Friday, April 13, 2012

41 Cooper Square: biomorphic but not biophilic

Our Seminar class took us on April 6th to a well-anticipated field trip location:  Thom Wayne’s new academic building for the iconic private college, Cooper Union, located at 41 Cooper square.  Conveniently situated kitty corner from the Italianate brownstone, the stainless steel construction facade is not what you would expect from the historic neighborhood (and I can only imagine that there was some neighborhood opposition to the futuristic project.)

The bold architecture building, which replaces the centenary Hewitt building, is located on the crossover between SoHo and East village;  everyday for about a year I had hopped on my bike and passed by the rapidly developing construction site.
So here I was for once inside the phantasmagoric building I had been watching growing.  The edifice, which had appeared to turn more like a space ship than a school building turned out to be not as uncanny as I anticipated.  But interestingly enough the first thing that came to mind, when walking into the atrium-like lobby, was the feeling of being inside the belly of a beast which was revealing its white biomorphic armature like a giant rib cage.

Following a shy introduction, we followed our tour guide to the top floor via elevators; these are programmed to stop at only few floors in order to encourage student’s physical activity. We then proceeded with the visit going downward the edifice, while itemizing the expansive and expensive innovative technology that had earned the building a platinum LEED certification.

As we arrived on the 4th floor, and the top of the great staircase, I was expecting a magnificent vantage point if not a spectacular view of the city, but none of that was there. Not only the green roof and outdoor terrace were not accessible (for security purposes), I felt like the building was lacking of biophilic qualities. As we were regrouping, conversation with our tour guide took an interesting twist when asking him how he felt about the efficiency of the edifice. The 5th year architecture student admitted that he did not think the building was built to “properly” meet true sustainable principles. He added that if it were not for the high tech equipment (sun sensitive operable panels, green roof, storm waster collection system…) the building would not meet any sustainable practices.

For my part I was surprised to hear that the building was built in lieu of a campus, a place for the student community to connect. A consternating surprise was that there was very little incentive for this to happen. The great staircase where we were standing and which was built for the students to circulate and mingle, looked more like a steep terrain impossible to crawl to the top than a meeting area. As a matter of fact it was entirely deserted. As we’ve been saying in class, if people don’t enjoy a place then it does not really matter how “green” it is. 

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