Sometimes, architectural complexity comes in a simple form, even a box. The Diana Center, designed by New York–based Weiss/Manfredi for Barnard College, looks simple: a five-story glass prism served straight-up. Its terra-cotta color matches the largely brick Barnard and Columbia University campuses, which face each other across Broadway.

A closer reading, however, reveals a narrative of complexity. The façade is paneled in glass, but not in a display of transparency for transparency’s sake: Some panels have a graduated frit; others are shadow boxes, with space between a translucent glass outer layer and a second opaque inner layer. The functions inside the building establish whether the panels will be opaque, transparent, or something in between. A swath of transparent glass rises diagonally up the Broadway façade, revealing a stepped, four-story atrium full of activity.

In 2003, the architects won an invited competition to design the building as a student center, with classrooms and studios devoted to art, art history, architecture, and theater. The college wanted a mixed-use building whose circulation and adjacencies would help catalyze interaction between students, faculty, and the various disciplines.

The architects—the firm’s full name is Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism—acted as their own consultants, applying their several disciplines simultaneously. They developed the site, landscape, and plans together as an integrated and complex whole.

The former building on the site, the McIntosh Center, was built in 1969, when institutions that were then allergic to the city walled themselves off self-protectively. The fortresslike building even divided the campus, with a front plaza and a daunting flight of stairs higher than Milbank Hall—the oldest structure on campus—next door.

Weiss/Manfredi’s design was urbanistically corrective. The glass façade, which meets the street, invites the urban gaze into the building. A front door along Broadway serves a café, as well as a black-box theater and an elegant, wood-paneled event oval, both on basement levels.

On the campus side of the building, the architects struck a sight line from the entrance of Milbank Hall across Lehman Lawn to the campus’ famous wrought-iron gate, resulting in a wedge-shaped plaza that sliced the seven-story prism into a wedge. The architects landscaped the plaza into grassed terraces stepping down gently from the lawn to the Milbank courtyard. They also invited the landscape up into the building: A terrace adjoining the lawn leads into the café, and then up the open tiers to the second-floor dining room, third-floor reading room, and fourth-floor gallery. The terraced spaces are all transparent to each other, and to views from the lawn. The building remains public all the way to the grassed roof (the architects are targeting LEED Silver certification).

The landscape and building are both sectional ladders of student life. The façades are always occupied. “The students own the building,” design partner Marion Weiss says.

The building that shifts vertically in section also shifts horizontally: Nowhere is the plan simply extruded. A wandering, glass-enclosed fire stair steps up the west façade, meandering in and out of the building’s floor plate, and the rooms expand and contract throughout the building according to programmatic necessity.

The architects have created a gesammtkunstwerk, a design addressing urbanism, architecture, landscape, and social life. And that design addresses both the big picture and the small: The hazy quality of the shadow box façade panels is echoed in translucent resin tabletops.

The building’s character is both urban and urbane. The scale is generous, and the sequence of spaces both civilized in its processional quality, and experiential in the way it unfolds. Above all, the building that replaced McIntosh Center did not do so by reiterating what design partner Michael A. Manfredi calls “the clichés of historicism—cornice lines, brick, trim.” The architects looked forward rather than back, and so set the best possible example for students exploring their own creativity.

Project Credits
Project The Diana Center, New York
Client/Owner Barnard College—Lisa Gamsu (vice president for administration/project manager)
Owner’s Representatives Roland L. Ferrera and Patrick Muldoon
Architect and Interior Designer Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, New York—Marion Weiss and Michael A. Manfredi (design partners); Mike Harshman (project manager); Clifton Balch, Kim Nun and Yehre Suh (project architects); Michael Blasberg, Beth Eckels, Hamilton Hadden, Patrick Hazari, Todd Hoehn, Bryan Kelley, Justin Kwok, Lee Lim, Nick Shipes, Michael Steiner (design team); Patrick Armacost, Kian Goh, Jason Ro, Yehre Suh, and Tae-Young Yoon (predesign team)
M/E/P/FP/Vertical Transportation Engineering Consultant Jaros, Baum & Bolles
Structural Engineer Severud Associates
Civil Engineer Langan Engineering and Environmental Services
Construction Manager/General Contractor Bovis Lend Lease
Landscape Architecture Consultants HM White SA
Lighting Designer Brandston Partnership
Curtain Wall Consultant R.A. Heintges Architects Consultants
AV/IT/General Acoustics/Security Consultants Cerami & Associates with TM Technology Partners
Food Service Consultant Ricca Newmark Design
Retail Consultant Jeanne Giordano
Cost Estimator AMIS
Sustainability Consultant Viridian Energy & Environmental
Theatre Consultant Fisher Dachs Associates
Theatre Acoustic Consultant Jaff eHolden Acoustics
Size 98,000 square feet
Construction Cost $57 million

Materials & Sources
Carpet: Bentley Prince Street
Exterior Wall Systems: Architectural Glazing Technologies, Enterprise Architectural Sales
Fabrics: Maharam, Designtex, Unika Vaev
Glass: Oldcastle (Interior); Goldray (Exterior)
Lighting Controls: Lutron Electronics
Site and Landscape Products: Dubner