41 Cooper Square: Thom Mayne's Brazen Stair-Obsessed Marvel


Photos: Iwan Baan
If You Think It's Shocking on the Outside...
Thom Mayne isn't known for easy or gentle buildings, and his new Cooper Union academic building is no exception. It's a determined smack in New York's architectural face. But the city is in shake-up mode, and with a spectacular, luminous exterior, an airy central atrium, an elevator that only stops on three floors, and some of the best stairs - yes, stairs - we've ever seen, it's more than welcome.

LEED platinum or not, it's already one of the world's standout green designs. A Light, Airy Vertical Campus

The LA-based Mayne - famous for his swooping, swerving, singing shapes - isn't used to being boxed in, but that's what zoning called for at Cooper Square, across the street from Cooper Union's majestic 1858 building, and just near two modern and antiseptic towers by Charles Gwathmey and Carlos Zapata.

Still, even within the tight, boxy restrictions, Mayne managed magic. A flexible, 175,000 square foot "vertical campus" housing high-tech engineering labs, arts and architecture studios and student spaces, the building is innovative from the inside out.

When the industrialist Peter Cooper founded his school, he sought to provide an education "as free as air and water." The building embodies that spirit too, from the central sun-lit atrium and the spaces that spin off of it to the sexy sun-catching steel facade.


An Inviting Central Atrium

The building's central atrium draws students upwards -- and invites them to relax and talk -- with a grand staircase that reaches up to the third floor. From there, a series of staggered skywalk stairs lead up to an overhead skylight. Taking the stairs is great for the environment and our bodies, and Mayne's building is one of those valuable and increasingly common attempts to make them part of our lives again.

A simple but complex-looking sculptural web wraps around the inside of the atrium, adding a layer of sophistication to the interior view. Although fire code typically prohibits open spaces as tall as this, the architects managed a work-around using steel shutters that drop down on each floor during a fire.

Speaking of fire, the building has done away with the typical fire stairwells -- dingy, out-of-the-way, closed affairs. Instead, Mayne designed inviting fire stairwells perched at two ends of the building that are swathed in a translucent material, allowing daylight in and glows from the inside out at night.


Skip-Stop Elevators and Stairs

We love that the building doesn't just entice people toward the stairs - it nudges them in that direction too. Borrowing an idea pioneered by Corbusier and Soviet constructivist Moisei Ginzberg in the 1920s and used previously in Morphosis's San Francisco Federal Building and Caltrans District 9 Headquarters in Los Angeles, Mayne has incorporated a skip-stop elevator that only stops on the first, third and eighth floors; to get elsewhere, students and faculty simply walk up or down. (Those in wheelchairs or transporting large objects can opt to take two other elevators that reach every floor.)

The system not only saves energy and costs (as much as 10 percent of a typical building's energy use goes into elevator use), but it cuts down on the foot traffic that forms around elevator doors, and encourages healthy physical activity. It's a nice antidote to New York's elevator culture -- one that may have, ironically, begun at Cooper Union: it was Peter Cooper's 1853 design for the original building that included the world's first elevator shaft.

Though the building is meant to put the elevator out of mind, Mayne knows not everyone will take to the idea of skip-stop elevators and stairs immediately (there have been complaints about this feature in his San Francisco building, as well as laments about that building's natural ventilation system). But he compares his innovations to a car's seat belt or cup holder, jarring interventions that are now standard.

The intent is, appropriately, didactic. "I'm interested in shaping behavior," says Mayne. "The stairs and skip-stop elevators "make people think and organize yourselves in a way. I couldn't possibly be an architect if I thought I were a cake decorator."

"Somehow architecture alters the way we think about the world and the way we behave. Any serious architecture, as a litmus test, has to be that."


Spaces That Encourage Sociability

Movement by foot rather than by machine also encourages a "vertical campus" feel and the kind of lively social connectedness not typically found in tall structures.

With plenty of views to other levels and out onto nearby Cooper Square, the atrium's main staircase and the landings on each floor aren't dead spaces, but become meeting places and opportunities for learning and interacting. In that way, the building uses its snaking stair to bring the vitality of the street into the building. The concrete that courses throughout is also a reminder of its urban connection.


Sexy, Energy Smart Facade: Concrete Legs Beneath a Steel Gown

Covering an otherwise standard glass and aluminum window wall is a stunning skin of stainless steel panels that swing open to let light in and keep heat out as needed. This approach, which Mayne also used to heavier aesthetic effect on the skins in L.A. and San Francisco, cuts solar radiation during the summer and serves as an insulator in cold weather.

The skin's transparency also means that during the day, 75 percent of the building is lit by the sun, cutting energy costs and brightening up the atmosphere inside.

The building, which was designed to receive a LEED Platinum rating, is 40 percent more energy efficient than a standard building of its type.

On top, a green roof also helps insulates the building, reduces "heat island" effect, and provides storm water runoff and water harvesting.

A cogeneration plant also provides additional power to the building, recovers waste heat and effectively cuts energy costs.

A large gash in the skin, looking like a hieroglyph or Chinese calligraphy, reveals a slab of glass that telegraphs to the street the brainy activity going on inside. It also gives students and faculty a healthy view of Cooper Square, of gardens sprouting atop nearby townhouses, and of the historic 1859 Cooper Union building, which the new structure echos in its size and shape.


Cooper Square in 1905, with the original Cooper Union building and, far right, the site of the new building
A Transformer-like Exterior That Lights Up the Hood

The facade is, befitting its Lower East Side location - near St. Mark's Place and the old site of CBGBs - driven by a theatrical flair and punk sensibility. The raw concrete of the building's exterior columns, sometimes jutting out from under the steel curtain at sharp angles, anchor the building firmly to its site, and provide unlikely places for students to sit (even if not all of them are functional).

It may not please everyone, but its marriage of crazed form and smart function ought to get architecture buffs, designers and -- most importantly -- students, talking about what a green academic building can be.

If the columns are thick hairy legs, the steel scrim is the eye-grabbing gown. Changing colors with the light, at moments, the perforated facade can sometimes shine, sometimes echo the matte finish of SANNA's New Museum, just a few blocks south. At night, interior lights transform the building into a massive cubist lantern.

The effect adds a desirable sophistication to the streetscape, encouraging walks through the neighborhood and begging us to do something we don't do often enough these days, in a New York bathed in recent real estate excess and constricted by economic woe: to just look up and wonder.



The lobby
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