The New School University Center / March 01, 2014

A block to the west of Union Square stands the newest addition to the New School‘s urban campus, the SOM designed University Center. The Center is the latest in New York City‘s recent academic building boom, in which almost every major institution is adding to their campus. Since its founding in 1919, the New School‘s campus has grown as a multi-building network of schools that are concentrated in the Union Square neighborhood with several buildings spreading out to the east and west and two buildings further uptown. In order to provide a central hub for its 10,000 degree-seeking students and faculty of all disciplines to centrally connect, collaborate and live, the New School has developed the University Center.

The massing of the building employs the classic New York typology, driven by zoning regulations, of volumes that step back from the street wall as the height increases. A full site base volume houses the academic and performance spaces while the upper volume accommodates the residential student housing in its smaller floor plates. Covering both volumes is a mixture of glass and the dominate chocolate brown of the muntz metal, which echoes the brown of the First Presbyterian Church (Joseph C. Wells, 1845) to the southwest. Muntz metal is a type of brass composed of about 60% copper and 40% zinc that is both cost effective and durable compared to other metals of a similar hue.

The academic volume is visually dominated by the strongest architectural concept, the grand stair and the egress stair that have been pushed to the building‘s periphery and run in a parallel stack. This relocation opens up a building feature often concealed by interior location or the demands of life safety code, which requires two stairs which can withstand the effects of a fire for a period of time to allow building occupants a safe exit. On the facade, the stair registers as a dynamic, diagonal gash that erodes the opaque walls with faceted glass like an 8 bit termite swarm eating its way around the building. Not merely an aesthetic flourish, the concept seeks to address the real challenges of providing adequate vertical circulation for academic buildings which, unlike residential or office with its more concentrated periods of peak usage, have to accommodate hourly fluctuations as students and faculty migrate from class to class within the building. In the University Center, a skip stop elevator strategy encourages building occupants to utilize the stairs by confining elevator stops to every other floor, requiring the use of stairs for the floor above or below. The openness and novelty of the grand stair at the periphery rewards the occupant for the more active and energy efficient means of circulation.

At the top floor of the academic volume and the termination of the grand stair lies the Center‘s library and student study area, the Arnhold Forum. Occupying two floors, the library culminates in the first setback floor of the residential tower, where a Mathews Nielsen designed landscape provides a sustainable solution for rain water runoff and a tranquil foil to the urban panorama on view from the large expanses of glass.

Also present in the library, as in other floors of academic spaces, the grand stair‘s railing makes a strong presence in the space as a solid concrete faceted form that alters its shape from wall to bench, affording social engagement and transforming a mundane detail into a sculptural installation. The mechanical systems also impact the academic spaces with an artistic flair from the air ducts that double as sculpture by the American artist, Rita McBride.

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Students and faculty find the same level of thoughtfulness in design and function in the 57 classrooms and supporting hallways which they will spend the greatest amount of time in. Each hallway is painted a different color, from the walls and storage lockers to the exposed mechanical pipes and ducts running along the ceiling. The specific color continues into the classrooms from the sprinkler pipe, while the remaining elements of the exposed mechanical systems and the walls are a neutral white. These classrooms are work spaces that remain flexible and raw to meet any future needs.

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At the base of Center resides the most public programs of the Event Cafe and the John L. Tishman Auditorium, an 800 seat theater that can transform to accommodate dramatically different events. With the help of 18 electric lifts, the auditorium can reconfigure itself from a theater for dramatic performances to a lecture hall to a runway for fashion shows. A connection is maintained to the other occupants in the building with a tall vertical window along the side of the hall that allows people in the hallway to catch a glimpse of the activities on stage.

The iconic impact of the stair on both exterior and interior is matched by the building‘s signage and way-finding system, utilizing a typeface specially designed for the building by the Franco-Swiss graphic designer Ruedi Baur. A three dimensional typography has been created from a basis of the typeface Gotham and Irma that plays off of the iconic architectural elements on the exterior facade. Also included in the way-finding design is a graphic architectural element that acts as a logo for the building and is applied to the many glass interior partitions to satisfy the requirement for visual indicators of glass to occupants to avoid accidental collisions.

Kerrey Hall, the approximately 600 bed residential dormitory on the setback tower of floors 8-16, loses the intricate facets and folds of the grand stair for a more uniform envelope of metal and glass horizontal stripes. Though the reduction in floor plates for the dormitory is necessitated by zoning regulations and the standard dimensions of housing units, the tower‘s stripped down language of form and skin makes it feel like an afterthought tacked onto the more defined architectural language of the academic building‘s folds and facets. 

With the completion of the University Center, the New School has built a new academic and social hub for their student body that also engages the neighborhood and its architectural heritage. As academic institutions continue their expansion projects in New York City in the coming years, lessons can be learned from the level of community engagement, implementation of sustainable strategies, and quality of design that have guided the New School in their development.