Field Review: Campbell Sports Center / Steven Holl Architects
 The corner of Broadway and West 218th Street.

The corner of Broadway and West 218th Street.

Architects: Steven Holl Architects

Location: Inwood, New York, NY, USA

Year: 2013

Area:  47,996 sq ft

With a quick twenty minute trip on the 1 line from Columbia University’s main campus in Morningside Heights to the upper limits of the island in Inwood, you can reach the newest addition to the university’s growing collection of contemporary academic architecture. While much of the university’s focus for expansion has centered around the fringes of the Morningside campus and the long term master plan in Manhattanville, the athletic facilities at the Baker Sports Complex in Inwood have been undergoing their own revitalization and expansion over the past decade. The complex includes facilities to support all manner of outdoor sports at Columbia including a football stadium, soccer stadium, softball field, field hockey venue, and tennis courts. Given the haphazard accumulation of these athletic facilities over the past century, there has been a lack of cohesion and identity that Columbia’s facilities upgrades in the past decade have sought to overcome. Now, the university has built an iconic structure designed by Steven Holl that serves as a figurative and literal gateway to this vast collection of upgraded athletic facilities, the Campbell Sports Center. 

The center is first glimpsed from the platform of the elevated subway track at the 215th St station, the last stop at the northern edge of Manhattan before crossing the Broadway Bridge and entering the Bronx. It’s an easy building to casually overlook from the vantage point of the subway platform given the cacophony of building types and infrastructure that bound the urban site. To the right of the elevated subway tracks lies the predominantly industrial zone of low rise buildings that support the city’s transportation infrastructure: the 207th Street Subway Yard, the MTA’s Kingsbridge Bus Depot, a Department of Sanitation garage, an NYC Human Resources Administration office, and a handful of automotive repair shops. To the left lies more repair shops, a gas station, a used car lot, a single story convenience store, and low rise brick residential buildings of no more than ten stories.

As you descend to the street level, crossing underneath the elevated tracks  to walk north towards the Center, the visual clutter of its surroundings starts to recede and the building begins to further reveal itself. The first visible impression at street level is the corner of the building at Broadway and West 218th Street which anchors it to the site with its solidity and elemental form. Given the closeness of the elevated tracks along the Broadway elevation, the pedestrian experience at the corner is poor and opportunities for natural daylighting are limited. Therefore, subtle massing moves are employed that are meant to be perceived by the approaching pedestrian. The ground floor sets back from the exterior facade and features a filleted corner that creates a convex shadow from the sharp corner of the volume of the building above. Sunlight and views are focused on the Broadway elevation by a single, double­ height glazed opening flush to the exterior wall. A solid volume at the top of the building thrusts upwards, creating a glazed space below and a shallow outdoor balcony.

 Detail of corner overhang at second floor.

Detail of corner overhang at second floor.

As you arrive at the building, the solidity and subtlety of the corner gives way to the increasingly porous and active southern facade as it leads towards the entry of the sports complex. The opaque solidity of the ground floor is punctuated by the large floor to ceiling glazed wall of the entry lobby that creases inward, producing a dramatic shadow line. Above this element the wall openings are articulated as deep recesses that receive the play of shadows throughout the day as the sun’s rays travel from east to west. These recesses are activated by exterior stairs that allow movement from one level to the next and offer moments to linger outside from small balconies at the landings.  A New Yorker will certainly recognize this visual reference to the ubiquitous New York fire escape that Holl is employing as an activating strategy for the facade.

 Circulation expressed on the exterior facade along West 218th Street.

Circulation expressed on the exterior facade along West 218th Street.

At the western end of the structure, the building lifts off the site on stilts of slender metal columns to create a dramatic entry into the sports complex. H columns mix with rounded tubes that are dynamically slanted to suggest the motion of the athletes that pass underneath to enter or exit the playing fields. The eroded corner and columns frames a dramatic composition of building, site, and the city beyond.  In the immediate foreground, the site gradually transitions upwards to the athletic fields in steps of grass.  Echoing the primary public facade’s stair element, a long stair of similar articulation cuts diagonally across the composition, allowing players and coaching staff to head directly to the playing fields from the building.  Completing the composition and linking the building to its larger urban context, the Broadway Bridge rises above the fields beyond.

 West elevation from West 218th Street.

West elevation from West 218th Street.

Holl’s material selection for the Campbell Sports Center serves a multitude of functions, tying the building to its site while providing an identity that reinforces the institution’s brand.  Clad in light grey, from the perforated metal of the ground floor and stair rails to the smooth panels of the upper floors, the exterior wall latches onto the infrastructural palette of its surroundings like a chameleon.  It’s the grey of the subway cars that flow past the site on their way to or from the Broadway Bridge and its echo of grey metal structure.  The metal panels even respond to sunlight in a similar manner as the bridge, acquiring an orange glow at the setting sun of dusk.  One can also associate the grey metal along with the blue metal panels that accent the underside of the building with Columbia University’s school colors, as if the structure itself has donned a uniform and joined the team.  Glass is the other dominate material, helping to frame the the surrounding context of athletic fields and urban neighborhood to users inside the building while revealing the inner activity to pedestrians outside. For most people, the exhibition provided by the interior lighting and large glazed openings will be their only experience of the building’s interior as it is a private facility for the student athletes and staff of the University.

 Sanded aluminum facade and cantilever.

Sanded aluminum facade and cantilever.

Though Steven Holl has been practicing architecture for over 30 years, the Campbell Sports Center is his first freestanding built structure in the city of New York, preceded only by the facade replacement of the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1993 with Vito Acconci.  While the practice has found success with a broad range of projects, in both typology and scale, from the newly completed mixed use complex, the Sliced Porosity Block, in Chengdu, China to the design of the Virginia Commonwealth University Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, Virginia, Holl’s home has eluded him until now. Columbia’s selection of Holl, an architect who has focused his theoretical investigations and practice on issues of site, is a deft move by a university with a history of contentious building projects and currently undertaking a multi-decade expansion of its Morningside campus that has sparked lawsuits and community ire.

For Columbia, this project will be the first new athletic building constructed since the Marcellus Hartley Dodge Physical Fitness Center in 1974.  That project was born out of the contentious fight over the University’s proposal to build the Morningside Park Gymnasium in 1968 that sparked student riots on campus and was eventually cancelled.  Columbia had proposed a building near 112th Street in Morningside Park that would serve as the gym for the University community on the upper levels and a gym for the residents of the  surrounding Harlem neighborhood on the lower levels.  This development was perceived by students as constructed segregation by the University and further fueled the riots on campus that were already coalescing around the generational contentions of the larger, global event of the Vietnam War.

At present, Columbia is constructing the first phase of its 17 acre Manhattanville Campus expansion just north of the main campus.  When completed in 2030, the university will have added 6.8 million square feet to its already vast citywide presence.  Bounded by 125th and 133rd Streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, the area was formerly home to numerous industrial structures.  The process to acquire the land needed for the development has been fraught with problems for Columbia as the community has fought the resultant gentrification and holdout landowners have led to lawsuits over eminent domain.

Amidst the community turmoil, Columbia has sought to ease the strain of expansion with Holl’s nuanced take on context.  His work has been branded with a broad array of contemporary styles from Critical Regionalism to Post Modernist mostly because of his concern for site in his theoretical writings and in practice.  Though this may suggest mere reproduction of the found condition, Holl seeks a reinterpretation of site. For Holl, the site holds great importance to the architecture that follows: “The site of a building is more than a mere ingredient in its conception. It is its physical and metaphysical foundation… Through a link, an extended motive, a building is more than something merely fashioned for the site… Architecture and site should have an experiential connection, a metaphysical link, a poetic link.” (Holl, S., 1989, pg. 9)  Current trends in architecture schools and international competitions have favored the alien forms of the matured offspring of turn of the century blob architecture.  In these projects, the site often seems of secondary importance to the  algorithm driving the complex facade. For Holl, there is a quest to root an alien form in its context so that as you get to know it you realize it’s not so foreign after all.

Though the Campbell may be located away from the more familiar and traversed neighborhoods of Manhattan, Holl has given the city a much overdo addition to its architectural cannon. At times subtle, contradicting, and dramatic, it’s a perfect fit for a complex and dynamic corner in the city.