astonishing 105-foot-high octagon, with green granite columns topped by gold-washed bronze capitals. Above are 16 statues of such icons of Western learning as Euripides, Demosthenes, and Sophocles. Arching over all is the dome, painted in a color described by McKim as the midnight blue of the Egyptian sky, with stars upon it. Thus, the library encompassed the ancient Mediterranean world that was the basis of knowledge, as well as the infinite cosmos that it strives to explain.

Alas, McKim's splendid scheme for the Columbia campus was never carried out fully. Only the ensemble formed by Avery, Schermerhorn, and Fayerweather Halls was completed to give an idea of the elegant intimacy that the campus might have possessed. McKim died in 1909, and his last building at Columbia, Hamilton Hall, opened in 1906. Though during the 1920s architects who succeeded McKim did some building in the style and tone that he had set for Columbia, much of the campus remained unbuilt. An aerial photograph of the 1930s shows wide open spaces to the north of Low Library and at the southwest corner of the campus along Broadway, and elsewhere it shows an uninviting scramble of open L- and U-shaped complexes, instead of attractive, human-scale buildings arranged in squares as McKim had planned.

Though Low Library functioned spectacularly as a symbol for Columbia, it was judged a failure as a functioning library. When it reached its designated capacity of 1.5 million volumes, the university claimed that McKim had made "no provision for expansion"—a curious charge, since just to the north of the library was ample space for the most up-to-date stack wing. But Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia's president for the awesome period from 1902 to 1945, determined to build a new library, and when President Butler set his mind to do something, it was usually done. Butler Library, a 1934 creation by James Gamble Rogers, the architect of Yale's delightfully theatrical Harkness Memorial complex, rose on the campus's southern perimeter facing Low. Its bulk shattered the intimate scale that McKim had envisioned for his campus, and its limestone cladding violated his dictate that every structure on campus except for Low Library should be of red brick. But Butler has a number of redeeming qualities, especially its classical design and its screen of 14 Ionic columns that nicely echo those at the entrance of Low. In addition, Butler's facade boldly proclaims that there is a canon, a generally agreed-upon body of great works with which a student must be acquainted before he can be said to be educated. There above the columns, unashamedly, are carved in stone the names of Homer, Herodotus, Cicero, and Virgil, to name but four of the authors of those works.

One reason Butler looks so good is its contrast with the architecture of the buildings that Columbia added to its campus after the Second World War. Harrison and Abromovitz's 1963 Law School, for instance, is on so brutal a scale that its vast balcony seems created for a yet-unborn tyrant and makes Jacques Lipschitz's sculpture in front of it look like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin rolled into one and exploded. The dormitory that Columbia erected to the west of Butler Library in 1959—Carman Hall—has all the attributes of a high-rise housing project slated for demolition, while Uris Hall of 1964, just north of Low Library, is a characterless Brobdingnagian structure whose facade, with all the allure of a crematorium, bespeaks a place where people come not to begin their life's adventure but to end it.

Yet the curious and hopeful fact is that Columbia's administrators, to their credit, have become slowly aware over the past 20 years of the architectural failing of their campus's postwar buildings, with their inhuman scale, their central-planners' rationalism, and their shoddy materials. So when Columbia announced this year that it was going to construct a student center, a facility it long felt it needed for its 7,500 undergraduates, there was reason to be hopeful. To make way for the new structure, the university would tear down Ferris Booth Hall, an awesomely banal 1960 edifice just to the west of Butler Library. There was further reason for opti-mism when the administration assured New Yorkers that the new structure would be "in harmony with the architectural style stamped upon the Columbia campus 100 years ago." But for those who had hoped that Columbia might build something worthy to stand with Low Library or Hamilton Hall—much as the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue had replaced its gimcrack 1960s addition with a sumptuous limestone extension of its elegant French-Gothic Warburg mansion—disappointment lay in wait.

The architect chosen for the new $68 million Alfred Lerner Hall was Bernard Tschumi, dean of Columbia's architecture school, who had made a reputation as a practitioner of "deconstructionist architecture" with projects such as his "Follies" in Paris's Parc de la Villette. He was one of the architects in the 1988 Museum of Modern Art exhibition that first brought deconstructionism to public attention. Though its adherents claim that it is "a style that is not a style," it is indeed a style—one that stems from the constructivist art and architecture that flourished briefly in Russia in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. Deconstructionism in architecture, as in literature, is an attempt to challenge—indeed, to demolish—the accepted norms and standards not just of art but of the entire culture. Mark Wigley, associate curator of the Modern's exhibition, announced that deconstructionism was an attempt to "disturb our thinking about form" and attack the accepted forms of architecture because "architecture is a conservative discipline." As for Bernard Tschumi himself, in What Is Deconstruction? he comes out squarely for a "post-humanist architecture." Post-humanist: a chilling proposition.

In defending their selection of Tschumi, the Columbia administration explained that it did not want to "replicate" Charles F. McKim's buildings—though McKim, like any great architect, never hesitated to draw on the legacy of the past. It also, somewhat defensively, ruled out any postmodern flourishes of pediments or columns. Indeed, recently the university forbade Robert A. M. Stern to use a red brick that would match McKim's material for the new dormitory that he has designed for the university, in favor of an expensive and hard-to-find pale-colored brick that would echo the surrounding neighborhood apartment buildings. So sensitive has the university administration become to charges that it is once more creating an aesthetic disaster with Lerner Hall that any mention of Barbara Geddis's addition to Amsterdam House meets with an instant dismissal of it as "Disneyland architecture." With sublime doublespeak, the Columbia Construction News of April 29, 1997, heralded the fact that "to design Columbia University's new student center, Bernard Tschumi and his project associates, Gurzen Samton, had to solve a paradox: create a building that upholds tradition even as it breaks it."

Tschumi does indeed break, or deconstruct, tradition. Just to show that he knows what he is attacking, the architect has, on the Broadway side of Lerner Hall, designed an urbane brick and limestone facade that blends nicely with its neighbors, Furnald Hall and the Journalism School. Its cornice line rises to the level of the older buildings, and together they form an impressive ensemble. This portion of Lerner will house offices for student organizations, a cinema/assembly hall, and a bookstore.

But it is within the precincts of the campus, adjacent to Butler Library and facing Low, that the trouble begins. Tschumi claims that, in order to be true to the solid-void-solid of McKim's intimate courts, he has broken his building in two. The section near Butler has a facade that is everything the Broadway side is not: it is an agitated, irrational mix of limestone, brick, metal, and glass, in disturbing refutation of the sober (if tongue-in-cheek) classicism of the Broadway side. Here will be housed, among other things, a "24-hour dining/night spot." This section and the Broadway side of the building are supposed to be seen as contemporary versions of McKim's Avery and Fayer-weather Halls. The void between them will be not a courtyard but "The Hub," a crystalline box protected from the elements by a six-story window wall of 12-foot-high panes. Inside, 100-foot-long glass ramps will rise and fall between the two sides of the building, so that the whole structure will look vertiginous from outside, giving the impression of an edifice on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "The Hub" will also be the site of all student mailboxes. The engineer for this technically impressive exercise is none other than the Eiffel Company of Paris, responsible in better days for the Tower. "We want Lerner Hall to re-create the feeling of the Low Library steps on a warm spring afternoon," explains Emily Lloyd, Columbia's executive vice president for administration. The Hub will, according to Ms. Lloyd, help "students, faculty, and staff feel a sense of community and intellectual energy."

The decision not to "replicate" McKim's buildings, not to embellish the facade of Lerner Hall with a pilaster, a pediment, or even the name of a single artist or philosopher or scientist from the ancient or modern world—Galileo, Proust, or even, heaven forbid, McKim—is no mere matter of bricks and mortar. In his brilliant introduction to the reprint of the lavishly illustrated, four-volume Monograph on the Work of McKim, Mead & White, originally published between 1915 and 1920, architectural historian Leland Roth revealed the true cause for the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s: "The classical forms that McKim had evoked in his design for Penn Station had originally lent the building authority; in the building's declining years the very same forms made it suspect."

In other words, McKim's classical vocabulary is just as politically incorrect as those courses in Western civilization that Stanford University unceremoniously dumped in response to the cry: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go!" Down with Aristotle and Athena, with Cicero and columns, with Plato and pediments. The deconstruction—the destruction—of the canon of Western culture includes architecture as well as literature and philosophy. McKim's buildings, Yale art historian George Heard Hamilton wrote, "have become valued civic monuments, providing continuity as well as dignity to our changing urban environments." Dangerous words, those: "valued," "civic," "continuity," "dignity." Their day is past. That is the real lesson of Lerner Hall.

To understand how far things have slithered down the slippery slope, it is instructive to recall Philip Johnson's preface to the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art's deconstructionist exhibition. Deconstructionism, Johnson proclaimed (with his perennial taste for decadence), eschewed perfection and celebrated "violated perfection." What a contrast to the words of the great nineteenth-century critic Matthew Arnold, who, in his seminal essay, Culture and Anarchy, wrote: "But the aspirations of culture, which is the study of perfection, are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they say what they like, is worth saying—has good in it, and more good than bad." But in a world without accepted canons or rules, a world of relativism, how is one to judge what is good and what is bad? And here is the nub. The very essence of deconstructionism and the new curriculum is to let the popular and currect values of the world dictate the values of the academy.

When, in June of 1904, Columbia awarded Charles F. McKim a doctorate of letters, the citation read: "eminent for devotion to the ideals of classic art, for the dignity and stateliness, the refined proportions and studied detail of his works; for the largeness of his conceptions and for consistent avoidance of the fripperies and mannerisms of passing fashions." That is exactly what Arnold meant when he stated the true purpose of a university and of civilization: "But culture indefatigably tries, not to make what each raw person may like the rule by which he fashions himself; but to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful, graceful, and becoming, and to get the raw person to like that."

In a year in which Columbia is celebrating the centennial of its campus with a splendid exhibition, "Mastering McKim's Plan: Columbia's First Century on Morningside Heights," it is lamentable that the university should be raising a structure that will most certainly not instruct its students, those raw persons, in what is beautiful, graceful, and becoming. It is interesting to speculate just what Columbia's students will learn as they, like so many gerbils, scamper across Mr. Tschumi's glass ramps to check their mail within his crystal mall.

 

 


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