Lerner Student Center Is A Monstrosity

A Letter to the Editor of Columbia Daily Spectator November 1999

Bernard Tschumi's new Lerner Student Center is an aesthetic disaster about which I have not heard a single favorable comment.

Starting with its least bad part, its only redeeming characteristic is its Broadway side, rumored to have been designed under strict orders from the Board of Trustees to conform to the campus's other Broadway facades. But it looks as if the architect did as little as he could do in this direction while aiming to get away with as much postmodern fun-and-games as possible. It looks as if he, secure in his vast and knowing superiority over the mere mortals who designed the original campus, were trying to make fun of the traditions he was asked to respect. It is marred by snide postmodern gestures, like the absurd, useless, unprecedented recessed balcony and the use of glass brick rather than granite for the curved ledge above the second floor, which seem to mock the traditional archetypes on which it is based. It is as if the architect wished to make quite clear that even though he was forced to use such a style, he doesn't really believe in it.

The southernmost section of the Broadway facade, the part that makes the corner at 114th St, is nothing less than stunningly hideous. It is a naked lump of raw concrete bricks, glass blocks, and a weird and sinister stealth-bomber black brick with no precedent in the neighborhood. It resembles nothing so much as one of those high-tech minimum security prisons that sprouted in the 1980's in the sprawl-cities of the American sunbelt. One almost expects to see a gun barrel poking out of some crevice. It disdains to respect the example of the splendid historic buildings around it, but does not establish by this rebellion a meaningful or interesting aesthetic of its own as an alternative. The Guggenheim Museum, flouting the stuffy uniformity of Fifth Avenue with grace and wit, one can understand. But this?

The campus side of the building is not just flawed; it is an unmitigated horror. It manages the amazing trick of being simultaneously offensive and dull. There is absolutely nothing in its design that would look out-of-place in a fancy strip-mall in Northern New Jersey. It is a vast nothingness, and not even a clever nothingness. So which part is supposed to be clever, the creation of this supposedly great postmodern architect whose theoretical writings are the toast of the architectural intelligentsia worldwide? The entrance? I say, Bed, Bath & Beyond, route 85 in Mahwah. The roof? International House of Pancakes, East Rutherford. The east wall? Maybe a welfare office in downtown Newark. Somebody once said there is nothing so unoriginal as the bad avant-garde. And the giant, garish, heating-and-air-conditioning shed on top of the building is simply inexcusable. It looks as if the architect simply forgot about the need for this, and tacked it on at the last minute when someone reminded him, hoping no-one would see it. But there it sits, in full view of everyone on Low Library steps, looking like a giant tractor-trailer full of refrigerated fish. It is a mark of the very lowest type of architecture to have its utilitarian necessities merely stuck on and not integrated into the design.

The only part of its fašade that hasn't been seen a thousand times before is that giant glass wall on the north side, which still looks as if it's just about to fall off and whose unconcealed and bristling hardware looks as if it isn't even finished yet. Its uneven glass has a sickly greenish tinge that looks cheap and creepy and spoils the view of campus. The fact that part has already cracked does not inspire confidence, either - technical competence is a bare minimum from which the stylistically flashy are not exempt. The ramps behind it, in their harsh undressed concrete, look like nothing so much as the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Their configuration is weird and their staircases illogically placed. Students will scurry along these ramps like rats in a cage designed by M.C. Escher. For space to have been wasted on them when student groups continue to go begging for room is simply inexcusable.

The rest of the interior is marred by unnecessarily forbidding touches like the garish rotating bars at the Broadway entrance. Security is needed, but is it really necessary to scream to every visitor what a dangerous place our city must be, if this is how our buildings must be secured? Offices all over New York have rotating doors that provide the same security without looking like a prison. There is nothing in this building's interior that is warm, or welcoming, or that suggests in any way at all the "home away from home" that a student center should be. It is all raw concrete, steel, and fixtures coldly fit for a corporate headquarters.

Those who have followed this project in the press will know that the architect has delivered this monster with all kinds of intellectual bombast about "deconstruction" and all the trendy philosophical buzzwords that dribble from postmodern architects' mouths like so much pig Latin. In fact, this building is simply boring, pretentious, run-of-the-mill commercial architecture with absolutely no innovation, no originality, and no distinction whatsoever. Any commercial hack architect could have done it. It is supposedly the masterpiece of one of the world's great architectural theorists - for Mr. Tschumi made the architectural reputation that got him this commission entirely as a theorist - but is in fact a breathtakingly unoriginal piece of hack-work tricked up in fancy jargon to conceal its awesome mediocrity. Jacques Derrida goes to the mall.

We are lucky enough to possess an historic campus, which was designed roughly 100 years ago to form a unified and harmonious whole. New buildings built in the main area of campus should be in harmonious and historic style.

And this building, which was built to expand the space available for student activities, doesn't even do this very well. Anyone looking at it can see that the east wing could have been another two stories higher without looking any worse, and might indeed have looked better, as this would bring it up to the level of the adjacent Butler library. But no, after all this fuss, the building isn't even big enough, and this potential extra space will probably be lost forever. So Columbia still doesn't have enough space for all the student groups that need it. After $78 million for the construction, $800,000 for the architects,.and three years of disruption, Columbia is still handicapped in its efforts to match the quality of student life at other universities.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from this building, it is never to allow an inexperienced architect, with no track record of built achievement, to receive such an important commission. Mr. Tschumi's entire oeuvre prior to this building consisted of some public restrooms in a park in Paris. That's it. His entire status in the world of architects derived from his impenetrable theoretical writings, which are a bizarre cocktail of pseudo-Marxist and deconstructionist ideas. I have tried to be fair by actually reading some of his books, but all I can say is, they condemn him more efficiently than I possibly can, so go read them yourself. Start with his book "Architecture and Disjunction." And he hasn't even scored well in this league, either: his 1995 show at the Museum of Modern Art, an institution friendly to the avant-garde, was widely panned by the critics.

Contrast this with another famous architect working on our campus lately: the impeccably civilized Robert A.M. Stern, a native son of Columbia College who has designed the Broadway Residence currently under construction at 113th St. He has well over a hundred real buildings to his credit, and his writings are not theoretical babble, but highly readable histories of New York City architecture (New York 1900, 1930, 1960) that show a solid grounding in the empirical experience of what works and what doesn't in architecture. It is high time empiricism got more respect than callow theoretical posturing. For those that care, let the record state that the Morningside Heights Residents Association did protest to the Columbia administration in favor of a more traditional design for Lerner Hall, and that the architect met with two representatives of this group and essentially ignored them.

So why was Bernard Tschumi given the commission in the first place? Probably, though this cannot be proved, as part of his compensation package for becoming dean of the Architecture School. Architectural commissions should be given to those who have proved that they know how to build, not as boosters for those who can't seem to get their careers off the ground on their own merits. This is not necessarily corrupt, but it smacks of the way Columbia loves to hand out teaching assistant jobs to people who can't teach as a part of their doctoral fellowships. Either way, undergraduates suffer. Only this mistake will last for years. Usually, them that can't do, teach. If only it were always that way.

Ian Fletcher

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