Since its founding in October 1919, The New School has been an international destination for independent and provocative minds. Since 2014, its architectural nerve center has been an SOM-designed building on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
In keeping with The New School’s motto, “To the Living Spirit,” its University Center creates an unmistakable, energetic presence. Glass-enclosed stairwells climb across the building’s bronze facade to reveal the bustling campus within. Unlike the horizontal layout of a traditional college campus, the 16-story building stacks the diverse activities of the university within a single New York City block. Its lower seven floors contain studios, classrooms, labs, an auditorium, library, cafeteria, a faculty resource room, faculty offices, student lounges, and a lobby/cafe — all navigated through a unique wayfinding system created with multidisciplinary graphic designer Ruedi Baur. The remaining nine floors hold 600 dorms, adding an extra layer to building’s daily hum.
With the institution’s centennial occurring this month, we asked Jon Cicconi, an associate director at SOM and one of the architects of the building, to reflect on the project and how the final design came to be.
What was the site like before SOM started design work?
Jon Cicconi: The site was home to a two-story, windowless retail mall from the ’50s on a part of Fifth Avenue where most of the buildings are around 15 stories high. The New School eventually acquired it, made some modifications to bring in natural light, and turned it into a student center. It was dark and not at all worthy of the institution, but it also functioned as the library and became the one space students really felt was theirs. So even though administrators knew the building was far from ideal, the process of decamping from that building took quite a while. A temporary library was built while our project was being constructed, but the school lost quite a bit of student space in the interim, so there were protests and sit-ins. It was a complicated process.
And what was the school’s overall footprint before the University Center project?
The university has various buildings spread out through the Village, but there was no single building that really served as the center of the campus. There was one unconventionally designed structure, which was purpose-built for them in 1930, designed by Joseph Urban [Austrian-born architect, illustrator, and theater set designer who also designed the Hearst Tower]. It’s mid-block and not easy to find.
The university had been gearing up for years to put something on the Fifth Avenue site that would unite the entire university and wanted to make sure there were enough resources in it that it would draw from every one of its eight schools. The school has always had a countercultural mentality. It started as The New School for Social Research and welcomed scholars who were expelled from Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe for their progressive beliefs before finding a home in Greenwich Village. It grew over the years, acquiring a mix of likeminded schools for music, performing arts, liberal arts, design, and public engagement. They wanted this building to have something for everyone — a place where people could rub shoulders and learn from each other.
What did SOM originally come up with?
SOM had been involved with the project since 2005. Our initial concept provided the campus center that The New School was looking for, and that program didn’t originally call for residences. The renderings of this first concept were online for several years, and ended up being the face of the project for a long time. Eventually the team decided to shrink down the academic part by half and add student residences. This not only fulfilled a need for housing, but also helped to make the project financially viable.
And it is important to note that we were able to deliver the project on budget and on schedule. Design on the building as it was built started in 2009, construction started in 2011, and it opened in January 2014.
What was behind the decision to make the stairwell the focal point of the design?
Vertical educational buildings are still a relatively new typology and the issue they create is one of circulation. If the school is on the bell schedule, the entire population of the building changes floors in a 10-minute period. In a vertical building that relies on elevators primarily, the system gets overwhelmed and creates long wait times. That’s what makes the circulation in an academic building very different from an office or residence — everyone is moving around at the same time.
We had modeled the circulation extensively before we started drawing anything, when we were still working on the programming. We decided on a skip-stop system — a method of using stairs to supplement the elevators during peak times — which reduced the number of elevators needed and made for a more efficient traffic flow. At peak hours, the elevators stop only at floors 1, 4, and 6, allowing students to then move through the stairwell which connects all seven academic floors. As a result, the stair becomes the place where everybody on campus crosses paths.
The program included many spaces reserved for casual, social interactions, so we connected these social spaces through the stairs, thereby creating an intuitive system for movement that animates the building. As part of the design process, we ended up inventing a diagonal fire egress stair which became the most prominent feature of the building — and then it just made sense to express it on the outside.
How has the new building changed or enhanced the university’s image?
I’ll show you something. I’m going to type “The New School” into Google Images now and — look — the result is almost entirely pictures of this building. I didn’t google the building, I googled the institution. The building has become its symbol. Paula Scher at Pentagram even developed a new typographic logo for them based in part on the building’s appearance. It’s an enormous talent attractor for them.
The building fits in with the boom of new higher education facilities built around the city during that time. How does it stand apart from other recent academic projects?
One thing The New School really wanted out of the new building was a student center component. We did a lot of benchmarking to figure out what was right for this particular project. The building at Cooper Union, for example, has one central atrium that all of the circulation moves through. Instead, we made the choice to have a series of more intimate, two-story spaces, connected to the exterior and spread throughout the building. We decided that a series of smaller spaces would encourage students to feel comfortable using them — and you can see that they are certainly active and well-used spaces when you walk the building today.
In SOM Journal 10, there’s a critique of your design and one of the comments is that it doesn’t look like an SOM building. But this is featured prominently by the firm as an example of what it can do for education clients, so how would you describe its SOM-ness?
I remember reading that, and I have been reflecting on this comment a lot over the years. I agree that aesthetically, the project pushes the boundaries of what an SOM project can be — but at its heart, it’s very much an SOM building. It embodies the spirit of invention inherent in SOM’s best work. Also, it is highly sustainable, well crafted, and has clarity of expression relative to its intent. The project has been highly transformative — for both The New School and for SOM — and it has advanced the conversation throughout the profession about how to design urban academic buildings.
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