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November 24, 2009
by Murrye Bernard Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: New Buildings New York: Tour of the Cooper Union’s New Academic Building
Location: 41 Cooper Square, 11.10.09
Tour Leaders: Thom Mayne, FAIA — Founder, Morphosis; Jean Oei, Job Captian and Project Designer for 41 Cooper Square
Organizer: Center for Architecture Foundation

Cooper

Thom Mayne, FAIA, points down the central atrium at 41 Cooper Square.

Michael Toolan (www.michaeltoolan.com)

Although a passing Cooper Union student literally gasped at his presence, Thom Mayne, FAIA, principal of Morphosis, is soft-spoken and not as intimidating as his stature might convey — physically and professionally. Casually dressed in jeans and hipster-approved Converse sneakers, on a recent tour he talked about his design intentions for 41 Cooper Square, conveying his passion for shaping spaces as well as his hands-on attention to detail.

The new academic building consolidates the college’s three schools — art, architecture, and engineering — which were previously housed in separate buildings. Aiming for a LEED Platinum rating, 41 Cooper Square will be the first LEED-certified academic laboratory building in NYC. While Morphosis is known for creating dynamic forms, Mayne explained that by the time the design team, which included Gruzen Samton, was chosen by Cooper Union, the building’s size and shape were already set based on community and programmatic parameters. Within this envelope, he defined a building that is both tough and permeable. “I think the neighborhood gets its rough exterior,” he said of the double skin, comprised of an outer layer of perforated stainless steel panels and a glass-and-aluminum window wall.

In the spirit of the institution’s dedication to “free, open, and accessible education,” the building is simultaneously inviting to the public. The glazed ground floor offers a glimpse of the creative frenzy within, including a voyeuristic view into a below-grade gallery. To foster social interaction and inter-disciplinary collaboration, a central atrium draws in light, creates pockets for spontaneous conversation, and encourages physical movement. A 20-foot-wide, pre-cast concrete grand staircase was envisioned as a continuation of the street and platform for social encounters — so many students were milling about on the stairs that the tour group was in the way.

Higher in the atrium, the stairs tighten and students circulate via skywalks with rails constructed as a continuous crystalline light box. While the detailing was complicated, Mayne said that the contractors were excited by the challenge to build it, proving that his hands-on attitude during the construction process pays off. He also discussed the covering for the white sculptural latticework that defines the space. While its effect is futuristic, Mayne explained that the hand-applied glass fiber reinforced gypsum (GFRG) covering is economical and “very low-tech. It’s the same type of covering used on columns in casinos in Las Vegas.”

The building incorporates a skip-stop elevator system, which stops at floors one, five, and eight. Most students have to climb at least one flight of stairs to reach their classrooms. While there has been a backlash against this design, Mayne dismisses the dissenters by saying “too bad.” The students don’t seem to mind, and surely it helps combat the freshman 15 (the estimated weight gain of students during their freshman year).

Though the building is new, students have already begun to make their mark. Prints and scuff marks are appearing on the pristine white surfaces, which are also plastered with flyers. However, Mayne has achieved his goal to create a vibrant, interactive space within the city’s vertical confines.

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