Learning From Lerner

Barnard College’s new Nexus student center aims to succeed where Columbia University’s Lerner Hall has failed. Both buildings aspire to serve their respective communities with designs that promote interaction among students, but they pursue their goals in radically different ways.

Lerner Hall architect Bernard Tschumi once argued, in his book Architecture and Disjunction, that “any relationship between a building and its users is one of violence.” Our student center takes on a similarly aggressive interpretation of campus life with a transparent facade that exhibits the students on the ramps inside as though they were in a fishbowl. Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic at the time of the building’s opening, went so far as to compare the Lerner’s attitude towards its educational institution to that of the 1968 student uprisings.

Where Lerner’s facade showcases the importance of Columbia’s student community, the programming of its spaces inside does not. Lerner’s ramps aspired to be year-round equivalent to the vital gathering place of the Low Library steps, creating a place that the University’s press release claimed would “pulsate with student activity.” Unfortunately, the building ignored a major tenet of progressive community planning: mixed-use development. The library steps are a successful center of campus activity because they sit at the intersection of College Walk, the library, dorm buildings, classrooms, recreational fields, and the Lerner student center itself. Students are inevitably required to cross the steps on their way to most activities, and so the location attracts students for both socialization and study throughout the day. Most of Lerner, in comparison, is dedicated to a single type of usage: student events. This means that we only visit Lerner when we have free time, and its ramps are frequently vacant. The five-story arrangement also consumed large amounts of space that many student groups now wish they could have, while placing club offices away from public activity in a back catacomb of hallways.

Ten years later, Weiss/Manfredi architects intend to give Barnard a more successful campus center by synthesizing a variety of student uses. Like Lerner, the Nexus places dining facilities on its second floor, capitalizing on students’ magnetic attraction to food by luring them past first floor events before they can eat. But beyond spaces for student activity, the Nexus floor plans also include academic classrooms. In a clever move on the part of the Nexus planners and the Barnard/Columbia architecture department, a community of 24-hour activity will be created by placing notoriously insomnia-prone architecture students in a studio on the fourth floor. Above the studios and another floor of classrooms, a “green roof” will conserve energy and provide a setting for “environmental research and light outdoor recreation.”
An extended view corridor pierces the interior of the Nexus. According to an interview on the project Web site, architect Marion Weiss designed this feature to compel students to “look up from their coffee and become intrigued by their colleagues’ work in other parts of the building.” From what I observed during a hard hat tour of the Nexus construction site last semester, this concept was less noticeable in reality, but a final judgment of its effectiveness should wait until the building is completed. The tour also revealed that the Nexus’s student gathering places lack a certain monumental scale present in the “glass court” of Lerner’s ramps, but that deficit is partially accounted for by the smaller size of Barnard’s student body.

In another interview Michael Manfredi revealed that he designed the building’s circulation system to “open up to places that are informal and unprogrammed,” creating areas whose purposes are not defined by architects but rather by the students who use them. Ascending Lerner’s ramps evokes the opposite feeling; their narrow width and connected stairways produce awkward encounters whenever other people are met. A visitor ultimately feels as though they are being positioned like a chess piece, every movement precisely calculated by the architect’s design. The Nexus promises to create a more natural arrangement for interaction by integrating itself, at least symbolically, with the most spontaneous of environments: the streets of New York City. Where Lerner continues Columbia’s architectural tradition of turning a hard stone face to the city, the Nexus opens up views of its interior to Broadway, a move that will hopefully bring Barnard students and their surrounding community into greater awareness of each other.

Lerner, in comparison, does not even open up to its own campus—while its glass side wall is transparent, the front door area uses the same fortified stone treatment as the Broadway wall. The architect originally proposed a fully transparent entryway, but unfortunately the committee quelled his vision. Posters urging citizens to “Keep Columbia Beautiful With One Phone Call,” appeared arguing that Tschumi’s original proposal would be dangerously out of context with its historical surroundings. Instead of bringing their student community together with an open facade, the University chose to bring together its architectural styles and imposed the heavy stone entrance. The Nexus avoided these issues by considering its surroundings from the beginning. According to Weiss, the building features opaque glass that “is brick-colored, to make the building contextual without the heaviness of masonry.“ The result is a building that respects both context and progress. While the Nexus shares similar goals with Lerner, its stronger program and contextual approach means that it may actually be able to accomplish them.

The author is a Barnard College first-year. She is the secretary of the Architecture Society.

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