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False Promises of NoCo

North West Corner Building, West façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

When I first arrived at Columbia, my first assignment for Art Hum was to read a New York Times article which praised the Northwest Corner building, designed by the famous Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo. Columbia certainly takes pride in this “bridge between university’s past and future,” bragging about NoCo’s literal and symbolic role of connecting Columbia’s different buildings and departments in news articles and campus tours. It can be argued that the new building is a harmonic completion of Columbia’s Morningside campus, but it isn’t perfect. Moneo does an incredible job of subtly referencing the styles of the older buildings on campus, while staying true to NoCo’s modern aesthetic ideal. However, NoCo does not live up to its promise of accessibility for the members of the West Harlem community that this building peers down upon, and it does not accomplish its goal of being structurally innovative.


North West Corner Building, West façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

Campus residents often criticize NoCo for not “fitting” into the Roman-style campus, but a closer look at the building reveals the ingenious ways Moneo references the classical style of the older buildings on campus. He translates the façades of the original campus into a contemporary one through use of color and geometry. The rose-colored granite at the bottom matches the dark brick of the surrounding buildings. The green color of oxidized copper is found in both the glass elements of NoCo’s façade and the windows and roofs of the adjacent buildings. The white grid of NoCo mimics the way the white stone elements, such as columns and window frames, define the geometry of the old buildings. I find this approach of connecting the building to its surroundings through colors and geometric patterns by far much better than, for example, Lerner’s representational referencing of certain elements of older buildings, such as columns or brickwork.


North West Corner Building, East façade. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran Studio.

Even though NoCo does bridge the divide between the classical and the modern aesthetics, it does not “bridge the divide between the insular world of the campus and the community beyond its walls,” like the NYT article claims. Yes, the façade facing the street is transparent at the level of the library and the café, and the building’s entrance on 120th Street offers an easy access to campus from the street. But compare the façade facing the street and the façade facing the campus. The difference in transparency is very clear. While the east side of the building looks open, the west side looks more like a fortress. While the café, the labs, and the offices offer an amazing view of the neighborhood, this does not “bridge” the campus and the neighborhood – it is actually rather representative of Columbia’s imposing and voyeuristic relationship with West Harlem.  

Another aspect of NoCo that is important to note is how it is engineered—poorly. The structural engineers of the project, Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineers, describe their design decision as “random structure generator.” They claim that this approach is “a major subject of study in math and science,” but any structural engineer would say that this is a bad decision. The grid structure of tall buildings such as NoCo is normally reinforced by diagonal structural elements. This method is called x-bracing. In x-bracing, it is key to bring one structural element to an intersection with a one perpendicular to it. Otherwise, the diagonal elements create tension in the structure. A great example of proper x-bracing is the Hancock Tower in Chicago:

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Hancock Tower, during construction and completed. Photos courtesy of Ezra Stoller.

Compare this to the “random x-bracing” of NoCo:


North West Corner Building’s structure. Image courtesy of Arup.

The diagonal structural elements of NoCo are reflected in the façade, so it is very clear that those elements often end abruptly in the middle of the building. From an engineering point of view, this is horrible and ends up requiring much more material to make the structure completely stable (which in turn increases the cost of construction.)

While the Northwest Corner building is one of the best works of architecture on Columbia’s campus, it claims to accomplish many things that it doesn’t. It is not structurally innovative – rather, it is structurally inefficient. It is not Columbia’s new gate into West Harlem that addresses the university’s relationship with the surrounding neighborhood in a new light – rather, it reaffirms the existing tense relationship. Most of the conversations about this building on campus revolve around the aesthetics of it, which, to me, is a matter of personal taste. What we really should be talking about is the building’s structural, spatial, and representational woes that have much more impact on university’s life than the shade of pink of the granite on the façade.

Zhanna’s column, Dissecting Morningside Heights, runs alternate Thursdays. To contact the author or to submit a piece of your own, email

To read content from all of The Lion’s columnists, visit our Columnists Section.

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