Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the glass, metal panel, and concrete buildings form most of the first phase of Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus. Ultimately, 6.8 million square feet costing $6.5 billion will rise on 17 acres in a narrow valley just a few blocks north of its main campus in Morningside Heights. Frank Oudeman/Columbia University

A new campus has a mandate to better connect the institution to the world, but its presence has left neighbors asking, “What about us?”

A technologically exhibitionist trio of buildings now line up along Harlem’s West 125th Street. Sandwiched between elevated subway tracks and the Riverside Drive viaduct, veils of ultra-clear glass hang outside a science laboratory and muscular steel beams and slim cables hoist a skinny arts tower in the air.

Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the glass, metal panel, and concrete buildings form most of the first phase of Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus. Ultimately, 6.8 million square feet costing $6.5 billion will rise on 17 acres in a narrow valley just a few blocks north of the main campus, which presides from Morningside Heights.

With about a third of the new campus completed or in construction, Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s 16-year-old vision is coming into focus. Manhattanville’s mandate is to better connect the university to the world, a place where disciplinary barriers fall and collaborations blossom. It’s a sensible aspiration for an academic institution, but it has left neighbors in the surrounding diverse and mixed-income neighborhoods asking, “What about us?”

Bollinger has willed into being the first significant expansion to the extravagantly cloistered Beaux Arts assemblage designed by McKim Meade & White. Built at the turn of the 20th century, its elaborately decorated stone and brick palazzi wall off the campus from the neighborhood.

Bollinger’s plan was haunted by the school’s previous ambitions. Tone deaf to a renewed awareness of civil rights in 1968, Columbia wanted to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park—a greensward that falls steeply down the rock escarpment from Columbia’s height to the flat expanse of Harlem, which was being roiled by disinvestment and abandonment at the time. Student demonstrations against the school’s plan grew to include resistance to the Vietnam War. After a sit-in closed the campus, police ended the protests in clouds of teargas, injuring nearly 200 and severely damaging Columbia’s reputation.

As Columbia sought approval for the Manhattanville expansion in the mid-2000s, many in the neighborhood strongly opposed, fearing displacement via gentrification and eminent domain—a reflection of the trust Columbia had failed to build over the years. New York State invoked eminent domain on a storage facility and a gas station on the site in 2008 and the decision was affirmed by an appeals court in 2010. Residents in Tenant Interim Lease buildings within the development footprint have been relocated.

Having access to no other comparable expansion opportunity, Columbia wanted to reserve the acreage for its own use. Activists proposed a fine-grained integration of existing businesses and their jobs within the new campus. The university needed to carve out a “defined space,” Bollinger told the New York Times in 2006. For an institution focused on the world, “the community is not everything.”

Bollinger’s view would prevail, but Renzo Piano, known as having a keen eye for civic space, masterplanned the site with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to make deeper town-and-gown interaction possible. The ground floor is recessed in the new buildings. Sunlight slants in through full-height glass walls that can extend upward as much a three stories—revealing to passerby the activity within. Piano calls this the “urban layer.” It’s intended to bring a public character to the street level by blurring the boundary between public and university spaces. I was skeptical of this notion when Piano was masterplanning the campus. With Italian-accented, central-casting charm, he can flick away the inconvenient realities of his high-flown rhetoric. The airy transparency on the ground floor, for example, would make the buildings seem to levitate like a “flying carpet,” he once said.

The Forum includes an auditorium, numerous meeting rooms, and casual meeting places that serve the entire campus. There’s a looseness to the building layout that underlines the blurring of disciplinary boundaries (Frank Oudeman/Columbia University)

The bulkiest of the new buildings is the nine-story 450,000 square foot Jerome L. Greene Science Center. Passersby can assess the skills of aspiring mountain climbers at the Steep Rock Bouldering gym. (It’s open to the public.) Dear Mama, a coffee shop, sets out tables on a comfortably intimate streetside plaza. More importantly, the doctors, neuroscientists, engineers, statisticians, and psychologists housed in the building’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute share resources with the community.

The glass walls allow a view into an education lab that helps kids from around the city engage with science and perhaps consider it a career choice. (A “Biobus” takes programming to schools around the city.) The K-Space is not open to the public but dangles from the high ceiling the beautifully mystifying products of the Science Center’s imaging lab.

The Columbia Community Wellness Center is a powerful model of how academia can serve neighbors. It reinvents the moribund idea of the neighborhood health center by targeting unmet needs in nearby low-income communities. For people who lack health care access it offers free cholesterol and blood pressure checks, counseling on nutrition and weight management. It aids access to mental health services and helps people sign up for health insurance. It trains volunteers who go into the community to address stroke prevention, depression, and substance abuse.

The science center shares frontage on the plaza with the Lenfest Center for the Arts, a tiny 9-story tower separated from the Science Center by a narrow passageway. Its stilted opacity disguises a rich mix of arts facilities, stacking a 150-seat screening room, a 99-seat black-box performance space, the Wallach Art Gallery, and a skylighted gathering space which opens to breathtaking views of the Gothic-spired Riverside Church and Morningside Heights.

With numerous events open to the public, Lenfest has proven to be Columbia’s most important community ambassador. Some 25,000 visitors flocked to “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” last winter’s exhibition at the Wallach. It’s a number inconceivable at the gallery’s previously obscure location on the main campus.

The Forum, commanding a slim triangular site on the most prominent corner in the development, devotes much of its ground floor to a wedge-shaped lounge, open to all, wrapped in high glass walls. On this writer’s several visits it has always been busy.

Though the buildings crowd the streets, the urban layer’s glass walls make a stroll pleasurable. Even when you can’t see inside, the walls shimmer and refract light through the transparent corners of the buildings. Overlapping reflections sometimes turn the activities inside into a quivering abstract tableau.

Unlike the main campus, there are no gates at Manhattanville. Still, the aura of institutional ownership and control is unmistakable: Three security officers guard the main elevator in the Forum’s public lounge. Columbia external affairs people recognize that community outreach needs more work. Inviting neighbors who have direct experience with the justice system to a recent public program on incarceration, for example, would have anchored the issue in tragic reality.

Columbia’s Manhattanville buildings reflect the university’s need to foster interaction internally and connect disciplines. With the Jerome Green Center’s labs laid out along the exterior of the building, glass-walled lounges and meeting rooms run in a line down the center, like a street, so that collaborating researchers naturally socialize with each other. Piano suspended acrobatic stairs next to double-height glass walls with views out to encourage casual conversation and movement between floors.

The Forum “was conceived as a convening building,“ according to Nicholas Lemann, who was formerly the dean of Columbia’s journalism school, but now develops special projects that advance Bollinger’s global vision for Columbia. It includes a handsomely informal 437-seat auditorium and numerous meeting rooms and casual meeting places that serve the entire campus. There’s a looseness to the building layout that underlines the blurring of disciplinary boundaries. By contrast, the long hallways on the main campus compartmentalize disciplines and leave few places to gather. The faculty office is “a man cave, a place to be a solo composer,” said Lemann. The Manhattanville campus “is open, collaborative space.”

Aerial Manhattanville campus view. (Rendering by FXCollaborative, courtesy of Columbia University)

As it grows, the campus buildings will cluster along a new pedestrian passage that will run north from 125th Street, edging a new 1-acre public square. Though open to the public, the square’s lawn and tree-shaded sitting areas (designed by James Corner Field Operations) won’t be visible from the edge of the campus, and so may feel as cloistered as the grand stair and plaza of the main campus.

The architects at Diller Scofidio + Renfro respected the urban layer in the design of two buildings for the business school that bookend the square. A high glass-walled Commons in the Henry R. Kravis building opens off the square, terracing up to engage crisscrossing “network stairs,” as DS+R principal Charles Renfro calls them. A similar glassy Forum alternates as a lounge and lecture space in the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Business Innovation.

Henry R. Kravis Building (Rendering by DBOX, courtesy of Columbia University)

In both buildings the network stairs zigzag behind the building’s glass walls, weaving faculty, classroom, and administrative support areas together, and feeding lounges and casual meeting spaces. The idea is to “sponsor informal, unscripted learning” to enhance the effectiveness of the schools’ team-based, case-study approach, according to Renfro. The $500-million complex opens in early 2022.

Columbia is not alone in developing ambitious campus expansions in New York, where connecting to the city’s extraordinary resources collides with high costs and a lack of buildable land. The first phase of Roosevelt Island’s Cornell Tech, which opened in 2017, mixes budding entrepreneurs with funders and partners. Though its lush landscape is less formal and introverted than Columbia’s, it sits in splendid isolation with gorgeous views of Midtown and Long Island City.

New York University battled well-heeled neighbors and its own faculty over a plan that crammed overweeningly large buildings into scraps of open space it owns in Greenwich Village. Only one building has actually proceeded to construction, a block-long slab by Kieran Timberlake and Davis Brody Bond crammed with wish-list items including classrooms, study spaces, a commons, and athletic facilities, as well as teaching spaces and stages for performing arts. Spiky towers project from the roof for student housing and faculty apartments. Rockefeller University found space for growth (and saved its Dan Kiley-designed garden) by heeding Rafael Viñoly Architects’s recommendation to mount a green-roofed, 1,000-foot-long laboratory atop the FDR Drive in Manhattan.

While institutions can’t seem to get enough of New York, Columbia, at least, is beginning to see neighbors as partners and collaborators rather than impediments.

Correction: This story has been updated to properly credit Davis Brody Bond as one of two firms behind the design for a new building at New York University.

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