Tuesday, February 23, 2010

mawr-fuh-sis

As often as possible I try to take advantage of my general proximity to the many great design schools in New York. The lecture schedules of Columbia, Cooper Union, Pratt, and Parsons each semester offer myriad opportunities to view influential designers speak about what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. All of the designers are proficient at expressing their ideas and narrating their work, but Thom Mayne from Morphosis Architects lays raconteurial waste to all of them. He is simply brilliant (Disclaimer: I have a Dominique Francon-like attachment to Mayne if that’s not obvious by now).

The first time I heard him speak was a few years ago at Cooper Union where he was presenting the design for the “New Academic Building” which had just broken ground and was to be the new home for the schools of Engineering and Art at Cooper Union. The presentation was loaded with complex architectural theories and even more complex architectural diagrams both of which left me with a great feeling of anticipation for the finished product. This anticipation was only bolstered by my visit to the Morphosis designed Caltrans District 7 Headquarters building in Los Angeles this past fall.

So after visiting the new building at Cooper Union I can’t decide if I am a victim of self inflicted hype or if the building is a little underwhelming. I am sure, however, that my lower than expected level of awe is at least partially due to the fact that the building is not open to the public, denying me the opportunity to view the building as a whole. From the lecture it was obvious that the atrium and grand stair that traverse the full height of the building were crucial generative components in the conception of the project. The inability to experience this shall be my scapegoat for not being entranced by this building after my visit.

Like all Morphosis buildings the Cooper Union project is an interesting exercise in how to clothe architecture. A metal screen outer layer is draped over a straight-forward glass wall. Scattered patches of the screen wall are treated with a reflective coating. These areas create an added layer of contrast that, although it is only a coating on the screen, almost read as a separate surface. This added layer of contrast helps your eye read the undulating movement of the facade while the perforation in the screen gives the facade depth.

While the facade is well-executed and articulated, the manner in which the building meets and interacts with the sidewalk below is possibly the most successful piece of the project. In a city where the sidewalks are so highly used, enough cannot be said to the importance of the first ten to fifteen feet of a building. In the Cooper Union building the skin is folded slightly upward at its bottom edge creating a sheltered area for the sidewalk below. The building offers haven to pedestrians from wind, rain, sun, or snow. Out of this upturned edge the signage for the building emerges in a move directly adapted from the Caltrans building signage.

Critiquing a Morphosis project solely based on its fa├žade is appropriate to an extent. A significant portion of their design energy is focused on the exterior of their projects. Nevertheless I feel obligated to experience the building as a whole if for no other reason than to decide if I need to start tempering my love for all things Morphosis. I see myself befriending a security guard in the near future.

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