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University Center Highlights New School's 'Sensitive Boldness'

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Between the outward and upward growth of NYU and Columbia, Cornell and Fordham, The New School and Cooper Union, it seems as though the city's academic institutions will not be slowing down any time soon. This week, New York Magazine's archicritic, Justin Davidson, argues that expansion—a word so soiled in the minds and hearts of city residents—can be achieved meaningfully through respect for the neighborhood and its aesthetic. With this in mind, Davidson turns his eyes to two of these expanding academic "interlopers" to discuss the New School's University Center and 51 Astor Place, which rose on a Cooper Union-owned lot.

For Davidson, SOM's Roger Duffy-designed New School University Center "brings the school's brand of sensitive boldness" to 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. The 375,000-square-foot building which draws design influence quite notably from Paris's Pompidou museum is "respectful but not obsequious" to its neighbors, both structural and human. In an effort to stress the building's fit into the urban landscape, Davidson draws two naturalistic comparisons. To him, the building's façade of angled windows and brass panels recalls "sedimentary bands like a canyon streaked with ore," and he also notes how the brass's patina will "darken and soften further over the years...like a human face." The building's wrap-around staircases, glassed on the outside, are not only "sociable" for those traveling them, but also to the sidewalk world outside.

However, when it comes to 51 Astor Place, the lot rented to Minskoff Equities by Cooper Union (and partially occupied by St. John's University), Davidson finds failure. Just several blocks south, the new construction brought the neighborhood a "brooding, elegant, sharply folded office building that would be the pride of midtown and looks utterly foreign to the East Village." Designed by 4 WTC's Fumihiko Maki, the building is a "solid object, black and glossy and timeless as a Steinway grand, expressing itself in an architectural language that is incomprehensible around here." While not a failure of architecture, Davidson believes 51 Astor Place is a failure within its context. While the building that stood in its place prior was not itself an architectural triumph, with this second chance to engage the neighborhood aesthetic 51 Astor Place also fails. Of the building's mirrored façade, Davidson writes, it "seems to sharpen reflections to a higher resolution than reality itself." Maki's tower does not successfully "dematerialize" into the East Village landscape, and in doing so, "obliterates the personality of an open-skied, funky square."
· Big Men On Campus [NY Mag]
· All New School coverage [Curbed]
· All 51 Astor Place coverage [Curbed]
· All Justin Davidson coverage [Curbed]

51 Astor Place

51 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003