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Diana Center: Mixed-use and Misused

As an Architecture major at Columbia, I spend most of my days in or around the Diana Center on Barnard’s campus. The center was designed by architects Weiss/Manfredi and built in 2010, replacing the intimidating McIntosh Center. There has been a lot of discussion going on either praising the building or questioning whether its luminous, orange exterior is a harmonious completion to Barnard’s campus. Instead of focusing on mere aesthetics of it, I want to examine the main two features of the Diana Center, from both programmatic and visual points of view. According to Weiss/Manfredi, the center “establishes a new nexus for social, cultural, and intellectual life at Barnard College” by connecting different disciplines and activities housed in the building through spatial elements. Those elements are ascending double-height glass atria on the East side of the building and a glazed staircase integrated into the West façade.  

Barnard Optional11 Sketch Cropped

Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

The connected voids of 3 double-height atria link together different uses of the center: the lowest atrium is occupied by a dining space or informal communication space, the second atrium is intended for a study area, while the last one, spanning 4th and 5th floors, is a gallery space for exhibitions and presentations. The glass walls of the atria provide visibility between them; standing in the gallery on the 4th floor, you can see clearly all the way down to the café on the first level. This connectivity of spaces is intended to link the academic, social, and recreational usages of the building. The diagonal axis of these voids is also readable from the outside. Facing Barnard’s campus from Broadway, you can discern the three connected spaces – especially at night, when they are illuminated from the inside. This play with the transparency and luminosity of the façade elegantly opens the space to the outside community; you can guess what activities are taking place in the center without stepping foot on Barnard’s campus.

Pw View From Gallery

Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

However, the connection between these spaces ends at the visibility. There is no literal connection between the atria – to get from one to another, you need to step out of them and take an elevator or a staircase at the opposite site of the building. The transparent walls of the atria allows for a glimpse, but not for an interaction, between the spaces.

Av Landscaped Terraces

Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

Similarly, the glass-covered staircase situated along the West side of the building is a beautiful space from both the inside and the outside that brings a lot of natural light into the building, but it does not necessarily encourage connections or serve as a nexus of different disciplines, activities, and people at Diana. The transparent glass allows for complete visibility of the campus from the staircase. The protrusion of the staircase on the West façade also fits in with the surrounding campus. If you look at the building from the outside, it creates a zigzag together with the descending landscape that connects the lower level of the campus with the rest of it.

Barnard Optional5 Interior

Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi

However, an interaction between the staircase and the rooms or hallways of the interior barely happens. The staircase is separated from the active space of the each floor by series of doors and non-transparent walls. Again, it only offers glimpses of the actual activities happening inside the center, rather than “eliminate[s] visual boundaries between the College and the city” (Weiss/Manfredi.) Moreover, the staircase is barely utilized as intended. It is not used to get from one floor to another, since it provides long and inefficient routes between floors. Occupants of the building actually resort to using the elevator or a more conventional staircase at the very end of the building. More often, you will find unexpected scenarios happening in the glazed space of the staircase: someone eating pizza on the floor, a group of people rehearsing their show or presentation, or someone (usually, me) napping on the stairs. It is a place where you  shortly hide to distance yourself from the business of the center or distractions of the outdoors. The staircase is not an elimination of boundaries, but rather an intermediate space, or a neutral territory, between the interior and the exterior. This, however, does not mean that the space is not successful. Personally, I find it one of the most beautiful places on campus, and a great quiet hide-away spot. It is this misuse of the space that makes it interesting and unique.

The Diana Center brings together different disciplines and activities and connects them through spatial elements of the building. Even though those spaces do not encourage interaction between those activities, they are still successful. In architecture, more often than not, some spaces are not used the way they were intended to be. However, that is not necessarily an indication of poor design decision or an example of “bad architecture.” Sometimes, the misuse of a space is the best use of it, and the Diana Center is an interesting example of that.

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