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41 Cooper Square

New York, New York
Morphosis Architects

A raw and charismatic vertical campus connects students to each other and their urban environment.

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

The New, $111.6 million academic building at New York City’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is the type of extroverted structure one would expect from architect Thom Mayne, FAIA, of the Santa Monica—based firm Morphosis. It has a sharp and folded perforated-stainless-steel shell with an aggressive gash in its main facade. Performance is part of the rationale behind the dynamic sheath, which cloaks a poured-in-place concrete building with a standard window-wall system, helping mitigate heat gain in summer and retain heat in winter. The outer skin is one of several tightly coordinated sustainable features that are likely to earn the project, designed with local associate architect Gruzen Samton, a Platinum certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system.

41 Cooper Square
Photo © Iwan Baan

Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects shows us his firm's new academic building for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

To view a larger version of the video, click here.

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The screen, which Morphosis has deployed in other projects, including the Caltrans Disrict 7 Headquarters, in Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Federal Building, serves not only as an energy-conserving element. It also helps integrate the building, known as 41 Cooper Square, into its urban surroundings, says Mayne, who argues that it is “highly contextual.” The skin crimps and curves, he points out, to respond to the frenetic energy of its East Village environment. And from below the bottom hem of this outer coat, V-shaped, poured-in-place concrete columns emerge to bring the building to the ground. The sculptural and slightly rough supports surrounding the otherwise mostly transparent first level are made of structural rather than architectural concrete, contributing to the exterior’s raw charisma. The building exudes “a kind of toughness that is New York,” he says.

This sensibility, explains Mayne, is also in sync with the mission of the egalitarian, but highly selective, tuition-free college, which offers degrees in architecture, engineering, and art. The 150-year-old school was founded by inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper, who had less than a year of formal education. 41 Cooper Square “is embedded in the values of the institution,” says the architect.

The nine-story, 175,000-square-foot building was constructed primarily to house the engineering school but also includes some facilities for art and architecture students. It is considerably larger than the two-story, early-20th-century academic building previously on the site. However, the new volume is roughly equivalent to the college’s most identifiable structure — the 1859 Italianate brownstone Foundation Building, which sits kitty-corner to the new building across leafy Cooper Square. But Morphosis can’t claim much of the credit for the dialogue that this similarity in scale creates. 41 Cooper Square’s dimensions — 100 feet wide by 180 feet long by 135 feet tall, with setbacks on the north and east — were determined well before the firm was selected in September 2003. The size was set as part of a city-approved rights swap that permits the school to develop the site of the engineering department’s former home a few blocks to the north as a commercial property.

The development plan created an additional source of revenue for Cooper Union and simultaneously allowed replacement of aging academic facilities. In addition, construction of the new building provided an opportunity to promote interaction among the school’s various academic disciplines. “We hoped to encourage students to come together in a natural way,” says George Campbell, Jr., Cooper Union president.

Morphosis responded to the desire to foster interaction by creating a vertical campus around a series of social spaces. The primary one is an amorphously shaped atrium that extends from the ground floor to a skylight on the roof. It is carved out from the center of otherwise surprisingly regular and rectilinear floor plans with offices and study lounges lined up along the building’s western edge, and instructional spaces, including engineering labs, art studios, and classrooms, along the eastern edge.

Where the floors are open to the atrium void, a curving lattice defines the space’s limits. The geometric but fluid web of glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum over an armature of steel pipe protrudes into the entry lobby, enticing students to walk up a 20-foot-wide grand stair that connects the first four floors. On the upper floors, the atrium narrows around a segmented and spiraling stair with faceted, resin-clad balustrades illuminated from within.

The atrium has clearly become a lively social hub. Early in September, shortly after the building’s official opening, and just a few days into the academic year, students could be seen chatting, studying, and eating lunch on the grand stair’s landings. Others were observing the activity from upper-level balconies, or “sky bridges,” which afford views across and into the atrium and sight lines out to the city beyond.

Part of the atrium’s appeal is its spatial complexity: It is made of overlapping surfaces and geometries that shift with every change in vantage point. But, although it is visually stimulating, the complexity doesn’t always have a corresponding functional advantage. One instance where it becomes a liability is in the vertical circulation.

Like several other Morphosis projects, the Cooper Union building has skip-stop, or express, elevators intended to encourage occupants to walk and to provide additional opportunities for interaction. These aims are valid. However, the system at Cooper Union seems too idiosyncratic. For example, anyone who wants to travel between levels 6 and 7 on foot, and by way of the atrium, would be unable to do so since the spiral stair has no run connecting these floors. Instead, occupants must choose between the egress stairs or the service elevator.

But quirky circulation aside, 41 Cooper Square seems to hit all the right notes. It contains the vibrant spaces for informal interaction and provides the state-of-the-art educational facilities that Cooper Union required. Mayne fulfilled these client mandates without ignoring the building’s civic presence, creating a gutsy, and appropriately energetic, addition to Lower Manhattan’s urban fabric.

Gross square footage: 175,000 sq.ft.

Total construction cost: $111,600,000

Completion Date: June 2009

Architect:
Morphosis Architects
2041 Colorado Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90404
p.310-453-2247
f.310-829-3270

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