Where Old and New Collide

By joining two historic buildings, Steven Holl’s modern addition to Pratt’s architecture school makes a more vibrant campus.

When Frank Gehry was hired to design the vast Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn, he tried to persuade developer Bruce Ratner to assign parts of the project to other architects. Gehry told me he was worried that by handling the entire job himself he would deprive Brooklynites of the variety of styles that makes cities generally (and their borough in particular) vital. Some kinds of architecture, he seemed to say by asking Ratner for help, are most effective when forced to coexist with other kinds of architecture.

So far Gehry hasn’t convinced Ratner to farm out parts of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards. But proof of the wisdom of his approach to urbanism is visible just a mile away, where a new building for the architecture school at Pratt Institute opened last year. Steven Holl’s 22,500-square-foot light box, known as Higgins Hall, slips cleanly between a pair of elaborate nineteenth-century buildings. Holl’s glowing object would have looked out of place (even otherworldly) on an empty lot. Paradoxically it seems right at home sharing a block front with the two Victorian-era structures, which have themselves been smartly updated by Rogers Marvel Architects (who were also architects of record for the Holl addition).

At its best, Steven Holl’s architecture is conceptually rich and aesthetically vibrant—both qualities that are much in evidence at Pratt. But it is the more than 100-year-old architecture embracing it that makes his building a successful “urban intervention.” More and more Holl has been experimenting with slipping futuristic buildings into dense cities. New and old can most effectively coexist if they don’t try to meet on some wobbly middle ground, Holl said in the inaugural lecture at Higgins Hall’s auditorium. Happily the building says it even better. The lines between Pratt’s nineteenth-century architecture and Holl’s twenty-first-century contribution couldn’t be clearer—the result being that neither undermines the other.

Designing an architecture school presents a novel set of problems. For one thing, there’s the too-many-cooks dilemma. Faculty members and hundreds of students spend days and nights designing the new building in their heads—and can’t help but offer opinions. As several architects experienced in the process have told me, when you design an architecture school “everyone’s a client.”

Then there is the question of whether the building should serve as an avatar of the anointed architect’s personal predilections. Much like the debate in the museum world—should a building provide a neutral background for art or aspire to be a work of art in itself?—the architecture school has to choose sides: showpiece or utilitarian setting where students’ own ideas can flourish. Most famous among the showoffs is Yale’s Art & Architecture Building, designed by Paul Rudolph and unveiled—to ceaseless controversy—in 1963. Princeton’s building (by Fisher, Nes, Campbell, and Partners, of Baltimore), completed the same year, couldn’t be more different: generally well liked but not original enough to arouse strong opinions.

Not surprisingly in an age of “starchitects,” self-effacing architecture school buildings are the exception. The art and design school at the University of Cincinnati is all-Eisenman-all-the-time. The Cooper Union’s new building, set to break ground in June, will be an East Coast showpiece for Pritzker winner Thom Mayne. But at Pratt—which has 662 architecture students (and 48 more in urban planning and design)—dazzling was never on the agenda. A large part of the architecture building burned down in 1996. Thomas Hanrahan, who became dean that same year, had to get the school rebuilt quickly with a budget set largely by an insurance company. Pratt’s architecture school has long been housed in an H-shaped former secondary school built in stages in the late nineteenth century. The ends of the H were connected by a central auditorium and a gym. “You had to go through the auditorium to get from one wing to the other,” Hanrahan says. And there was no recognizable front entrance since each wing had its own small doorway. Worst of all, the antiquated architecture relegated students to cubbies and garrets. As a result, the dean recalls, the school was “Balkanized—it was hard to know what anyone else was doing.”

Perhaps, then, it was almost lucky that the fire (caused by faulty vending-machine wiring) did the most damage to the center section. That allowed the school to continue to function in the south and north wings while the link was rebuilt. Within weeks of taking charge, Hanrahan called Holl and asked him to design the new connector. Holl was a gutsy choice, not just because of his longtime association with rival Columbia University but because he was still an up-and-comer. In 1996 Holl was best known in New York for the modest Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed with Vito Acconci; his breakthrough Kiasma museum was more than a year away. But working with his trusty watercolors, Holl came up with a design within a month. “They needed it to collect the insurance,” he joked at a recent lecture.

The program for Holl’s building—an auditorium below grade, a lobby and gallery at street level, and two floors of studios upstairs—was straightforward. What wasn’t straightforward was his decision to exploit the fact that the floors of the north and south wings are misaligned, sometimes by nearly seven feet. Holl’s signature shape is the oddly proportioned L—think of the pivoting panels of the Storefront—and changes in floor height gave him an excuse to indulge his predilection. The level changes introduce Ls in section, and the ramps (inserted perpendicular to the facade) introduce Ls in plan, making Holl’s geometry seem like a natural response to the environment. On the front and rear facades, at each point where a ramp begins or ends, a clear window is set into the otherwise translucent surface. The front facade—an abstract composition, with some of the red-painted frames continuing beyond the windows—is a projection of the dissonance inside the building, according to Holl. Because even the “solid” parts are made of structural channel glass, the entire wall glows at night. At the same time the dark brick bookends disappear so that Holl’s link, set back from the street, jumps out. What is background by day is foreground by night, and vice versa—old and new alternate in the starring role.

Despite Holl’s speed as a designer—the building completed last year is almost exactly as he first sketched it—construction was delayed for seven years. At the time of the fire, emerging Manhattan firm Rogers Marvel Architects had been working on several small renovation projects, and Pratt asked them to help restore the north wing (which had suffered water damage when the fire was extinguished). As layers of rotted wood and plaster were stripped away, structural problems were exposed, and the renovation became increasingly complex. That and the need to address 100-year-old water damage in the south wing meant that the start date for Holl’s project was repeatedly postponed.

Rogers Marvel principal Rob Rogers says the job was like an archaeological dig. “First you’d find a jack arch. Then you would see relieving arches,” he says, describing structural uses of brick that predate the invention of reinforced concrete. “Then cast-iron columns.” Rather than try to regularize the eccentric interiors—which would have been maddening and futile—they determined to “uncover and reveal the best moments,” Rogers says. The result is a kind of palimpsest of stone, brick, wrought iron, and old timbers. Rogers says the approach—exposing everything that can be exposed—provides a lesson in how buildings are made. He refers to it as “a subtle pedagogy.”

Holl independently decided on a similar lesson plan. “I really had an a priori idea of exposing all the elements,” he says, “of letting students learn how it’s put together just by looking at it.” His building is supported by six giant concrete columns that were trucked in from Canada and installed while students watched, “like Tinkertoys,” Hanrahan says. The structure—including epoxy joints that are usually covered—was left completely bare. Holl says, “It’s very, very naked, and that’s deliberate because it’s an architecture school.” Students will see the contrast between the fine-grained Canadian concrete (of the precast elements) and what Holl calls the “crummy” concrete you get in New York—the latter almost a cartoonish parody of the former. Has any architecture school ever provided a more important lesson?

To be sure, the architects did as much dressing as undressing. Rogers and partner Jonathan Marvel added clever modern touches to the old dungeonlike spaces. Fluorescent lights are arranged in the studios like sprinkles on an ice-cream cone (rather than in the expected rows) and cast-iron columns slip into round recesses in the ceiling—both simple details that add style at minimal cost. What Rogers Marvel did, in effect, was add a series of modern “accessories” to an old building without ever trying to make old look new, or vice versa. As luck would have it Holl’s $10.5 million addition took precisely the same approach. The high-tech skin of the new building fits seamlessly between the masonry buildings.

It helps that Higgins Hall’s bathrooms, elevators, and much of the HVAC systems are all contained in the north and south wings (and all were revamped by Rogers Marvel). That meant Holl’s interiors could be wide open and unencumbered, furthering the contrast between old and new. Because Holl didn’t include separate hallways, everyone walks through the studios to get from one side of the building to the other. That creates “a forced interaction,” says student Keith Gratkowski. Holl compares the effect to that of the midstory “social spaces” he created at MIT’s Simmons Hall by “drilling through from one floor to another, so you end up meeting someone you might not otherwise meet.”

That forced interaction goes beyond the architecture program. Thanks to Holl’s handsome basement auditorium, other departments are now scheduling events in the architecture school (a block from Pratt’s main campus), which Hanrahan says makes him “ecstatic.” In addition, the building now has a clear and generously proportioned entry sequence. Both the lobby and the brick-covered outdoor plaza have become popular gathering places.

Promoting social interaction pleases Holl, who increasingly sees himself as more of an urbanist than an aesthete. His Pratt design is meant to model a method of slipping new buildings into existing neighborhoods without blurring the lines between the two. That fits with the institute’s agenda. Under president Thomas Schutte, and with the guidance of trustee Robert Siegel (of Gwathmey, Siegel & Associates), Pratt has been adding new buildings while restoring many old ones—a best-of-both-worlds approach for which the architecture school is both a microcosm and a symbol.

But what of the forced interaction among designers? Because Rogers and Marvel formed their firm early in their careers, Rogers says, “It was good for us to have the experience of working with another office.” Holl says, “Architecture is all about collaboration. The collaboration is easier when you have a clear idea.” Indeed, if there weren’t “too many cooks” on Higgins Hall, it’s because Holl’s recipe arrived complete.

Students have a few complaints about the architecture school’s new home. Some say the temperature in the building is difficult to control and that there are no outlets in the new studio floors, requiring them to run their computers off extension cords trailing across the concrete floor slabs. There are concerns about acoustics; some report that the hard-surfaced studios are too noisy when everyone is working. Others point out that the ramps in front of the building, made in part from bricks salvaged from the 1996 fire, are likely to be treacherous in winter.

But that’s all minor stuff. Pratt students have neither a bland “background” building nor a showoff structure that overshadows their own originality. They can only gain from the experience of having Steven Holl design a new building at the same time Rogers Marvel was updating a pair of old ones. If the students—who like many of their contemporaries have been producing buildings that look like soap bubbles and skeletons—begin returning to more robust forms, it could be a direct result of what they see every day: new architecture that strengthens the old buildings around it.

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