Shadow of the Ivory Tower


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?

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.

“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.

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].”

The Palladium Residence, for which the gargantuan foundation has just been laid, will house 1000 students and open in fall 2001. The architect: once again, Kevin Roche. Local residents who have seen plans for it “were appalled at how ugly it was,” says Martha Danziger, Community Board 3 district manager. “We asked NYU, ‘Can’t you do anything, add a statue or something?’ ”

“What I want to know is, where will it end?” asked Lisa Ramaci, who was chair of Economic Development for Community Board 3 when University Hall was proposed. “This thing literally looks like a bunker. I refuse to believe that Kevin Roche, the world-famous architect, can’t build something sympathetic to the neighborhood. It looks like an us-against-them kind of building.”

Henry James said of his beloved Washington Square: “It has repose in this shrill city . . . the look of having had something of a history.” The Kimmel Center is, of course, expressly about activity, not repose, and the coveted parkside location is why the Kimmel Center, more than the new dorms, has sparked a voluble cross-community conversation. “It’s a precious site,” says Kim Stahlman Kearns, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, “and it’s a wonderful opportunity for NYU to demonstrate that they care and contribute to the built environment of a harmonious villagescape.” The Washington Square arch has been looked upon by countless denizens: the gentry who settled there in 1793 after the yellow fever epidemic downtown drove them north, the domestic maids who served them, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Prohibition-era bohemians, 1960s folk revivalists, 1990s street performers, and millennial students. The arch appears on NYU’s promotional materials, and “historic” Greenwich Village is touted as a significant draw for out-of-town students. It’s difficult, then, to understand how the university can justify plunking down its “campus” center like a Monopoly piece, and altering the park dramatically. It’s a bit like whoring in the cathedral. “By diminishing the openness of Washington Square Park they diminish themselves,” says Lawrence Goldberg. “NYU sometimes has to be saved from itself.”

Monotony is the enemy of a functioning neighborhood, as Jane Jacobs famously wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and NYU is perilously close to monotonizing sections of downtown Manhattan. It’s too early for a eulogy, and NYU claims to be listening to concerned residents and preservationists with respect to the Kimmel Center, but the loss of sunlight, the erasure of small buildings by large, and the idea that New York City is a place to be tamed for prospective students all cry out for immediate attention. Perhaps NYU’s decision to try to become a national university might also include building a top-tier campus that integrates itself into the city successfully, in ways that Columbia and Yale and others have failed to do. With its prime real estate sites and burgeoning student population, it has the wherewithal to make an indelible mark upon the Manhattan streetscape. Why would a university want to build a Bobst or a Kimmel when it can build one of tomorrow’s classics— an image it might emblazon on its stationery 100 years from now?