The centre, designed by Steven Holl and Chris McVoy, of Steven Holl Architects, the New York firm, is a trifle beside Holl's mega office and residential projects in China and elsewhere. And it's not a beauty. But it is a tough, sophisticated and imaginative work of architecture for a devilish site.
Holl took on something vaguely similar a few years ago for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, inserting an addition to its architecture school into a tricky, dissonant space connecting two 19th-century buildings. In this case the challenge is a neglected hilly corner.
Campbell can be seen from the elevated No. 1 subway line along Broadway. The subway rumbles straight past the picture windows of the centre's second-story, double-height gym, where the college's football team routinely works out to a deafening soundtrack: muscle and heavy metal, inside and out.
The centre is also visible across the river in the Bronx, as it rises over a shambolic jumble of single-story bus depots and auto repair shops, Campbell's sanded-aluminum panels picking up on the industrial vibe and vocabulary of the Broadway Bridge, with its twin raised steel towers, a few blocks north.
At 48,000 square feet, the five-story project, which also has coaches' offices, an auditorium and various meeting rooms, anchors the Baker Athletics Complex, Columbia's satellite campus of sports fields and boathouses. What you see from Broadway and 218th Street is a boxy, roughly kite-shaped building with a partly pitched roof. An extension, or two-story portico, the kite's tail, raised on piers, angles to the west.
It's clearly a Holl building, with its abstract facade, eccentric spaces and complex geometry. After several visits, I'm still not crazy about the aluminum cladding, which is light and taut and suits the intended industrial allusions but comes across as a default material of the sort that many stylish projects opt for these days. Nor am I reconciled to the big fence that Columbia has installed along 218th Street.
And it's a pity that zoning regulations have nixed retail or other neighbourhood amenities along this stretch of Broadway, where Campbell also shuts itself off. When a building tries to fit in with a neighbourhood but functionally doesn't because of restrictions placed on it by the city or the client, it's sabotaged.
That aside, from many angles Campbell makes a striking sight in Inwood, its facade a mix of irregular blocks and voids, quasi-Cubist, crisscrossed by exterior stairways. All sorts of cuts, setbacks, overhangs and terraces animate the design.
The architects say football diagrams inspired them. The outside stairs would then be wide receivers, dashing across the field, signalling to the fire escapes on the prewar brick apartments across the street. Steel tubes diagonally bracing the frame, intermittently visible from the street through the facade's large windows, amplify the sculptural effect. And inside, a rough-and-ready aesthetic of raw concrete, terrazzo floors and exposed plumbing and beams befits a factory for scholar athletes.
I talked with a few of the coaches and players. They complained about the noisy acoustics in the gym, which McVoy promised he could fix, but otherwise they claimed to appreciate the views and the light and rooms like the student lounge on the portico.
Three stories up, raised on stilts, angled in the middle like an arm at the elbow, the portico gestures as if to embrace the Baker Complex. It encloses a view of the soccer field, behind Campbell, which, because the site is so hilly, rests several stories above Broadway. Holl's phrase is "a courtyard in the air" for the effect of that arm. That seems right.
The arm also echoes the subway trestle, but floating over a pitched lawn shaded by ginkgo trees instead of traffic. What results is a new, urban-scale civic space. It's easy to imagine screening movies on that lawn during the summer, and Holl has suggested this as a potential amenity for the neighbourhood. At the moment the fence is keeping people out.
But the architecture does preserve a view beneath the portico of the soccer field and Broadway Bridge from Park Terrace, the residential street that dead-ends into the centre and rises steeply to the south. Holl and McVoy have respected the axis of that street and its northern vista — a gesture of transparency.
All those cuts, notches, terraces and voids on the facade make a similar gesture. They frame views. Not just the one under the portico, but also those of the Bronx, the subway, the apartment buildings next door. Those views complete the building. As for the interior, McVoy has joked about a poor man's Carlo Scarpa. That Italian modernist famously made poetry out of girders and joints. In Campbell's L-shaped study centre, an assembly of bolted plates and welded flanges create a still life among rows of desks. An opening in a wall near the top floor reveals a steel conjunction of column, beam and diagonal tube — expressing the meeting of vertical, horizontal and suspended forces in the building — which becomes a ready-made sculpture.
The real art comes down to how the centre interacts with what's around it: the raised subway tracks in one direction, the soccer field in another, the residential buildings in yet another and Broadway Bridge on the skyline.
Inwood is a diverse and wonderful part of town. Campbell now adds to it. (Michael Kimmelman/New York Times News Service)