A recent addition to the Columbia University campus, the unassumingly named Northwest Corner Building (550 West 120th St. and Broadway) is, in actuality, anything but. Situated on the North West corner of the campus (no surprise there), this new building, designed by the Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo, fills the void of the historic campus plan of the preeminent firm of McKim, Mead & White.
New York City owes much to this trio, who also designed the Washington Arch, the former Pennsylvania Station, many of the branch buildings of the New York Public Library, and who also employed and trained many of the future talented architects of the city, including Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Building).
The rest of the MM&W-designed Columbia campus is in the neo-classical style. But unlike Bernard Tschumi’s design for the other relatively recently built Alfred J. Lerner Hall, Moneo broke from giving even the slightest reference to those classical themes.
The main aesthetic feature of the building is articulated throughout its façade in the form of large triangulated trusses. This pattern of strong diagonals within a repetition of equal squares is offset even further by the diagonals of the vented louvers that are sporadically dispersed across the façade. The purpose of these large trusses are twofold: one, to provide a building rigid enough to be stable for high-tech science laboratories; and two, to span the school’s gymnasium, which is submerged below the main campus plaza over two stories up at this point. Columbia moved the construction of the gym from Morningside Park following a racially motivated protest in 1968 to this corner of the campus, almost hiding it with embarrassment. While much of this new building takes a different attitude towards its relationship with the community by providing for a new, albeit sheltered, connection to the street, and housing a neighborhood coffee spot (Joe’s Coffee), its massing maintains the previously criticized attitude of turning inwards to the campus and presenting a wall to the street. However, unlike the other buildings, all standing at a uniform height, this one towers way above the rest.