Why Columbia Should Fulfill Its Original Campus Plan

The recent brouhaha about Columbia constructing buildings off-campus has raised the issue of whether they should be building on-campus instead . There is nothing illegitimate about building off-campus when they have vacant space on campus, but they could definitely do less disruptive external building if only they would use their campus more fully. The key to this is to fulfill the original 1904 plan for their campus, which envisages a lot more buildings on it than they currently have. To see what this plan would look like, click here.

Many people fundamentally misunderstand what kind of a design the Columbia campus is supposed to be. It is supposed to be in the style of the Italian Renaissance. It is currently trying to be an imitation of suburbia with that big ragged field south of College Walk. Why do people like this so much? Because it's what other universities look like. But Columbia's situation is unique and it should celebrate that uniqueness.

In retrospect, Charles McKim solved Columbia's problem brilliantly. He realized how tiny Columbia's campus was relative the amount of space a major university would need. He realized that Manhattan land was expensive and would remain so. He therefore realized that the only viable solution was to devise the densest possible campus that would still be aesthetically attractive enough to serve as an elite cultural institution. His original plan, stripped of all the classical trimmings, basically packs in as much square footage as possible while doing two things:

1. It converts necessary "air-shaft" space into courtyards, such as the one behind Avery Hall.

2. It expends all its precious surplus space in one place, Low Plaza / South Field, in order to get the most impressive and most extensive open space possible. If this finite resource had been squandered in uncoordinated dribs and drabs around campus, it would have amounted to nothing.

Frankly, the biggest myth in Morningside Heights is that Columbia's campus in its present condition is attractive. In fact, it has Low Plaza, a few nice buildings, and the rest is an incoherent and incomplete hodgepodge. Like many of New York's public spaces, it tries hard to "gel" as a public space but doesn't quite.

A double ring of buildings around the edge of campus would serve the crucial function of giving Columbia a feeling of clear separation from the city that enables it to have a well-formed feeling of being a public space in its own right. Having a double ring of buildings will increase Columbia's sense of being a special, distinct physical environment, secluded from the rest of the city. This is essential in order to attain the cloistered feeling that has been considered appropriate from time immemorial for a university.

The biggest reason people oppose this is that they think this would result in the loss of South Field. But if you stand on the steps of Low and visualize how things would come out, you will see that South Field stands to lose only its breadth, not its depth, which is what actually makes it attractive. And it would still be quite wide.

Another reason Columbia should build out its original plan is that this is the only way to keep all the academic departments close together. Physical proximity is one of the few assets Columbia has that promotes a sense of community on campus. Columbia is not, truth be told, a strong community in the sense that many universities are. The distractions of the city and the generally cynical and sardonic culture of its people tend to undermine this. It should take advantage of anything it can do to fight this. A university like Cornell or Stanford has its departments scattered over a square mile or more. Columbia doesn't have to be, but it is currently running the risk of the worst of both worlds: both crowded and scattered.

It goes without saying that given the historic nature of the campus, new buildings would have to be in a 100% classical style. So how much space are we talking about, quantitatively? Let's look at the various buildings Columbia could build on campus:

Columbia's planning framework reports that Pierce Hall, which would go opposite already-existing Mathematics Hall, would contain 88,000 gross square feet, plus an additional 26,000 in two basement levels under the courtyard that connects to Math. This totals 114,000 square feet. But given that Pierce would also face onto the courtyard between Low and Uris, which is roughly twice as large as the other courtyard, one could on the same assumption of a two-story underground complex add an additional 52,000 square feet. Therefore the total space that could potentially be made available by building Pierce would be 166,000 square feet.

The buildings which can be referred to as twin-Lewisholn and twin-Philosophy Halls can be assumed, on the basis of their similar size, to have similar above-ground square footage potential. Their underground potential is less because there are already underground complexes beneath the courtyards that they would share with their twins. In the case of Philosophy, this space is mainly the bursar's office; in the case of Lewisholn, this space is taken up by Miller Theatre. However, there does exist potential underground space between the two potential buildings and Low Library, running north parallel to the flanks of Low. Since this space is roughly the same size as the already-taken courtyards, we can again assume about 26,000 square feet in each case. So these two potential buildings would account for about 114,000 square feet apiece, for a total of 228,000 square feet.

Columbia's plan for the Van Am Quad site envisages a building five stories high. The original plan for this site calls for a building that is 10 stories high, including its attic. With the 5-story assumption, the planning framework estimates the building that could be built there would have 43,000 gross square feet, so the 10-story building would be approximately double that: 86,000. The planning framework estimates 10,000 square feet for a one-story basement under the courtyard facing Wallach. Since the framework already admits the feasibility of two-story basements under courtyards elsewhere, it is reasonable to double this to 20,000 square feet. Therefore the total space that would be enabled by this building is 106,000 square feet.

Because of similar floor-plans, this 106,000 square feet would also be the correct figure to assume for buildings to be built twin-Furnald and twin-Hartley.

Once the issue of underground space is broached together with the concept of building twin-Furnald and twin-Hartley, an interesting possibility comes into view: the vast potential space under South Field. Since this space extends, theoretically, to include the space under College Walk and Low Plaza, the potential is truly enormous. The I.M. Pei plan of 1970 shows that it is technically feasible to build under South Field. Yale has done a similar thing at Cross-Campus library, and the concourse at Rockefeller Center shows that underground space can be very attractive. South Field alone, based on its surface area, has the potential, if we assume a two-level basement, to provide 7 times the area that could be built under the Pierce-Math courtyard. This yields an astounding 182,000 square feet without even getting under College Walk or Low Plaza. If these areas were also included, the numbers get even larger.

Therefore, the amount of space that Columbia would gain by fulfilling the 1904 plan and going underground is:

Pierce Hall: 88,000
West Underground: 26,000
East Underground: 52,000

Twin Lewisholn: 88,000
East Underground: 26,000

Twin Philosophy: 88,000
West Underground: 26,000

Twin Wallach: 86,000
East Underground: 20,000

Twin Furnald: 86,000
West Underground: 20,000

Under South Field: 182,000

TOTAL: 910,000

Of which Columbia currently plans (according to the official Framework for Planning) to construct:

Pierce Hall: 88,000
West Underground: 26,000

Short Twin Hartley: 43,000
East Underground 1 story: 10,000



Columbia's current campus is about 6,500,000 square feet, so that's over 11% of the entire existing campus. It's also half the Empire State Building. Whatever Columbia may say about this proposal in the short run, in the long run they will follow it because they will eventually run out of space, period.

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