Cooper Square / Willie Herrmann

Modern Problems

Last December, eleven students from Cooper Union entered the eighth floor of the school’s Foundation Building, where they remained for the next seven days. The students barricaded themselves in to protest the possibility that Cooper Union, the 154 year-old tuition-free institution in New York’s East Village, would begin charging undergraduate students. They remained there for the next seven days, demanding that the school’s president resign and that Cooper Union “publicly affirm the college’s commitment to free education.”

It was fitting that the students chose the Foundation Building and not its contemporary counterpart, the adjacent 41 Cooper Square. The Foundation Building has a long history of civic engagement. It was the site of Lincoln’s eponymous 1860 Address that pushed him towards the Presidential nomination. Since then, it has been the site of Presidential appearances, speeches from foreign dignitaries, and protests.

41 Cooper Square, on the other hand, is a four-year old contemporary work designed by the prominent Pritzker-prize winning architect, Thom Mayne. It has been a welcome addition to the area, as other modern buildings, like the Standard Hotel and the Gwathmey Siegel high-rise, have worked to bring downtown some of the least appealing aspects of midtown modernism. 41 Cooper, however, arrived not as a luxury office building or hotel but as part of a school, creating gathering places in its large open interior and carving out public spaces along its exterior on Cooper Square. Even its design—with a large chunk of its western façade opened up to expose its structure—seemed to be a welcoming gesture toward the outside area.

These design decisions were excellent responses to a frequent challenge for modern buildings in low-rise urban areas—the challenge to get involved. Big glass towers, like the ones that have become increasingly common in Cooper Square and nearby Astor Place, are testaments to exclusivity. The Gwathmey tower, in particular, has a curvy, uninterrupted façade of completely mirrored glass that seems impenetrable to the outside neighborhood. Residents can look out, but passerbys see only themselves.

This has been the principle problem with modern architecture in recent decades. When the architectural roots of the contemporary all-glass boardroom started appearing in French villas and German architecture schools in the 1920s and 30s, its foundational thinkers had egalitarian visions that, despite hyperbolic and lofty rhetoric, made sense. But over the years, this democratic vision started to become co-opted by overwrought developers and gentrified neighborhoods undergoing more rounds of gentrification. Modernism started to become a symbol not of inclusion, but of luxury and excess.

The one phrase about modernism remembered even by the kid who failed his architecture final, “A house is a machine for living,” was a testament to functionality and the idea that architecture could be reduced to a few foundational elements. This was democratizing; mass-production and standardization and pre-fabrication would make housing more affordable and accessible when compared with grand styles of earlier eras. As is clear today, the opposite happened. A retail store called Design Within Reach sells Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona® chair (note the trademark) for five thousand dollars and somehow considers that to be “within reach.” Modern architecture and its sleek floor-to-ceiling windows quickly became the aesthetic of the corporate and the wealthy. And as a result, we have buildings like the East Village Standard and the in-construction office building 51 Astor Place, each embodying modern-as-fancy architecture.

Ironically, when a practical idea is conceived by artists and not industrialists, it can quickly become the property of the industrialists. A democratizing idea must be put in the right hands, lest it receive so much recognition to be labeled avant-garde and sold to the highest bidder. There are plenty of reasons that Frank Gehry’s 1970s line of cardboard furniture, now sold for over two thousand dollars a chair, never became the low-cost household accessory he envisioned. One of them is that when the line was conceived he was a broke architect playing around in his studio and not Ingvar Kamprad sitting in an IKEA boardroom with an infrastructure and a supply chain to deploy. Unless my all-white plaster-walled dorm rooms in college could have been passed off as Bauhaus minimalism—I think ”insane asylum” was a more common description— the all-glass box, in good taste or not, is a mark of wealth.

And so that leaves us with the contrast of two architectural languages in Cooper Square—one modern, one pre-war—and 41 Cooper trying to be a bold rejoinder between the two.

After the protest, the Cooper Union occupiers descended empty-handed. The college president still had his job and signed no documents guaranteeing tuition would remain at zero. It’s doubtful the protestors ever expected such demands to be granted, saying that they were satisfied enough with the attention they had raised. In the time since, little has changed. The administration has continued to deliberate over the undergraduate tuition issue, continually postponing a decision while different parties within the school continue to voice dissent.

And throughout, 41 Cooper, a building with “a brash, rebellious attitude” according to the critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, was somehow quieted. It’s easy to imagine students shuffling into its grand open spaces and relaxing in its ground floor coffee shop without troubling themselves with the problems springing up across the street. In times of genuine struggle, even a building with so much promise of becoming a public monument seemed to shrink away from conflict.

And that leaves Cooper Square in danger of losing the battle to modernism’s excesses. Two structures embodying the neighborhood’s low-rise character are scraping along to survive. The Village Voice building had to kick out the Village Voice, and the Cooper Union Foundation Building is plastered in “Save Our School” graffiti. Meanwhile, luxury glass high-rises – two already exist in Cooper Square and Astor Place, and a third is almost completed – grow more imposing. The challenge of 41 Cooper will be to do what modern buildings have so much difficulty doing today—to look out and not in. When we see its lobby plastered in protest fliers, we know it will have been successful.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Lampposted.