Shadow of the Ivory Tower

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

"It's hideous," said Democratic district leader Aubrey Lees, who displayed the architectural rendering of the building at the August 23 meeting. "It's huge, vast; it fills every square inch; it's not subtle; it's granite, monumental; and it's architecturally pedestrian."

Lynne Brown, NYU's associate vice president for government and community relations, explained some of the cosmetic changes made to Kimmel in response to community groups' suggestions. "The original design had surface area on LaGuardia Place and on West 3rd Street that was just stone facade coming down like a 20-foot wall, so we put a glass backstage entrance [to the theater] on that corner. The idea of vitrines came up— punched-out window kiosks, which will be on the LaGuardia side, so pedestrians would be met with something lively going on at their level." But NYU seems bent on building as high as it can, pointing out that the Kimmel Center site is "as of right," which means it complies with zoning regulations.

"I don't concede the premise that we're doing violence to the park, especially if you approach it with an open mind," says Brown. "The shadow studies show that shadows are almost nonexistent in the summer and greatest in the winter. Right now the shadow of Loeb reaches the boccie courts [just off 4th Street], and in the winter the new building will project across into the fountain." The fountain is dead center in the park. So theoretically in January you could walk your dog and perk up your spirits with a little sunshine if you stay within a few ball-and-stick throws of the arch, but if you head toward the dog run on the south side, you'll need an extra sweater and maybe a dose of Prozac.

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

In the past, NYU has shown some sensitivity to the neighborhood and its history. The NYU-owned buildings around the square have been restored: the Provincetown Playhouse (where Eugene O'Neill was house playwright), the Federal houses along the north side of the park (one of which housed the studio of Edward Hopper), the Glucksman Ireland House, and the cobblestoned Washington Mews. There are the old hotels the university has colonized and preserved, like the Brittany Residence Hall, the Samuel Rubin Residence Hall (where Mark Twain once lived), and the Paulette Goddard Hall.

Which makes it all the more befuddling that Kevin Roche purports to see his design as fitting in with the scale and brick-face makeup of Washington Square. "This looks like a cheap imitation of a courthouse," says Raul Barreneche, senior editor at Architecture magazine. "The Kimmel Center isn't in keeping with the tradition of buildings Kevin Roche has designed. He's a modernist at heart." In an essay in the magazine, Michael J. O'Connor wrote: "Civic-minded NYU should reevaluate Roche Dinkeloo's proposal before it destroys the university's unique parkside property— and its reputation." Roche's office told the Voice that he could not respond to questions without permission from NYU. NYU's Beckman did not return telephone requests for an interview.

It's possible that NYU genuinely believes this building is suitable to the neighborhood. And it's possible, too, that the university doesn't want to blend in but to stand out. Behold, NYU is rising from the ashes of commuter-college hell in its Windexed glass armor, waving its growing pile of applications from students with higher SAT scores, proclaiming the virtues of its steadily improving caliber of faculty.

The architect, of course, has to please his client, which in turn has to please its donor, who presumably approves of the white granite and excessive glass. The donors, Helen and Martin Kimmel, ponied up $15 million to have "meet me at Kimmel" echoing from the lips of generations of students to come. Mrs. Kimmel is on the NYU board; Mr. Kimmel is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Kimco Realty Corporation of New Hyde Park, New York. What grander toast to immortality for a realtor than to emblazon his name at the edge of Washington Square Park?

The Municipal Art Society wrote in its letter to NYU: "The granite favored by the building's donor is a marked departure from the surrounding buildings, including the landmarked Judson Memorial Church." But is the material of the facade still under active consideration? Brown says she expects to see— and present to community groups after Labor Day— new renderings of the facade using different materials and colors.

The controversy over the dorms is different on 14th Street, where there are fewer landmarked buildings, where zoning laws have changed so that NYU can build skyward with impunity. University Hall, at 110 East 14th Street, houses 600 students who pay $8,210 per year for the privilege. The new 14-story white dorm has all the appeal of a modern hospital, with an odd eastern wall that bears long, dark, horizontal slot-like windows and resembles a giant 8-track stereo. The trumpeted feature: a dining hall with skylight. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in this eye it's no beauty either design-wise or scale-wise," says Jack Taylor, chair of the Union Square Community Coalition Historic Preservation Committee.

University Hall was designed by Max Bond, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, which designed the Rose building at Lincoln Center and Zeckendorf Towers on Union Square. "NYU never really discussed their aesthetic vision explicitly," he said. "They wanted to create dorms that were more like apartments. We tried to do a building a similar color to the Con Ed building [across the street]."

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