Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

New York, New York
Lyn Rice Architects

Lyn Rice Architects unites a New York City campus with a new urban quad at Parsons’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

By Beth Broome
This is an excerpt of an article from the September 2008 edition of Architectural Record.

Parsons The New School for Design, housed since the 1970s in a cluster of four early-20th-century buildings on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan, had long been suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance.

Sheila C. Johnson Design Center
Photo © Michael Moran
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

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The physical space occupied by the school—which offers 22 programs, ranging from architecture to fashion design—did not align with the ideals embodied in the institution’s teaching. The best thing that could be said about Parsons’s street-level public and circulation areas (that serve the classroom floors above) was that they “had character.” A cramped warren of segregated spaces connected by back alleys and service areas, the school was, mildly put, difficult to navigate. And with its compressed lobby areas, students often could be seen lining up for class out on the sidewalk. The school “did not display or speak to the work that was going on inside,” says Lia Gartner, New School vice president for design, construction, and facilities management. Nor was it effectively connecting with the city, a rich resource that Parsons values as an extension of the classroom.

Prompted in part by funding from Sheila C. Johnson (a philanthropist, chair of the Parsons board of governors, and trustee of the New School), in 2003 the school invited a select group of architects to reimagine the ground level joining the mid-rise buildings. The goal was to improve circulation, create a nexus for bringing together students and faculty from different disciplines, and connect the school with the city while demonstrating the importance of design and communicating the school’s identity.

“The idea of reconnecting to the city drove the project,” says Lyn Rice, AIA, principal of New York–based Lyn Rice Architects (LRA), who collaborated with his associate Astrid Lipka, AIA, on the 32,800-square-foot job. But before any of the loftier goals could be achieved, the messy deed of uniting the various buildings had to be tackled. “It was like a veterinarian operating on four distinctly different animals simultaneously— without anesthesia,” says Rice, referring to the complications of uniting the four structures: the mishmash of building modifications made over the years, the preponderance of nonaligning levels from floor to floor and nonaligning structures from building to building, and the accumulation of partitions and layers of finishes.

To introduce a geographic center and crossroad of circulation, the architects carved an “urban quad” out of the complex’s core. To do this they removed a one-story maintenance shop in the middle of the site, excavated down to install a new chiller plant, and topped the new common space with a 1,600-square-foot glazed canopy that filters light in and provides views of archetypal “back-of-house” New York City: chimneys, fire escapes, and water towers. Utilities (some of which had previously lined or occupied interior walls) now wrap the quad’s service elevator, and an aluminum ramp cocked on an angle creates a focal point and leads to passenger elevators, gallery spaces, the archive, and the auditorium.

Formal name of building:
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

New York, NY

Completion Date:
June 2008

Gross square footage:
32,800 sq. ft.

Total construction cost:
$19 million

The New School

40 Worth Street 1317
New York, NY 10013
T 212.285.1003
F 212.285.1005

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