Last winter, Barnard College opened its first new building on campus in over a decade. Against an overcast sky, the terra-cotta red Diana Center looked matte and boxy. New York–based architects Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism's wish that the double-layered glass façade would change hue when hit with sunlight seemed whimsical as the sky darkened. A recent visit (in October) to the multiuse building promised a more chromatic display, but once again hopes were dashed by gray weather. And even on clear days, the deep rusts and orange reds described by the architects turn out to be a bit chalky. Promising phenomenon, in this case a richly saturated glass façade, is a risk.
The design of the LEED Silver–certified Diana Center represents a tension between conceptual desires and actual performance. Some things work, some don't. At eight floors (six above-grade and two below) and 98,000 square feet, the building is a substantial addition to the campus, as it hosts a laundry list of programs: student center offices, art and architecture studios, classrooms, a library, a café, a black box theater, and an ovoid event space. At the same time, it is a rather modest piece of university architecture. Located on Manhattan's Upper West Side along the west side of Broadway and across the street from Columbia University's main (Morningside Heights) campus, the center actively engages the city; its glazed façade comes right to the sidewalk edge. However, it is visually dominated by Columbia's newest construction across the street. The 188,000-square-foot Northwest Corner Building by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo towers over the Diana Center with its op-art façade made up of large panels patterned with diagonal louvers.
Compared to Moneo's robust engineering, the Weiss/Manfredi design is a delicate study in glass. The building is an experiment in transparency and it finds its place in the cannon of glass architecture, from Mies van der Rohe's Friedrichstrasse skyscraper project to Frank Gehry's expressively fritted, iceberg-like IAC Building, downtown, in Chelsea. Weiss/Manfredi used the glazed façade—its chromatic variables and optical illusion fritting—to reflect the building's program on the surface, but manages to avoid any functionalist heavy-handedness.
The Diana Center's curtain wall is composed of 1,154 clear and etched color integral glass panels. Frits gradate across the surface, modulating daylight and visibility. For architect Marion Weiss, the texture softens the boundary between inside and outside. “We tend to perceive glass as hard, but we liked the idea of chroma being brushed across the façade,” she says. “The vertical frits are biased towards one side, and, like a curtain, offers a sense of domesticity.”
Weiss' description implies that what is seen of the interior from Broadway is a performance—and it is. A number of the Diana Center's public spaces face onto the street in a series of double-height atria that rise in tiers beginning with the café at ground level, followed by a dining room, then a study lounge, and finish with the architecture and art gallery on the top floor. Inside, there's a visual connection between the diverse programs. The lighting design by the Brandston Partnership communicates the importance of these spaces. In the evening, custom pendants hung in linear arrays on each level illuminate the public areas. Four 28W T5 fluorescents in each 56-inch-long translucent acrylic fixture gives off an atmospheric glow, while a single 39W PAR30 metal halide lamp provides directional downlight. A building-wide lighting control system is programmed so that the atria lighting remains uniform.
“This building is part of the campus, part of the school environment,” explains Brandston partner and lighting designer Chou Lien. “There is a need to create a visual connection between the activities that take place in the building and the neighborhood. The lanterns provide visual penetration at night. We used the fixtures to unify the building and to create an artistic sequence.” Lien's design is successful when viewed from the sidewalk, but on the inside the pendants verge on overwhelming the spaces that they are meant to accentuate. The Brandston team constructed mock-ups and worked hard to get the fixture detailing to transcend straightforward practicality. “When the functional property diminishes, that's when then the fixture begins to look like a piece of art,” Lien says of the back and forth between designer and manufacturer.
The Diana Center is narrow, which allows daylight all the way into the building from both the east and the west. But this leaves the public spaces feeling taller than they are wide. The pendants are centered between floors, so, when looking up through the atria, a field of glowing rods punctuates the view. Looking down from the top floor art gallery into the study area below, the effect is heightened by a backdrop of carpet in shades of burnt orange and deep red. Additionally, the grid pattern established by the pendants is picked up in the hallways and event space lobby, but rendered in semi-recessed 18W compact fluorescent downlights equipped with hand-blown white opal glass diffusers. The fixture density aims for an artistic reading, but winds up being fussy, and, in the case of the dark-blue lower-level lobby outside of the black box theater, overly bright. This fussiness is surprising, because the offices, studios, and classrooms are lit functionally and economically. In fact, the double-sided mini-strip fixtures (each with two T8 lamps) used in the architecture studios are elegant in their utilitarian restraint. Each fixture is hung delicately from stainless steel cable, not rods, to reduce the number of vertical elements in the space.
The western edge of the Diana Center faces Barnard's campus and is more overtly expressive than the street façade: glazed stairwells run up the side of the building and the senior architecture studio cantilevers precariously off of the corner. A terraced, bollard-lit courtyard extends Barnard's Lehman Lawn from the main gate to Milbank Hall. In the stairwells, the design team took a simpler approach to the pendants. Similar to the custom fixtures in the public atria, here the 12-inch-long translucent acrylic cylinders are equipped with 18W compact fluorescent lamps and provide ample illumination without cluttering the sightlines. The restraint pays off.
Weiss/Manfredi designed the western face of the building to integrate it with the rest of the campus. The architects see the exposed stairs as vertical versions of the diagonal pathways that crisscross campus quads. (And in this vein, lounge areas at the landings encourage chance meetings.) The brick and concrete halls that surround the Diana Center capture Barnard's history in their detailing—the iron-and-glass greenhouse on top of Milbank, or the modernist library, Lehman Hall—and the Diana Center's glazed circulation directs the visitors' eye to the richness of the campus. Ultimately, it is not the views into the Diana Center that amaze, but the views out.