There was a time not long ago when a building such as TEN Arquitectos’ new business school for Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., might have gotten by on its crisp good looks and structural exhibitionism alone. As a taste for such things took hold overseas in years past—and as an architecture of seductively picturesque risk increasingly became the norm—aesthetically and fiscally conservative America lagged very far behind.
We were deprived then, as the late Herbert Muschamp often noted, of examples of this nascent architecture of “desire.” It followed that desirous critics were often moved to give a pass to the few projects in that contemporary mode that did get built here: A delight in a building’s boldness and apparent novelty trumped any concerns about the means deployed and sacrifices made to realize the desired effects.
Thankfully, that time has passed: We’ve all seen this stuff before.
So let’s ignore for the moment the wide, bent, road-spanning bridge of Enrique Norten’s business school building; the 10 cheekily canted columns that hold the top floor in place 60 feet in the air as it travels between anchoring wings; the frank baring of its photo-white bones through glass walls where the building faces the exurban satellite campus for which it serves as icon and gate; the racy texturing of the opaque skin and the resulting near-total blindness of the building where it faces away.
Let’s ignore every camera-friendly move that, before we became inured through overexposure, might have made us say “Wow” or “Cool” or even “Gee whiz! I want that”—noting, however, that the greatest pressure on a design to incorporate such features is, very often, the mercantile drive to elicit those exact feelings of transient awe and desire. First from clients, to secure the buy-in; then from donors, to secure the funds; later to aid in capturing the attention of harried editors and impressionable writers; eventually, perhaps, to dazzle colleagues; and, always, to arrest the consuming gaze of civilians—future clients!—as they flip through a magazine like this one.
By that standard, this is a job well done. And as such it is typical of the work of Norten’s firm, which thoughtfully uses novel forms and suites of effects. “We didn’t want another box in the landscape,” says Norten, Hon. FAIA, of a landscape for which his firm began preparing the master plan in 2009. And he didn’t give his clients a box, outside, or in. To the architects’ great credit, the interior spaces of the building are in fact very cool.
And functionally so. The trend among contemporary business schools is to give precedence to spaces for collaborative work. Here, those “non-programmed” spaces, as Norten calls them, generate the logic of the whole. A series of open lounges and labs, and a stack of conference rooms enclosed by fogged glass, inhabit a tall, narrow zone just behind the fully glazed, amply fritted, campus-facing wall of the main wing. Then—across a light-giving slot—offices and small classrooms are hung in a second discrete volume, the exposed surfaces of which are wrapped in shiny black-plastic sheets studded with little pyramids. That funky material also marks one side of the main corridor in an abutting third zone, where elevators, plumbing, larger classrooms, and the school’s enormous main auditorium find their home, backing up to the building’s great, blind wall facing the outside world.
It’s a smart organization of space, and one that is readily apparent coming in the front door, past the sitting area and greeting desk, where the gently sloped main stair—designed, and used, for gathering—takes you up two levels to nearly meet the ceiling in an intelligently, even lovingly, compressed lounge area. It’s the first of so many examples, from the airy platforms opening off the suspended stairs that knit the “non-programmed” zones together so well, to the more formal resting nooks, with their carved Corian benches, that are to be found outside the smaller classrooms within the carefully scaled, black-wrapped middle zone.
“We were always trying to find little opportunities for people to just sit and be there,” Norten says. And in that he and his team have succeeded; the building is alive inside, and the students are taking the architects’ cues and running with them.
There is always a “but” in this sort of building, where glamour has a voice in the process of design, where the production of desire, the ensorcelling of clients or donors or press, however useful in the early stages of a project, is given shape and made permanent in the construction itself. Now we return to the big move: that big bridge up there on its big, beautiful columns. From the road, approaching, and especially when rounding the traffic circle as one prepares to take the turn in, and under, and through, that feature of the building does an excellent job of signposting the campus—as it was intended to do, serving here the broader purposes of TEN Arquitectos’ master plan.
But having carved that space out of the larger mass to give the building such an eye-catching roadside presence, there must also have been an incredible pressure to use that portico to aggrandize the pedestrian entrance—placing it there even if parking is elsewhere and not easily reached, and even if students will approach the building from the opposite direction (toward the glazed elevations that face the center of campus).
So we have here really two buildings, interpenetrating: A grandiose one, its forms derived in part by the need to impress through images, generating an architecture that has mostly served its purpose before the groundbreaking. And living under the same roof—gaining little benefit from the drama outside—a neat, bright, smart series of accommodating spaces. It is a building that seems well-tempered to the needs of its users, apart from the nagging suspicion that, after paying the price charged for an architecture of desire, they will be inclined to sneak in through the back door. —Philip Nobel