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Thom Mayne and the New Academic Building at Cooper Union

The first time I saw the newest addition to the Cooper Union buildings, I was with a friend who wasted no time in educating me in all of its dubious qualities. Her stories of the experiences of students with the building in the midst of it being built provided plenty examples of its original flaws, such as the time it took to finish the top three floors while students occupied space in the lower floors. Though she was initially put off by its aesthetic and skeptical of its design, she did not forget to mention its many virtues and positive responses by critics of architecture. The world-renowned architect Thom Mayne was chosen to design the building in 2006. For better or worse, the building has certainly gained a sort of notoriety since then.

Cooper Union’s new academic building is just one of the many building projects that Mayne has been involved in through the firm he founded, Morphosis. Other recent works of his include several projects for the United States government, such as a Federal Office Building in San Francisco, California, a courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, and the NOAA Satellite Operation Control Facility in Suitland, Maryland. He has been contracted to design private residences in the past, won a competition to design the 2012 Olympic Village in New York City, and has innumerable other projects completed. One of his most widely recognized projects to date is the Diamond Ranch High School in California. The high quality of his work and his clear vision as an architect over the span of his career has won him the distinction of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. His work is so varied and prolific that over time, he has achieved twenty-five Progressive Architecture Awards, and no less than fifty-four American institute of Architect awards.

Mayne seems to defy traditional styles to create something new with his designs. As lead designer of his firm Morphosis Architects, he has always worked “with the goal of developing an architectural style that would surpass the boundaries of traditional forms and materials” (News From the Cooper Union). Even in articles featuring him as the recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2005, he was referred to as a “maverick” and the “angry young man of Los Angeles Architecture” (Pogebrin). His uniquely bold style has certainly gained popularity over the years, as evidenced by the demand from the public and private sector for his firm to design dozens of new, different building projects.

The startlingly different face of the new academic building in contrast to the ones surrounding it gives all of Cooper Square a new look. In articles about the building on Cooper Union’s own website, similarities in shape and size have been found of the new academic building to its neighbor across the square. That, however, is where the superficial similarities end. The ultra modern appearance of the building, enhanced by the materials used—concrete, stainless steel, etc.—stands in utter contrast to the older brownstone buildings.

The congruity of intention with which the buildings were built, however, cannot go unmentioned. As the president of Cooper Union, Dr. George Cambell commented concerning Mayne’s ideas behind the design, “the belief that space can inspire learning embodies Cooper Union’s intention to create an academic building that will have the same impact that the Foundation Building had on higher education in 1859.” The old Cooper Union Foundation Building was a model of innovation when it was first built in 1853 (completed in 1859) because of the newly invented iron materials used in its construction and because of its passenger elevator. Likewise, the new academic building was built with several different goals in mind, all of them trying to bring something new and innovative to Cooper Union, whether it be about keeping to rigorous new environmental standards or creating a new atmosphere conducive to social and academic growth.

The interior of the new academic building was designed around an open staircase that extends to the top of the nine-story structure. The space is specifically meant to bring the students together and foster more interdisciplinary interaction. Where the different schools within the Cooper Union were previously housed in separate buildings, the new academic building brings them together. Following this line of thought, the passenger elevators within the school open only onto the fifth and eighth floors forcing students not only to exercise by climbing at least one set of stairs to get to classes, but also to venture out onto the architectural marvel that is the spiraling stairs and walkways. Everything about this building, from the opaque outer walls, to the use of indoor windows, student lounges, and open design is to encourage the free flow of ideas and a feeling of camaraderie.

Of course, the never-ending stairs and light filled space have more to them than just the idealistic: they contribute to its environmentally friendly design. The limited use of the elevators in addition to the use of natural lighting and the pseudo-insulating properties of the outer steel layer of the building helped it recently to achieve the LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, a higher rating than was ever previously projected.

Mayne’s stylistic fingerprints are all over the new academic building. From the genius behind the environmental aspects to the creative shaping of the internal space and adherence to the principles set forth by the founder himself, while still keeping the bold modern style he is known for, the brilliance of the architect shines as clearly as the sun through the stainless steel of the building’s walls.

Works Cited

News From the Cooper Union. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.

Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “The Civic Value of a Bold Statement.” New York Times, 29 June 2009. Print.

Pogrebin, Robin. “American Maverick Wins Pritzker Prize,” New York Times, 21 Nov. 2005. Print.

“Thom Mayne.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 02 Nov. 2010

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