Shadow of the Ivory Tower

NYU'S building frenzy blocks the sun and burns the community

While you can, grab a glimpse of the sky on the south side of Washington Square Park, before the Monument obscures your view. New York University's Loeb Student Center, a fab midcentury modernist gem by some standards, is about to be demolished— guts and asbestos first. Over the next two years NYU will build the $70 million Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life, designed by Kevin Roche of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, the architect of the Ford Foundation building near the United Nations (1967) and, more recently, the octogonal Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City (1997). The 12-story, white granite behemoth will have all the charm, as one observer has said, of a corporate office building in downtown Houston. It will house a 1022-seat theater, a two-floor conference center, and countless student-activity offices from the Drumz and Rhythmz club to the Aesculapian League, all linked by a glass-sheathed staircase lit day and night, and topped off with a two-story glass mansard roof. The building will balloon to twice the size of Loeb and on winter afternoons its shadow will plunge most of the southeast corner of the park into darkness.

The planned Kimmel Center offends not merely by blocking the sun; if the design remains as presented by NYU to community groups, it is likely to be an offense to the eyes, a display of indifference to the architectural history of the neighborhood, and a dramatic altering of 4th Street's character and the sense of repose that emanates from the park. More important, the Kimmel Center is the future navel of the sprawling university, a key component in NYU's aggressive transformation of itself into a residential campus. Begun in the mid 1980s, this metamorphosis has thus far meant unloading some ornamentally starved structures onto the streetscape of downtown New York: Alumni Hall (1986), at 33 Third Avenue, is a beast layered with drab orange and tan bricks, and some unidentifiable flying apparatus squatting on its rooftop; it is rivaled only by Third Avenue North, its dank sibling at 75 Third Avenue; University Hall (1997), the $55 million white swab of a dormitory, was recently poured onto East 14th Street; and the $115 million Palladium Residence going up next door is scheduled to open in fall 2001.

NYU has deep pockets, wandering eyes, and a shocking lack of aesthetic ingenuity when it comes to building new structures. The question that looms: Why wouldn't a rich, cultured educational institution commission buildings that make one feel a part of a thriving metropolis, rather than a passerby in some prefab daze?

NYU bulldozes its way to a new campus.
photo: Jay Muhlin
NYU bulldozes its way to a new campus.

Virtually every community group in the neighborhood is on record as opposing the Kimmel Center's current design. The Greenwich Village Historical Society says the use of extensive glass on the building, which is a significantly bulkier structure than Loeb, is not in keeping with the neighborhood. The Municipal Art Society is concerned with the fortress-like solid walls at the street level, and has called for "more entrances, more real architectural animation and interplay." Community Board 2 is particularly incensed by the potential environmental hazards from increased auto traffic, mechanical noise, and dark shadows. Lawrence Goldberg, a member of the Committee To Save Washington Square Park, says there will almost certainly be litigation against NYU on behalf of community groups and residents if the issue of the building's size and its effects on the environment are not properly addressed.

The Village Independent Democrats and the Village Reform Democrats called a joint community meeting August 23, which drew 100 people, including representatives from NYU and City Council member Katherine Freed. The crowd expressed nearly unanimous dissent toward the design— with the exception of two students, who pleaded for understanding about their need for more space. With 250 student clubs, and 50 percent of requests for space routinely denied, they feel desperate for all the rooms they can get.

The paradox of NYU is that many students enroll there expressly to be absorbed by New York City, not sheltered behind glass windows like clerks at a White Castle. The composition of the student body is changing— today less than 20 percent are from New York City, and the number of students requiring university housing has doubled from 5000 in 1991 to 10,000 in 1999. This is a result of a "conscious strategic decision to transform NYU from a good regional school into a prestigious national research institution," says John Beckman, NYU's director of public affairs. NYU is striving, in part, to outrank Columbia University, whose new $70 million student center has already opened. U.S. News & World Report published its annual "best colleges" list this week, and NYU is ranked 34, between Lehigh and Illinois Urbana. (Columbia is number 10.) While NYU continues to lure students by tempting them with apartment suites and park views, locals fight to keep the Village the Village. In the process, the town-gown conflict, prevalent in most small university centers, has crept into the big city, Hatfield-McCoy style.

The park has been a contested area since the university's founding in the 1830s. At that time, stonecutters rioted after NYU decided to build with marble cut by prisoners at Sing-Sing rather than by the laborers. The Seventh Regiment camped out in the square for four days protecting residents. Today, to walk east along the southern edge of Washington Square Park, where two gothic spires made from that marble remain, is to encounter the brick-and-vine NYU law school (1951), whose seven-arch colonnade brings the park inside the school's atrium. The tomblike Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies (1972) and the red brick­and-brownstone Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies building (1877) bend in homage to the magnificent terra-cotta Judson Memorial Baptist Church (1892), designed by McKim, Mead & White (who, incidentally, designed much of Columbia's campus). Won't the eyes then blanch upon sight of the Kimmel Center? As it is, one next bangs into Bobst Library (1972), which contains no civic front of any kind, no place to convene beyond the have-a-quick-smoke, spit-out-your-gum arcade in front. Whereas the Loeb Center's ground floor opened onto the street, welcoming passersby to look in and students to look out, and its second story consisted of a large terrace looking out toward the park, plans for Kimmel— with its soaring glass-and-granite facade— appear to send a different message: Keep off our lawn.

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