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
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
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
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
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
PLANNED TOTAL: 167,000
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CURRENT
PLANS AND POTENTIAL: 743,000 square feet
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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