The Northwest Corner Building (NWC), Columbia University’s new interdisciplinary research facility for chemistry, biology, engineering, and physics, is the final architectural piece in the school’s 1903 Morningside Heights campus master plan, designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White. The university entrusted the task of designing this final piece of the puzzle to 1996 Pritzker Prize–winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, with his daughter and son-in-law’s firm, Moneo Brock Studio, serving as the design studio. New York–based Davis Brody Bond Aedas participated in the role of associate architect.
Moneo began the design process by acknowledging the contextual weight of the McKim, Mead & White plan. Then he looked five blocks north to the site of the university’s planned 17-acre Manhattanville expansion. This ambitious project has its own master plan—designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—and the Columbia administration expected Moneo to form a conceptual gateway to the new campus and a bridge between the educational architectures of the 19th and 21st centuries.
But there was another challenge, one that was still more daunting. The site, rather than being a vacant lot, was already taken by the Francis S. Levien Gymnasium, a 2,760-seat arena that houses the university’s basketball teams and serves as a rainy-day location for commencement ceremonies. In other words, Moneo was confronted with an intrinsic (and immovable) part of the campus. Constructing the new science facility meant building above and spanning 129 feet over the gym, without penetrating the existing structure at any point.
Working closely with structural engineers from Arup, the design team created a strategy that would meet requirements for 40-foot clear spans in the laboratory bays and auditorium and for the stiff laboratory floors by using diagonal cross-bracing at the perimeter. “The boldest expression of this gesture is given to the library, made completely free of columns and occupying the interstitial space between the roof of the gym below and the mass of the building overhead,” Moneo says.
Simply put, the building’s envelope is a giant steel truss from which spaces in the base—including a library, a café, and a lecture hall—are hung. Such a move could have wreaked havoc on the faÇades, but the designers purposefully incorporated the diagonal bracing as an element of the unitized curtainwall’s design (see Toolbox). This honest expression is apparent in the composition of aluminum fins and façade panels. The campus side to the east is mostly glazed, reinforcing the university’s expansive mission, particularly its evolving cross-disciplinary culture in the sciences.
More than 70,000 square feet of laboratories are located above the stone base. A narrow footprint allows daylight to penetrate deep into the 14-story building. Moneo amplifies the light by creating double-height spaces on the laboratory floors; broad eastern exposure illuminates adjacent mezzanines that house faculty offices and semiprivate student workstations. Gathering spaces pop up around the labs in an effort to encourage mingling by students from different disciplines.
Multiple bridges connect the new building to Pupin Physics Laboratory to the east and Chandler Laboratories to the south; they are cantilevered from the NWC so as not to add additional loads to the older structures.
Throughout the interior, Moneo frames unexpected glimpses of the stately architectural enclave into which his project boldly encroaches, in homage to the classical motifs that define the cloistered campus’s architectural heritage. These views are subtle gestures, but they admit the past into a building that itself looks to the university’s future. “We have been planning this project for 10 years,” explains Joseph Mannino, AIA, associate vice president of Columbia’s Capital Project Management office. Acknowledging that conventional laboratory buildings are hermetically sealed, “the goal was to create public spaces within the building that reflect the university’s openness,” he says.
The café sits 12 feet above street level, offering views up Broadway to the new Manhattanville campus. The gymnasium entrance has been relocated to 120th Street, and a new exterior stair—partially made of recycled granite from the gymnasium’s former exterior—rises 30 feet from the sidewalk to provide a much-needed entry along the main campus’s northern perimeter. Most importantly, the stair activates the new public spaces and will eventually be a vital conduit connecting the Manhattanville campus. The bridge metaphor permeates all aspects of the project; it serves as a thoughtful end to one plan, and a gracious point of entry into a newer one.
The industrial aesthetic of the Northwest Corner Building’s envelope is as complex as it is rational. After considering an infill approach to the façade, Moneo chose instead to develop cladding that is a literal expression of the building’s truss system, giving particular emphasis to the regular distribution of the diagonal bracing.
To this end, the architects selected a unitized curtainwall system of textured, anodized aluminum panels. Fenestration drove the design to a large extent. Where diagonal braces were employed, the panels were opaque; where diagonals were absent, windows were introduced. Much of the façade is covered by extruded aluminum louvers, which serve two purposes: they protect windows from direct sunlight, and act as grilles for air intake.
The elegance of the façade belies the considerable effort of determining exactly where the diagonal braces would occur. After structural necessities for load were established, there remained opportunities for manipulating the structure to serve the architectural design. Arup’s Dan Brodkin, with project architect Jeffrey Brock of Moneo Brock Studio, created a computer model of the structural elements—columns, beams, slabs, openings, and cantilevers. The final result is a leaner structural system with exceptional performance. “The model shows how it’s possible to have fewer pieces working harder, but it also gives the architect control of the resulting geometry,” Brock says.