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Columbia U. Tries to Welcome the Neighbors — and Keeps Them at Arm’s Length

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12.11.2018

Columbia is feeling celebratory these days. It’s built itself the first wedge of a new campus that will one day cover 17 acres in Manhattanville, a valley between two viaducts north of West 125th Street. And not just an old-fashioned bunch of buildings, either, but “a new kind of urban campus,” according to the university’s president, Lee Bollinger. The architect Renzo Piano waxed even more enthusiastic on opening day, announcing that henceforth Columbia would be “not just in the city of New York, but in the streets of New York.” What manner of thing is this 21st-century campus, so new, so New York, so street? Behind closed doors, researchers and artists dig up inconceivable answers to immense questions. When it comes to architecture and urbanism, the university grappled with an age-old pedagogical question: How do we get the townies to like us? The answer, for now, is three conventionally Piano-esque buildings and a timid little plaza. Oh, and coffee.

The Manhattanville campus was always going to be more than an uptown outpost or a cluster of containers for advanced intellectual labor. Columbia has committed 16 years and $6 billion to expressing in architecture values of openness, good citizenship, and a welcoming attitude toward “the community” — that is, everyone who doesn’t have a Columbia ID. That’s partly intended to expiate the history of 50 years ago. In 1968, anger over plans to build a new gym in Morningside Park, with a separate entrance for Harlem residents, mixed with fury over the Vietnam War and combusted into student strikes and protests. The gym was scrapped but its memory remained, and, when Columbia announced plans to expand into another section of West Harlem, it was once again accused of high-handedness and gentrification. Though the university tried to project an open-armed image, it wound up securing the land through eminent domain.

Piano’s mission was to execute a nifty architectural trick: design a campus for an elite university that would love to invite the whole world in but that also prides itself on excluding almost everyone. First came the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a sleekly businesslike structure, all steel bones and glassy skin. The glass-walled ground floor contains a classroom where schoolchildren can come and learn in full view of passersby. There’s also a bouldering gym with a climbing wall (offering steep student discounts) a wellness center, and an interactive exhibit on the brain. If these are the sorts of amenities that get local residents to flow en masse through the great glass doors, there’s no evidence of that yet.

Next to open was the Lenfest Center for the Arts, which serves creativity so frictionlessly that graduates will........

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