Cooper Union's Architectural Advancement

Visitors to Astor Place, the Bowery, or the East Village may find themselves stopped in their tracks these days, confronted for the first time with the Cooper Union's new, although unfinished, academic building on Cooper Square between 6th and 7th Streets. Designed by architect Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis, in collaboration with Gruzen Samton LLP of New York City, the building appears like an oversize robot caught in the middle of some sort of action or in the midst of a mechanical speech. The big gash on the building facade looks a bit like the Kool-Aid Man - "Oh yeah!," as if the building is beckoning the students inside.

Actually, the building creature can cool off its academic visitors. The exterior mesh screen will help cool the building in summer and warm it in winter. A green roof with low maintenance plantings will keep the city atmosphere at bay. Carbon dioxide detectors will detect empty rooms and turn down power. The smiling gesture on the outside also appears to suck the building inward and down, creating the illusion that the building appears smaller than its actual size. Inside, a sweeping staircase from the lobby to the fourth floor apparently narrows at the top, also playing with perception. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic, noted the friendly gesture in his review. He writes, "From certain angles the facade’s concave form seems to exert a magnetic pull, as if it were trying to embrace the neighborhood in front of it."

The building's presence also helps out a couple of its unfortunate neighbors - the Cooper Square Hotel, a tall building that lords over smaller, older neighborhood buildings, and Gwathmey's Astor Place, the undulating glass tower that sits too much alone. Astor Place, the hotel, and the new building form the new foundations of New York's own Sim City-like future, working better together than apart. The Cooper Union building also works nicely with the seriousness of the school's ruddy and massive Foundation building, the place that is home to the Great Hall where Lincoln spoke.

Fortunately, I found the new building immensely likable. Maybe it is that industrial smiley face- kool-aid acid test. Now I may think of excuses to go to McSorley's, the ancient pub in its shadow at 15 East 7th St., to look at it again.

For more information:
• The Cooper Union Build website - Cooper Union Builds
NYT's architecture review, "The Civic Value of a Bold Statement," by Nicolai Ouroussoff. June 5, 2009: "Thom Mayne’s design for the new academic building at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art proves that a brash, rebellious attitude can be a legitimate form of civic pride."

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Saturday morning, August 15. Clicking on the images will make them appear larger.

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