It's a long way to the top of Manhattan. Geographically, in the case of the patch of land bordered by 218th Street and Broadway and by the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, where Columbia University's sports fields and stadium have been situated since 1922: It’s just one long field goal away from the Bronx. And it’s a long way up metaphorically, too, in this city of ambition wherein overnight success—especially in architectural careers—tends to take a lifetime.
Geography and its metaphors have figured largely in the work of New York architect Steven Holl, FAIA, and they converge superbly at the Campbell Sports Center, his new field house for Columbia University. The silvery aluminum-clad structure houses student-athlete study rooms, coaching offices, and a 6000-square-foot gymnasium, , along with an auditorium, hospitality suite, and lounge. A robust steel structure of I-beam orthogonals and tubular diagonals minimizes moment connections. The structure enables a notably lightweight steel tonnage for a building of this scale, evoking the picturesquely industrial iron and steel of the adjacent elevated subway tracks and Broadway Bridge, especially below the the elevated wing that positions the hospitality suite and lounge high above the fields.
There's a touch of Constructivism in the expression of the tilted auditorium volume five stories above the Broadway corner, and in the overhanging exterior stairs. But also a straightforward competence in the use of these elements as solar shading on the South facade, and the use of residual space under the tilt for a conference room and terraces. The bare-bones steel (left exposed and uncoated, thanks to an application of fire codes that operationally isolates the ground service floor from the gymnasium piano nobile above) is echoed in no-nonsense interior finishes and furnishings. Exposed air ducts and electrical conduits and fin-tube radiators and sprinkler pipes flow unashamedly throughout, echoed by the gratifyingly narrow-diameter galvanized handrails along the many stairs and overlooks. Enclosing some 48,000 square feet at a reported $30 million budget, the building looks thoughtfully economical—but never cheap.
These strategies are similar to those used by Thom Mayne, FAIA, at his recent building for New York's Cooper Union,a tech-heavy 175,000 square feet of labs and classrooms at a reported $150 million.There, a perforated metal rainscreen skin gives a monumentally expensive aspect to the exterior, while inside a value-engineered aesthetic of concrete plank and cable trays prevails. But while Mayne seemed to save his pennies in order to squander them on an exorbitantly photogenic staircase and a polemical flourish on the façade, Holl's building demonstrates greater confidence in its effects. While Holl's publicity materials theorize his building as an essay in points and lines—something about mind and body and football Xs and Os—it's more substantively understood as a constellation of smart decisions: elevating that wing to preserve sightlines between streetscape and landscape, grounding the building at the heavy-seeming Broadway corner, positioning the gymnasium floor as sectionally coplanar with the playing fields, choreographing fenestration and circulation to maximize oblique views between city and campus. Each component contributes to a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. As in any winning team.
At the top of the highest staircase, a square-yard of drywall has been excised to reveal the robust flange joint between the I-beam frame and one of those tensile tubular diagonals: a sweet slab of steel studded with bolt heads, delicately shimmering with the aluminum coating that's been applied to most of the structural components. "Steven saw that during a construction walk-through," recalled design partner Chris McVoy during a recent preview, "and we knew we couldn't cover it up." The result, in combination with a similarly-scaled, similarly-opportunistic opening that sheds a square of pure Vermeer light on a nearby wall, is a vignette worthy of Walter Pichler, Lebbeus Woods, Raimund Abraham, John Hejduk: all the old gods.
In a lesser building such a detail would seem like look-at-me preening, but here it registers more as a confession—courageous in our age of ironic hipsterism—of the sporting virtues of enthusiasm, effort, and execution. Other ingenious details (the handrail that becomes a bench, the security desk that becomes a stair landing, the rendering of exterior soffits in a Colonial sky blue) evince the same how-about-this delight. Many architects of the generation slightly ahead of Holl now propel work in which their surnames (Gehry, Piano) seem to figure more than their personal touch. The opposite seems ever more true of Holl, perhaps because with an uneven body of work unified mostly by his lovely post-rationalizing watercolor drawings, Holl still has more to prove. Or perhaps because, with the wisdom of experience, he is simply and steadily becoming a still better architect. The Campell Sports Center is the straightforwardly beautiful and functional work of a veteran who is at last—some would say at long last—reaching the very top of his game.