Wednesday, September 1, 2010

41 Cooper Square is a Cleanroom Wrapped in Foil

A cleanroom is typically thought of as a very sterile, white-finished place.  It might look exceptionally clean, but it is not a place you would want to spend a lot of time in.  The same can almost be said of Thom Mayne and Morphosis' new building for The Cooper Union in New York City.  Cooper is a long-standing institution that has a (total) student body of about 1,000 each year, and has three major disciplines: art, architecture, and engineering.  In 2007, the Cooper-Hewitt building located at 3av between 6th and 7th streets was torn down to be replaced with a new structure coined the "New Academic Building."  This new building would be used by all three disciplines, with the engineering school moving from its place at 51 Astor Place.  51 Astor Place would be, like all other Cooper property, leased to a developer for 99 years and developed into a mixed-use condo.

[For those of you too lazy, pics taken Fall '09 at the end]

Now for the juicy bits.  After 2 years of construction, the project's price tag reportedly ballooned 68%, with plenty of construction-related delays, leading to an unfinished building opening Fall of 2009.  Among those delays, courtesy of Sciame - the construction management company hired, are slanted concrete floors (a lot of places are awkwardly sanded down), unfinished spaces (Engineering office, Frankie's Lounge, faculty bathrooms), malfunctioning HVAC systems, and improper signage.  A Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) was issued only because Cooper had to move out of 51 Astor by Summer 2009 for the new tenant or face penalties.  (The development deal has since appeared to have gone sour, as the New York Film Academy has moved in instead of new condos being built.)  All of this led to construction crews working around the clock, during the school day and during the winter break to finish the job.  Some bathrooms (e.g. 5th floor) have leaking sinks and stalls that flood.  Even one year after the grandest opening where a bunch of politicians and Cooper's Board of Trustees had a nice photo op, the building is still not officially closed out (finished).

Now, construction-related delays are common, and every job has them.  But what about the design of the building? Treehugger, the New York Times, and the architecture world might absolutely adore it, but from a practical standpoint, it is not all that brilliant.  Standing from 3 Av or Bowery, you see a large metal mesh-covered building that stands out from the neighborhood.  Boy, does it stand out - people have been calling it "the Death Star" for its resemblance to the Star Wars' enemy base.  Now don't get me wrong - incorporating "green elements" in design is important these days - and if the mesh does really reduce energy usage then fine.  But it sticks out like a sore thumb in a brick and stucco neighborhood.  Every time I bring someone around the area, when they turn the corner at St Marks Pl they gasp and say something to the effect of, "Ugh, what's that?!"  Sure, the folded metal letters spelling out the name of the place maybe cool - Daily Dose might refer to it as an interesting juxtaposition of "solid and void" - but the building stands out too much.  So much so that during the first 3 months, wayward tourists often found themselves gawking at the building and attempting to enter the building, only to be strictly told by security that there is no tour available and that no picture taking would be allowed of the lobby/staircase.  In my opinion, the building looks too much like a museum rather than an educational institution.

And to some extent, that was Thom Mayne's original intentions.  The 2-story art gallery open to 7th St, the two aptly-nicknamed "Fish Tank" classrooms (each featuring at least 2 sides of glass walls open to the street and the hallway) and the gigantic space-hogging staircase all make it oh-so distracting.  In fact, the original design was to have ALL classrooms have glass walls opening to the hallways-boy would that be very distracting, as evidenced when Ugly Betty visited.  The classroom windows only open with much force, and when the sunshades are in use, conflicts and accidents (like the window corners tearing the shades) arise. The positioning of recycling/trash areas on one side of the building on most floors led to the addition of wastebaskets in the corridors.  On a side note, Cooper does not recycle - they just wanted a LEED point for having recycling areas.  The fire stair on the Southwest corner of the building - originally intended to be an exterior staircase, was boxed in with a glass curtain wall and is always HOT HOT HOT.  And whether they forgot to change it after they boxed it in or did not have the money for it, that staircase is not for one with vertigo or acrophobia since the treads are metal wire mesh, whose original intent was to not factor into the square footage of the building as an exterior staircase, according to professors related to the construction.  Oh, and the building has 20% less space than 51 Astor and more students will be using it than before.  Example: the student lounges never have enough space during peak hours of the day.  To add to that, the Board of Trustees have now taken over a much-needed room in the Basement that was used for classes because 'classes can't take place in our boardroom!' So thoughtful of them.

Last, but not least, is the grand staircase every critic ogles over.  Initial fears by the faculty, staff, and students that its continuous 4 story path and (somewhat) polished concrete would lead to many trip-and-roll accidents and potential deaths (one professor named it "the Death Stairs") fell by the wayside to a general critique that it is a tremendous waste of space.  I for one appreciate good design and it is a strong symbol that encourages the building's occupants to exercise more (NYC's Dept of Design & Construction loves it) and use the stairs (which is also why 2 of the 3 elevators are each about 30sqft. and one of those is an express elevator, although the sign on the Ground floor says "Express Elevators" and the other small elevator is frustratingly slow because like the freight elevator, in actuality stops on every single floor.)  Digression aside, the staircase takes up a lot of space and has created plenty of small, cramped, offices underneath it on each floor it tramples over; which when added to the 20% less space has led to plenty of classes either not being offered as often or programming difficulties and class size restrictions (even into required classes in a major.)  And one engineer remarked, "Is it a staircase for the building or a building for the staircase?"

One more thing - as if the staircase hasn't already created awkward spaces, the walls and traffic spaces are also dangerous.  Walls diagonally cut to create the bench space behind the gash on 3 Av are occasional hazards to the distracted passerby (yes, I have hit my head on them.)  Obtuse staircases serving the 4th to 5th, 5th to 6th, 7th to 8th, and 8th to 9th (no 6th to 7th can be a pain when you have to walk to the ends of the building to use the fire stairs), built to encourage people to take the Express Elevator(s) to Express floors (LL2,LL1,G,5,8) and walk (to save on energy usage) are way too narrow for people to pass by, especially with the high protection wall obscuring your view of people walking in the direction against you.  These staircases also have awkward railings that jut out into the open, creating negative spaces in between them and the protection walls.

I appreciate good design and especially great architecture.  I actually wanted to become an architect when I was deciding which college major I wanted to take.  But the problem that I often see in architecture, often with "starchitects" (the famous ones), is that design becomes the number one priority and overshadows functionality, which is what matters most to the occupants of the structure.  And when that happens, the building sucks.  A good architect may dream of wondrous buildings and places, but unless he puts himself in a 1st person view of someone who will be a daily end user and brings a portion of those dreams into reality, then they have failed their primary role as an architect.  And as one of the great architects of our times, Frank Lloyd Wright, said, "Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union."  (Viewing some of his drawings and models at the Guggenheim's exhibit last Summer titled "Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward," might actually attest to a priority of function over form, as evidenced from the title of the exhibition)
And for that cleanroom reference?  41 Cooper's walls and desks are white; the ceilings are made up of dropped metal grids hiding the ductwork, metal sheathing is offset from elevator walls, and classrooms are windowless.  Enjoy the building kids!

Album of 41 Cooper

Post 202 Dated 9/14/09, see 200th post for reason
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