August 12, 2009

The New Cooper Union and the Mechanics of Architecture

by Uriel Ortega

Walking around the streets of the East Village in lower Manhattan and it's hard to miss the newly renovated Cooper Union building, a machine-like structure that appears so out of-context that its surroundings suddenly seem to fade away. A vision that intuitively makes one approach with caution, as if the machine, the building, were to transform into something broader, taller, and otherworldly and catapult the East Village into a frenzied darkness. This fleeting feeling is merely a mirage, the building does not transform itself, though it has the ability to transform your sensibilities to an architecture that is not immediately digestible. The new Cooper Union academic building, designed by the architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis, will, without a doubt, transform Cooper Square, but what it achieves on a grander level is reform our understanding of that quiescent relationship between building envelope and public space, that contiguous zone around every building that is too often overlooked.

Anchoring the east side of the square, the new Cooper manages to moderately engage that ignored, awkward space, creating a playful buffer between the enclosure and the sidewalk. Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati comes to mind as a recent example of an architecture that successfully­­­­­­­­­­­­ blurs the inside/outside relationship - that unites public and private urban space. In her design a concrete wall lines the entire length of the interior and emerges past a glass enclosed lobby, living simultaneously inside and out. Separated solely by a thin transparent plane, the wall is further articulated to morph into the ground to become a piece of the urban landscape, a swoop and gesture that made skateboarders rejoice. However, the new Cooper isn’t quite as poetic as Hadid’s Arts Center, rather it is forceful and abrasive. Diagonal columns vigorously emerge from the body of the building and crash into the sidewalk floor as they interlock and converge with other columns. These structural elements slice up the urban fabric and create smaller scaled pockets of space between themselves and the enclosed ground level. This interaction is done at such a restrained and sophisticated level that it succeeds in merely suggesting, but not completely promoting, human interaction. Furthermore, by allowing the structure to exist outside, the building has avoided becoming a heavy architectural manifestation that sits static, like a motionless, industrial lump. With its structure in consequential tension, and despite its heavy presence, this machine appears to rest lightly on the site. What the new Cooper evokes is the appearance of having been built in reverse - assembled down to the ground and not from the ground-up. Almost like a nest, the sticks of concrete seem to have been dropped into a metal box, tumbling and settling into their final and steady position.

The building sits on its own lot, with no immediate adjacency to other buildings, a rare treat in the built environment of New York. Above ground level, a vast sea of densely perforated steel panels shelters the inner world of the new Cooper from the neighborhood, or perhaps it’s the other way around. This screen behaves like a skin that wraps the structural diagonals that pierce into the innards of the building’s body. It becomes a delicate system of metal that presents itself as thick, heavy and impenetrable. Perhaps this is why the restricted openings through the skin allude to forceful cuts or gashes - the few places where windows emerge unprotected by the enclosing metal. Throughout most of the building views in from the outside are seemingly impossible while windows hidden behind the skin enjoy views of the day lit surroundings. This effect is reversed at night as illuminated interior studios glow through the mesh and animate the facade.

The main gash, on the façade that fronts Cooper Square, is a significant vertical wound that branches off into two opposing horizontals, revealing the inner anatomy of glass and concrete. This opening is one of the very few moments where viewers are allowed to glance into the heart of this machine - revealing segments of those diagonal concrete sticks and the intricate circulation structure. While the primary façade folds and distorts along its wounds, the other three facades remain static and unfortunately flat. Without any folds or creases, and when the sun hides behind the clouds, the skin takes on the appearance of solid concrete. In the end, what spares these relentless facades from banality is the applied sub-system of smaller, coated rectangles that corner some of the screen panels. It is a moderate system that assists in humanizing the buildings by creating a human-scaled element that visitors and passers-by can relate to. As a unique side effect, when the sun pierces through the clouds, these coated rectangles have the same reflective quality as water, giving a new life to the facade.

Reflection, both literal and metaphysical, must play an important role if this design is to coexist with a neighborhood that is unfamiliar with this type of architecture. At the rear of the building is a framed opening that strategically reflects the dome of an adjacent temple. So when at first this machine, this building made its surroundings disappear, now glimpses reappear as elements of the design, if only briefly. It is these few moments that permit this building to succeed as a contemporary work of architecture rooted in context, and prevent it from becoming another in a seemingly endless line of self-indulgent designs by architects thoroughly obsessed with form and aesthetic. Unlike Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, another highly publicized design appearing gravely alien to its surroundings, the new Cooper has at least managed to somewhat reflect its surroundings and create an architecture with layered intricacy, external references and substance. The aesthetic Thom Mayne introduces to New York with the new Cooper seems more suited to this urban environment than to the sprawling cities of the West Coast, where the majority of his oeuvre is concentrated. The highly layered approach to architecture, the non-iconic, and the non-box feels somewhat at home in the East Village, a place of richly veneered creative and dynamic energy - a place with an intricate layered history.

The new Cooper inhabits a cool gray area, a dualistic space of identity. It is formless, yet formed. Able to be both exclusive and inclusive, it is a work of architecture that presses outward and pulls inward. Even though some have already labelled it an eyesore, it has undoubtedly brought a freshness to an area that was content with the status quo. Some have even likened it to a car wreck, but oh, what a car wreck that must have been! Even with its imperfections, it flaunts its dents and gashes with pride, anticipating your personal, and the surrounding neighborhood's metamorphosis.


August 7, 2009

Video: 555 Kubik Facade Projection

It is remarkable how much a building can transform with a seemingly simple projection. These digital artists have completely refashioned the architecture of the Hamburg Kunsthalle designed by O.M. Ungers. The projection adds life, depth and a touch of humor to the typically static architecture. I wonder if this is perhaps an answer to the plethora of drab buildings that overwhelm our cities. The main drawback is it is only really viewable after the sun sets but still might be an affordable solution to giving some of our inherited architecture a much need face-lift. I don't mean to suggest that this particular building is poorly designed but more that this technique has vast potential.


August 4, 2009

Video: Turning the Place Over - by Richard Wilson

The British artist Richard Wilson creates art that is closely related to architectural themes. One of his most famous pieces "20:50" became a defining work of the genre of site-specific installation art. He filled an entire room half way with highly reflective oil creating a space that was disorienting, with the illusion of the room being flipped upside down. He continues to create large scale installations that bridge the gap between art and architecture. Created in 2007, the piece shown below titled "Turning the Place Over" is a fascinating contraption where he sliced an 8 meter diameter hole in the facade of a liverpool office building and attached it to a motor that slowly revolved the disc and turns the hole inside out. It was an ambitious undertaking and a striking work of art.


August 3, 2009

The Warsaw University Library

by Lucas Gray

Warsaw is more emblematic of a post-war reconstruction metropolis than a city boasting a plethora of sustainable design, yet hidden in the urban fabric are a few inspiring examples of environmentally responsible architecture. The Warsaw University Library in particular, demonstrates a bold commitment to sustainable design rarely seen even in the most progressive cities. The building showcases a remarkable blend of technology, aesthetics and function with wonderful integration of plantlife as an integral part of the architecture. Within the structure vines have been integrated into a four story atrium while the building's rooftop has been converted into a maze of garden paths and playfully flying catwalks. From within and without the building is overflowing with life, making nature a vital element of the building's expression and thus clearly demonstrating the architect's aspirations of making a building that is fully integrated into its surroundings.

Designed by Marek Budzyński & Zbigniew Badowski with the landscape by Irena Bajerska, The Warsaw University Library is located east of the city center, falling between the main university campus and the banks of the meandering Vistula River. Awarded the project through a design competition, the architects presented a concept of a multi-use building being a "City in the Woods." The building is split into two parts, an office and commercial block along the street separated from the main library functions by a four story internal street. These forms are then placed within an elaborately designed garden that flows up the sides on onto the accessible roof. The covered atrium acts as the main circulation space that links to two main entrances while providing an animated social environment fed by book shops, cafes, student art and casual gathering spaces. The concrete walls of the atrium incorporate green copper trellices, oxidized copper being a primary material throughout the design, that support a burst of life as leafy vines creep up and overwhelm the space. Biomimicry is used throughout the building as a defining characteristic, influencing the form of the structural system as well as decorative motives in the detailing. As you explore the building you get flashbacks of Art Nouveau in its heyday combined with the clean forms of concrete and glass reminiscent of Vancouver Library Square by Moshe Safdie.

One of the defining characteristics of the design's interior is the visualization of the mechanical systems and exposure of the structure. Ventilation is tastefully exposed as is the beauty of the structural concrete walls, slabs and columns. The exposed concrete also act as thermal mass for the building, regulating temperature fluctuation. Furnishings were chosen to blend with the color theme set up by the concrete, muted grays, leaving color to be introduced into the space by the books, the building's users, and the green of the oxidized copper and plants. The main library space is accessed by a grand staircase that leads up from the main atrium. This stairs guide users between four large non structural columns, each crowned with a green copper statue of eminent Polish philosophers, and depsits the visitor into a second, three story, atrium. This atrium is dominated by ranks of twin concrete columns topped by metal tree-like structures supporting an immense glass roof and thus flooding the space with abundant natural light. The open planning of this level allows easy movement and clear organization as it functions as a the main library information space - housing the reference and circulation desks, a catalogue hall as well as some open stacks and student text books. The three floors above hold the the main stacks, reading rooms, offices, and other library functions. Small private reading desks are located along the edge of each floor, overlooking the library atrium.

The architects didn't fail to make a bold statement with the facades of the building, to accompany the intricate design of the interior. The main facade consists of a long and gentle concave curve dominated by green copper and tinted glass. A huge inscription "Biblioteka Uniwersytecka" dominated the top of this curve while 8 large copper panels visualize excerpts from Polish Renaissance writer Jan Kochanowski, Plato, an old-Russian chronicle, Arabic and Indian classics, and from the Bible. To complete the gesture there is a score by composer Karol Szymanowski and sample mathematical formulas engraved on these tablets. This main street facade is complimented by flanking facades where plants and gardens have grown to dominate the architectural expression. Copper trellises once again bring vines climbing up the walls, connecting ground to roof garden. A series of hills, ramps and stairs lead the visitor up the side and onto the roof of the building were they are introduced to one of the most maginificent spaces in Warsaw, a 10,000 square meter garden overflowing with colors, textures and smells of flowers and plants, while offering stunning views of the city's skyline and the gently flowing river. There are also a series of catwalks that rise and flow over the glass atrium roofs giving visitors glimpses of the interior. Finally, An intricate system of cascading pools bring the water collected on the roof through a series of ponds and streams, naturally purifying the water and then releasing it into the surroundings. This also provides habitats and feeding grounds for a variety of birds and other animals.

What is most convincing about this building is how the aesthetics of every design decision relates to the overall goal of making a sustainable building. It doesn't rely on a complex system of hidden technology but rather uses plants, rainwater catchment, exposed mechanical systems and thermal mass to be the main language of the architecture. This building forces its users to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between the built and natural environment. It clearly states its ambitions and lets the architecture speak about the environment from the use of plants as a wall cover, to the tree motive of the structural system. Every aspect of the building down to the smallest detail speaks to the function of the building both as a library and as a space designed in harmony with the surrounding landscape.


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