to contrast the cloistered acropolis of columbia university’s morningside heights campus, renzo piano offers a fresh, contemporary vision of what it means to make a campus in the heart of new york city. the growing manhattanville was initially conceived out of the idea that today’s campus must foster a relationship with the surrounding community. the long-term master plan will be completed in successive phases, the first of which includes the science center, the center for the arts, and the newly completed university forum. while each building is programmatically independent, renzo piano and his team have succeeded in relating them through their materiality, structural detailing, and ground floor relationship. 


with the unveiling of the university forum, designboom takes another comprehensive look at each completed building within the rapidly expanding development.

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum
all images © frank oudeman / columbia university



columbia university’s manhattanville campus is integrated with the surrounding city. the architectural language of the buildings reflects that of the exposed steel structure of the two viaducts between which the campus is sited at broadway and riverside drive. the articulated details and exposed rooftop machinery establish a dialogue with the industrial soul and memory of the site. the campus further relates to the surrounding city as each building introduces to the campus a transparent, permeable, publicly accessible ground floor, known as the ‘urban layer.’ this urban layer serves to unify each building and extend the university community out to the sidewalk life of the neighborhood.

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



renzo piano explains:it’s a campus not just in the city of new york, but in the streets of new york.‘ 


the forum

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



the newest building to be unveiled is the third building of the campus. this ‘university forum’ compliments the science center and the center for the arts by adding an element of communication. as with the other two buildings, the ground floor comprises the transparent public ‘urban layer’ and will house cafés, restaurants, and other public functions. 

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



the forum’s architectural language is dictated by the programmatic functions within. the opacity needed for the auditorium — the largest volume within the building — is expressed on the façade with a skin of prefabricated concrete. this volume suggests a monolithic heaviness when compared with the street-level urban layer and upper-floor offices which are expressed with a transparent, glazed façade. 

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



triangular in plan to fit the boundaries of its site at west 125th street and broadway, the forum is visually transparent at street level. anyone may pass freely from the sidewalk into a forum café with wi-fi, an information center, and a ground-floor space where columbia’s schools and divisions will offer programming. the concrete floor suggests this urban layer’s role as a continuation of the sidewalk.

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum  



renzo piano and his team express the building as a purpose-built machine. structural and MEP elements are left exposed on the ground floor while mechanical systems are made visible on the roof. the expression of the structure on the urban layer reflects the industrial image of the elevated train running alongside the campus site.

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



columbia university president lee bollinger explains:the forum completes the spectacular triad of the first buildings on this new kind of urban campus, which reflects not only modern design, but modern values about how we can mutually benefit our local communities –- defined by a visual openness and civic function that welcomes everyone in to participate in what only a truly great university can do.

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



renzo piano elaborates:new york’s streets and sidewalks are woven into the fabric of the campus. this is not like the campus of earlier centuries. all the buildings are transparent, open to the public, and have amenities for the local community at street level, including plazas and green spaces for everyone to share. the architecture draws on the neighborhood’s industrial vocabulary, as you see for example with the exposed structural elements inside the forum. we think of these buildings as machines — new kinds of machines for doing scientific research, for presenting the arts, and now, with the forum, for bringing people together and communicating.


lenfest center for the arts

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



the lenfest center for the arts represents the ‘art’ component of phase one of the new campus. the building houses spaces for the school of arts as well as the ‘miriam and ira d. wallach art gallery.’ while the massing of the building is largely monolithic, the ground floor ‘urban layer’ is highly transparent. this relationship creates an impression that the building levitates above the surrounding outdoor spaces. the stacked programs include a variety of presentation spaces, including screening rooms, performance space, and exhibition space. a top-floor multipurpose space for symposia, music, and exhibitions takes advantage of natural light from an overhead skylight. 

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



moments of transparency above the ground floor are carefully calibrated so that all spaces but the screening room are open to the south. this view overlooks the courtyard and out toward the city. to reinforce the participation of the building with the neighborhood, pedestrians are able to glimpse the activity within, especially at night. depending on day-to-day needs, daylight can be controlled through a mechanical shading system. a fixed system above the top floor skylight allows northern light while blocking direct southern light. 


jerome l. greene science center

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



the science center is the first and only building of the manhattanville campus yet to be completed. the building is characterized by its luminosity and transparency with the scientific functions organized above the ground levels, allowing the building to meet the city with the permeable urban layer, continuous across the entire campus. this urban layer encourages public engagement with the brain research conducted in the building with outreach programs and an interactive installation. the outreach programs, such as the wellness center and the education lab operate with support from the mortimer b. zuckerman mind brain behavior institute. 

renzo piano columbia manhattanville forum



the research levels located above the second floor are light and transparent, allowing people to work and collaborate around the perimeter of the building. the building was designed with science, for science — the envelope subtly addresses the building’s relationship with its surrounding environmental context. a ventilated, double-skin facade of low-iron glass mitigated to acoustic concerns from the adjacent elevated subway. 

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