We know you, reader. Not personally, with some exceptions. But we know what you know about green buildings, and we’re aware that when we bring up, for instance, the vanishing cost differential between building green and building brown and the shrinking payback time for return-on-investment in green building, we are generally telling you something you already know. But perhaps we’re repeating this stuff in the hopes that these manifest truths will reach some kind of critical mass in the discourse and start making itself more felt in NYC’s built environment. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have plenty of fine green buildings in New York City, but… well, my personal goal is for green building to become the new normal, and many of our most interesting new green buildings seem to fit better under the heading of “very special.” Sowhile it’s pretty silly to look at the LEED-CS Silver Diana Center at Barnard College as anything but a green building project worth celebrating, there’s also a sense in which the fact that it’s on a college campus makes its sustainability and edgy look somewhat less surprising. But while the Diana Center isn’t in the rarefied class of the Cooper Union’s LEED Platinum 41 Cooper Square, either in terms of sustainability or (to my wholly untrained eye) architectural awesomeness — and while it is, through no fault of its own, located on a college campus — the new glass prism at 117th and Broadway is a building worth celebrating. So, yeah: put your party hats on.
Built over and around the unloved McIntosh Center — a student center and bunker rolled cleverly into one — The Diana Center’s design, by the architecture firm of Weiss/Manfredi, both literally reuses much of the old McIntosh building and entirely re-imagines it. The Diana Center will be home to Barnard’s art, art history and architecture departments besides doing its other student center-y duties — cafes and event spaces and such — and if the images from inside and out on offer at Open House New York’s website are any indication, it strikes an impressive balance between the practical and the pretty in so doing. The Diana Center’s green building elements are everything they should be, as well, from such show-offy aspects as a green roof and fritted glass curtain wall to your more practical low-flow plumbing fixtures, daylighting, advanced HVAC and so on. It’s an impressive building, all told, and about as responsible and well-planned a showcase structure as a college could ask for. It’s also, and there’s no easy way around this, kind of orange. Glass panels of varying colors and frit make up the building’s public face — a streak of transparent glass runs across the face, too — and the overall chromatic appearance of the building falls somewhere between terra cotta, a tangerine and Jersey Shore‘s Snooki. In short: orange.
Which is honestly all that Real Deal architecture critic James Gardner needed to see before delivering a comparatively withering dismissal of The Diana Center today. “As for its ruddy, brownish color, I do not believe I have ever seen that specific hue adorning the facade of a building before, and to see it in Morningside Heights is to understand why: it is too glaring to accommodate any pre-existing context, and yet too subdued to achieve the sort of Gehryesque goofiness that might serve as its own justification,” Gardner writes. “Furthermore, the color is applied to the windows in a strange allusion to fritted glass whose contextual implications have no conceivable relevance to the rest of the project and serve no ostensible purpose. But properly understood, the orangey skin of the building is so subtly bizarre that perhaps it almost carries conviction.” So no: not a rave.
In a somewhat fussier but notably more favorable write-up in Architect Magazine, Joseph Giovannini seems notably more attuned to what Weiss/Manfredi were going for. “The building’s character is both urban and urbane. The scale is generous, and the sequence of spaces both civilized in its processional quality, and experiential in the way it unfolds,” he writes. “The architects looked forward rather than back, and so set the best possible example for students exploring their own creativity.”
Giovannini makes passing note of The Diana Center’s green attributes, which he praises as being part and parcel to its broader architectural goal of increased openness; Gardner, typically for him, makes no mention of the green stuff. In a certain sense, this is justifiable — while The Diana Center’s green building elements will (once again) deliver a rapid return on investment for Barnard and save the school a good deal of money in operating costs over the building’s lifetime, none of that is necessarily an architecture critic’s concern. At the same time, though — and here we are telling you something you already know, again — the idea that form can exist independent of function in this or any building seems awfully dated, and viewing or reviewing a building only in its aesthetic context seems like missing the point to a certain extent. Buildings have responsibilities beyond being beautiful, after all, and it would be nice to see those responsibilities — and successes in fulfilling them — more fully acknowledged in the discussion of new green buildings like The Diana Center. It might not help hasten green building’s necessary migration from the rarefied realms of campuses and public space and into the urban landscape, but it certainly seems like it couldn’t hurt.