Every once in a while, a piece of architecture comes along that you want to like, but you can't; its execution is just too problematic. The new academic building at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art—41 Cooper Square in New York City—is one such project. It's a matter of expectation, really, and it doesn't seem unfair to think that a Pritzker Prize–winning architect—in this case, Thom Mayne of Santa Monica, Calif.–based Morphosis—should have delivered more. Almost everything about this full-block structure, from the circulation to the articulation of the façade, never realizes its full potential. Instead, the building's visitors, and I suspect its occupants, are left wanting more, contemplating architecture that might have been.

The new nine-story, 175,000-square-foot facility challenges the senses, but not always in a good way. To start, the building's zoning envelope was predetermined before the architects were ever selected. The result is a compact structure—100 feet wide by 180 feet long by 135 feet tall, with required setbacks on the north and east façades—that doesn't quite feel comfortable in its proportions and wants to be slightly slimmer and taller. And while 41 Cooper's location, on the east side of Third Avenue between 6th and 7th streets across from Cooper Square and diagonally across from Cooper's 1859 brownstone Foundation Building, does create a greater sense of campus than did the previous building that occupied the site, the architect's attempt to create public spaces is diminished when you realize that “public” means reserved for the Cooper community.

This is a shame when it comes to the building's grand gesture—a 20-foot-wide atrium staircase that rises four stories. Meant to foster an “informal social, intellectual, and creative exchange,” this “vertical piazza” is just out of the public's reach and not allowed to fulfill its destiny as a great urban public stair like others in the city, such as the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Restricted to students, the atrium stair is an overly complicated architectural gesture, and Mayne's desire for people to gather doesn't mesh with the actual proportions of the stair itself, which is very steep. The treads, although standard dimensions, are too narrow to sit on comfortably. Additionally, the areas at the bottom and the top of the stair don't have a sense of place. They're too small proportionally to the stair and not clearly defined, and you don't feel like you have arrived anywhere that has warranted this grand vertical trek.

The stair also is the departure point for the building's tenacious relationship with light. The sky-lit volume pretends to be architecture crafted from light, but it is not. Rather, it is the lighting that is being asked to give some clarity to the architecture. Unfortunately, it cannot fill that void.

First, there is not enough contrast on the steps to articulate the different surfaces. Second, the random position of the luminaires makes it difficult to figure out whether light is supposed to highlight the lattice structure that lines the walls of the atrium. Third, poor construction has left the selected spotlights' faceplates exposed instead of being recessed, and the fixtures spaced in a more randomized pattern than originally intended. This makes it impossible to position the fixtures to eliminate all potential views of the source. The Los Angeles office of Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design, who worked on the project and has worked with Morphosis several times before, selected a relatively new lamp—a 39W R111 metal halide—for its glare control characteristics, as a way to ameliorate the predicament of this challenging layout.

The sculptural lattice—composed of steel pipes covered in glass fiber-reinforced gypsum—lines the north, west, and east sides of the atrium and defines the fifth through ninth floor lobby areas and gathering spaces surrounding the atrium core. The stair appears to be carved out of a block of light—an effect created with linear fluorescent lamps set behind the stair rail panels. The soft glow helps warm the cold palette of the Piranesian space, but also calls attention to a seemingly odd choice regarding the building's circulation: a skip-stop elevator which lets you out only at the fifth and eighth floors. The architect's reason for this is to promote communication and walking. But wouldn't a proper circulation system have encouraged this naturally instead of forcing a specific circulation through the elevator stops?

Another space where architecture and lighting collide is the auditorium. The architect's decision to line the walls and ceiling with a hand-scrunched screen is quite beautiful, but the architecture doesn't leave sufficient space for the lighting. Instead of grazing the ceiling and wall surfaces with a wash of light to accentuate the texture of the screen, the luminaires are located behind the material as if it were a typical ceiling. Complicating the situation is the fact that the lighting, to meet the school's needs, employs two separate systems: dimmable compact fluorescents as the principal light source, and PAR38 incandescents when low light levels are needed or when the house lights need to dim. The two systems are not meant to be used simultaneously, but they are, and as a result the lighting reads as separate patchy spots of warm and cool light. The variation between color temperature is too great and, to someone unfamiliar with lighting, it looks like the wrong lamps were specified.

The areas where the lighting does succeed is where the architecture also is successful, namely in the corridors, labs, and classrooms. For the corridors, which are oriented north-south, continuous linear fluorescent fixtures run the length of the space. Not only does the placement of the fixtures accentuate the building's plan diagram, it also serves double duty, creating a wash of light on the classroom/lab entry walls to highlight display notices or student work.

The architecture finally hits its stride in the labs and classrooms. Because the building structure is a poured-in-place concrete design, the architects lobbied for a radiant cooling and heating system, which allowed them to achieve a 10-foot floor-to-ceiling height and have the radiant panels serve as the finished ceiling. This frees up the mechanical chases on the perimeter for work areas. The labs and classrooms are organized on a 10-foot 5-inch rectangular module and incorporate a T8 direct luminaire along with occupancy sensors, speakers, and fire detectors in the panel connection joint. The building's double skin also is at its most effective here, actually functioning as intended: to modulate the amount of natural light entering the labs by way of a metal scrim with a pattern of perforations in different densities. On the front façade the double skin is a bit precarious, as it pulls away from the secondary glass curtain wall, raising the question of whether it will actually cool the building in the summer months or heat it up.

To achieve the industrial aesthetic that is Morphosis' signature requires a high quality of construction and an attention to detail. Anything less, and the design intent and materials appear sloppy and unfinished. The architectural lighting at 41 Cooper Square often is caught between grand sculptural architectural forms and meeting the functional needs of classrooms and laboratories. The lighting is most successful when it doesn't have to respond to the overly elaborate architectural gestures and can focus on meeting the client's request for a lighting solution that is both energy efficient as well as easy to maintain.