Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern faced a daunting aesthetic challenge in designing a $56 million library and classroom building for Bronx Community College.
To the west of the college’s stately central quadrangle lie three neoclassical gems crafted by the premier American architect of the 19th century, Stanford White. To the south looms a brutal poured concrete classroom block designed by a 20th century architectural titan, Marcel Breuer.
Could Stern, the dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture, span the centuries and create a 21st-century building for the north side that would harmonize withâ€”or at least visually engageâ€”two such dissimilar architectural vocabularies? And could he provide the elegance and balance needed to rescue the quadrangle from the undistinguished student center that squats on its east side?
Based on plans recommended by Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and approved by the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York, Stern appears to have done just that.
“We’re thrilled that City University’s Board of Trustees has approved this library and classroom building for our campus,” said Bronx Community College President Carolyn G. Williams, who noted that this is a special year, as the college celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“For our students, the new North Instructional Building will be, along with the Stanford White and Marcel Breuer buildings, everyday visual reminders of the importance and meaning of higher education in an increasingly complex world.”
Iris Weinshall, Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management, said: “This project has been a long time in the making. I’m truly delighted about how it fits into the neighborhood and the college. It’s emblematic of the level of high quality design that City University is demanding for its new construction and of the outstanding architects whom the University is recruiting.”
Stern’s conception pays evident homage to White, while also referring more subtly to Breuer’s starkly modern Meister Hall across the quad.
Moreover, with this new building rising on what is now a parking lot, Stern completes White’s vision of a traditional academic quadrangle, an architectural form derived from medieval monasteries and universities. White designed it for New York University, which in 1894 moved its undergraduate and engineering schools to a new campus in the then-rural Bronx, far from the bustle of its original site in Manhattan’s Washington Square.
For NYU’s quad, White reincarnated a Roman temple as the landmarked Gould Memorial Library and flanked it with two classroom buildings, Languages and Philosophy. Clad in warm-hued Roman brick, which is narrower than standard bricks, these are the campus’s iconic buildings. White also designed the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a colonnade lined with bronze busts that stretches in a graceful arc behind them. (Stern said that after World War II, when he was a boy, his mother brought him from Brooklyn to see the Hall of Fame. She urged him to excel, so that, perhaps, his bust might one day join those in the colonnade.)
In the 1960s, NYU hired Breuer to design the eight-story Meister Hall, which houses the current library, along with classrooms, laboratories and offices. Breuer’s concessions to White were to trim part of Meister Hall’s faÃ§ade with Roman brick and to place his more angular buildingsâ€”Bergrisch, Polowczyk and Colston Hallsâ€”out of sight to the southwest of the quadrangle; otherwise, he poured concrete with a heavy hand.
The City University of New York purchased the college from NYU in 1973, providing Bronx Community College with a permanent home. The college started in 1957 in the old Bronx High School of Science and other buildings in the borough.
Did Stern ever consider 21st century razzle-dazzle? “Many architects would say we must build in a way that expresses our time, as if anyone knows what our time is trying to express, but I am not one of those
architects,” Stern said. “Presented with a very beautiful, historic, but incomplete setting, the highest responsibility is to continue it.”
Stern’s library and classroom buildingâ€”for the moment called the North Instructional Buildingâ€”strongly evokes the Boston Public Library, which White’s firm designed in 1887. Architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson calls that library “the centerpiece of McKim, Mead & White’s architecture…a major procreating force of the American Renaissance…the first public building that demonstrated the possibilities of collaborative art, and…the first great example of ‘civic art.’”
Stern also turned to the building that had inspired McKim, Mead & White, the celebrated BibliothÃ¨que Sainte-GeneviÃ¨ve in Paris. There in 1843, Henri Labrouste pushed architecture forward by exposing its structural ironwork, then the latest technology. Labrouste ran a line of cast-iron columns with Ionic capitals down the center of the main reading room, supporting openwork iron arches that divide the ceiling into two vaults. Stern updates this look in painted, decorative pressed metal over fireproofed steel for the library’s main reading room, or “information commons,” as librarians now call the focal point of print and Internet-based electronic resources.
While substantially larger than White’s creations, the new building’s 104,000-square-foot bulk is horizontal, rather than vertical like Breuer’s. For variety and to echo a small, 19th century classroom building, Havemeyer Hall, directly across the quadrangle, Stern breaks the structure into a small subsidiary mass, in whose basement he has hidden mechanical equipment, and the main mass that dominates the north side of the quadrangle.
Stern emulates the rooflines of Languages and Philosophy Halls, and, although the library is a story or so taller than those buildings, it is deferentially shorter than the Gould Memorial Library, which is considered White’s masterpiece. (Bronx Community College is campaigning to raise $50 million to preserve and restore Gould, which has not been used as a library since Meister Hall opened.)
Construction, to be supervised by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, is expected to begin in 2008, with occupancy slated for the winter of 2011, a date that includes “fitting out” the building with furniture and furnishings.
The North Instructional Building will have 15 large classrooms and a cafÃ© on its first floor, providing the space-starved campus breathing room and flexibility. The second floor will house the vast, two-story information commons, along with a ring of small group-study rooms and four lounge areas. On the third story, book stacks will surround a balcony overlooking the reading room. Above that will be a clerestory floorâ€”in essence, a high-ceiling space lined with windows.
Large windows throughout will assure a constant flood of natural light, while providing views not only of the campus, but also of the Cloisters, the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Harlem River. Stern also calls for decorative window screens like those used in Gould.
“The interior will knock the socks off people when they see it,” Stern said. “On the one hand it’s classical and on the other it’s light and open and airy. So it’s modern, not modernist. It will be an exciting building because of all the technology [there will be hundreds of Internet-connected computers], but also because this building really is the first one to be built on campus of consequence that takes into consideration the patterns of use that a community college has.”
Those patterns differ from those of a residential, four-year college. “This recognizes that for people who are very busyâ€”many have jobsâ€”this building will be their home when they are on campus and have an hour to spend, whenever they can get away from their noisy home life to concentrate on work. In a way it will be a student and faculty center, where everyone will come together…[Between classes] you grab a cup of coffee, check your e-mail or work on a paper or do research on second floor, or go to third floor and look at a book,” he said.
In a nod to Breuer, Stern places four rounded adjacent portals on the front of the building that echo the line of angular arches on the ground level of Meister Hall, four complete ones and two half-arches that continue the line off the east and west ends of the building.
To further engage Breuer in an architectural dialogue, Stern proposes a change in landscaping that is not part of this project. The quadrangle is now divided along its short, east-west axis by two rows of trees, making the lawn impractical for graduation ceremonies. Research turned up a McKim, Mead & White master plan that envisioned an east-west oval within the rectangle. Stern suggests constructing such an oval, but with a north-south axis, thereby making the space more usable and more obviously linking the new building with Breuer’s.
“This is an amazing project for me, personally, because I spent a great deal of my life connected to Columbia University, as a student and later as a faculty member [and director of the Historic Preservation Program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University], so I know the McKim, Mead & White campus there,” Stern said. (Charles Follen McKim was designing Columbia’s Manhattan campus at the same time that his partner was designing NYU.) “To be able to get to know the… [Bronx] campus, which is similar but very different, and to be able to build in association with the White buildings, I feel very, very privileged. This is one of most beautiful campuses in the country.”
Stern, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, received the AIA New York Chapter’s Medal of Honor in 1984 and the Chapter’s President’s Award in 2001. He received the Athena Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Board of Directors’ Honor from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America in 2007. As founder and senior partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, he personally directs the design of each of the firm’s projects. He is the author or coauthor of several books that inform his understanding of the Bronx Community College campusâ€”including Modern Classicism, New York.