The Bruised Box
Get in, make your move, and get out fast. It is the first lesson I ever learned in architecture, and it is one that Thom Mayne obviously took to heart in designing his new classroom and lab building for the Cooper Union in New York. He decreed a box, hit it hard with his fist, causing a fissure to open up in the façade and then on the interior. The energy created a diagonal opening that moves from one ground floor corner to a third floor window, then erupts up into a spiraling cavity shot through with stairs and ramps. Everything else about the building is simple, relatively cheap (the whole structure cost $600 a square foot, not bad for Manhattan), and raw.
What Mayne had to let go are many of things we think of as essential to good architecture: a clear entrance, a logical and easily understood circulation pattern, and a composition with bottom, middle, and top, to name just a few elements that most architects think they can’t live without. The 9-story tall, 165,000-square foot structure hides behind a metal mesh wall. It has no hierarchy. Occasional windows pop through because of interior considerations, not to make sense of the structure. At night, you see a random pattern of glazing through the screen. The scrim lifts up to let you enter at the northwest corner, and that’s about it. Oh, yes, there is that big, seemingly illogical indentation in the main façade on Cooper Square. Mayne mumbles something about responding to the trees on the vestigial square opposite, and bowing to the Union Building, Cooper Union’s original home, diagonally opposite, but in reality I think it is just that crack, that wart, that big move that makes the simple and stable into the strange and wondrous.
The true moment of wonder, though, is on the inside, where the concrete staircase reaches up towards the light, with a hand-built, but computer-designed deformed grid sweeping along for no apparent reason but to define this overblown circulation element as a space. Look up, and you see GRFC panels cladding the various secondary connective devices that tie the stacks of classes, laboratories and offices together in a completely non-logical manner. Mayne even restricted the elevator stops to just a few floors to force you to move around. You can’t get anywhere from anywhere without negotiating the crack, the built flaw that makes it and you work.
And that is the design’s final logic: it creates spaces for informal movement and gathering that define the very fact of coming together to learn—as opposed to just reading information on a screen—and then make that act into a visible, tactile icon. Mayne made one move: he built collective identity.
You can find historic precedents for central circulation patterns in universities and for majestic gathering spaces in places such a churches (the corkscrew brings to mind certain baroque churches, for one), but these were always about order, statics, and coherence. This is a building for a world of Facebook and WiFi, for episodes rather than epics, for learning with a latte rather than by rote in a row of desks. Frankly, it ain’t pretty, this bruised box, but it is pretty exciting. It gives you hope that out of the informal sprawl that is our society is becoming we can wrest at least one wondrous moment.