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CORRECTION:   In the WVN October issue, the front page article “When To Ask a Politician For a Favor” included a photo caption incorrectly stating that the West Village needed 1,000 new elementary schools seats, when, as reported by WVN Education Editor Sara Hendrickson in her October article (also on the front page), the projected shortage is for 1,000 elementary school seats in the sub-district south of 14th Street within the next five years. In regards to St. John’s Terminal, her article referenced that community members were contemplating a variety of uses, including a school, for this potential development project. 

On the day last year that I passed the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street I looked at the concrete frame being raised there and noticed that the third floor column was not straight! Do they know that it is out of alignment? Should I tell someone? As the frame went up in succeeding weeks, the anomalies increased, bent columns, crooked columns, gigantic triangles raking upward at angles in the facade. This was clearly not a conventional rectangular concrete frame. The builder is the New School and the architect is Roger Duffy of the firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

The form is large and bulky, filling the footprint to the edges of the property. While it is built to the full as-of-right floor area allotted under zoning law, it does not take advantage of the bonus provided for community facilities to which the school is entitled. The original design did however, and resulted in a tall glass tower. The school yielded to community opposition, chiefly from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and reduced the building to its present size. The 16 story 354,000 square foot building consists of a dormitory rising over and set back from a base containing the university center including an 800-seat auditorium sitting lightly off the main lobby. An event cafe with a 25 foot ceiling is tucked under the auditorium. The top two floors of the center contain the library which acts as a transition between the dorm above and the university center. Elevators stop at alternate floors, requiring additional walking for some.

The creative brilliance in the design of this building appears in the crystalline fracturing of the glass facade into an extraordinarily complex and beautiful form. I met with Mr. Duffy on site one day in July. “What you see on the outside comes from the design of the inside,” he said. The large diagonal trusses not only brace the building but hold the stairs which were moved from conventional interior locations to the exterior walls. “The stairmaster is dedicated to the art of urban climbing. The city is always kept in view.” The glazing folded into pleats of a horizontal glass skirt allows the viewer “to look down at street life.” Even more brilliant is the folding in of the fire stairs, which are normally closed in separated dark concrete towers, between the public stairs on the exterior. Duffy was able to get approval of day lit exterior fire stairs utilizing a heat resistant tempered glass. “The climbing experience is pretty magical,” he said. “You see the city in a different way.”

For Mr. Duffy, the design is about utilizing daylight to provoke the interaction of students in a “hive of activity and energy.” Borrowed daylight even penetrates the inside through high interior windows. “The experience of form is what the art is all about.” I asked him what artists were a strong influence on his approach. He mentioned James Turrell who said that “in darkness you see the color of light.” It is true that daylight is the main driver in the form of this building. In what I initially saw as an idiosyncratic shaping of apparently arbitrary shapes grew from an inner conviction that was enunciated by architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function.” These are not accidental fractures, but a true reflection of an architectural idea. I feel these shifts in the glass plates and change of surfaces in my body. The building energizes me in a way the more flat, but decorative, buildings on 14th Street do not. In this building, architecture has broken the rigidity of so much of our urban environment while respecting the context of the surrounding rectilinear streets.

The New School broke new ground with its modern design on 12th Street by Joseph Urban in 1933. It houses unique murals there by Jose Clemente Orozco. The Greenwich Village campus has expanded south to 11th Street and north and east along 13th Street and now has placed the University Center at the New School on 14th Street at Fifth Avenue, its showpiece. “We are thrilled with the result,” exclaimed Sam Biederman, spokesperson for the school. “It is an informal landmark at birth where people constantly stop to take pictures.”

Roger Duffy has also prepared extraordinary designs for two towers that would flank the entrance to Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street if the proposed Midtown East Zoning is implemented. He is a modest deeply committed artist. The University Center at the New School is scheduled to open in January.

 

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