Leonid Brezhnev had a novel solution for the USSR’s disintegrating hold on the hearts and minds of the empire’s second city. In 1981, he ordered the construction of a war memorial on the banks of the Dnieper River in Kiev, the centerpiece of which is the Statue-of-Liberty-sized “Motherland Monument.” While the government that built it is safely in history’s ash heap, Lady Communism is not: Today, a 20-foot Shield of the Soviet Union beams down on the Ukrainian capital from her outstretched left hand, while the Lady’s unblinking eyes accusatorily scan for capitalists, Trotskyites and other gulag-bait. Face-to-face with Lady Communism this summer, I understood that an authoritarian building is one whose bigness makes everything around it feel smaller, bearing down on body and spirit both—or just one that’s somehow staring back at you.
And really, who wouldn’t be surprised if the Northwest Science Building (NWSB) sprouted laser beams and started zapping away? For me it’s a very real fear. Architecture this grim and marginalizing of everything around it usually has something to hide. The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. is one of the um, “masterpieces” of ’70s brutalism. It looks something like a half-unpacked Transformer—no structure tops it as an unintentionally perfect representation of the Byzantine occlusion of power. It’s a barricade between those without, and whatever the hell is going on within.
Same with the NWSB, which is non-transparent by design. The last thing science should want is a building that brings late Soviet monumental statuary to mind, but here we are: At Columbia, an important and misunderstood discipline will soon be locked inside a mighty basalt tower. The NWSB parallels Lerner Hall, itself a product of the idea that structure and theory can be harmonized, in this regard. Lerner was built with openness and social facilitation in mind, even if neither ever quite made the jump from blueprint to reality. The NWSB is a return to the modernist fetishization of structure, although like Lerner, it stretches its intellectual assumptions to drearily excessive lengths. The result is architecture that doesn’t reflect the building’s structure or purpose so much as tell the outside world to keep moving and mind its own business.
This blind adherence to theory is reflected in the sheer obnoxiousness of the thing. There it is interrupting the campus’s few points of aesthetic serenity. It looms over tranquil Sakura Park—where once there was empty sky to the left of Low Library, there’s now a checkerboard of aluminum siding. In an era in which The New Museum has demonstrated how aluminum siding can actually make a building more inviting, the NWSB’s network of cheese-grater like tubing running is baffling. It’s as if architect José Rafael Moneo wanted to be as grim and aesthetically disruptive as possible.
Congratulations, sir. And nowhere is your success more obvious than in the clash between the NWSB and Pupin Hall. A late McKim, Mead, and White commission, the building is a Beaux Arts stalwart in a part of campus that’s lined with architectural missteps. With the NSWB, Pupin is now boxed in by hideousness, its Italianate corners inches away from the real-life Borg mothership.
We pay a price for these incongruities. Try looking to your left when you’re sitting on the steps. You’ll see two of the most architecturally accomplished buildings on campus—the rustic Buell Hall and the Gothic-Byzantine mashup of St. Paul’s. But you’ll also see the nightmare of bare-bones modernism that is Jerome Greene Hall, behind which hulks East Campus. Do those buildings’ ravaging of the built environment even register for you? Or have you passively accepted its irrevocable there-ness, internalizing repeated affronts to the spirit and senses?
I certainly have. The cruelty of bad architecture is that we get used to it—we see Carman and Butler not as in opposition to each other, but as part of a seamless, dispiriting whole. The NWSB will eventually stop inducing a sense of latent paranoia for me because I’ll passively accept its aesthetically imposed discomfort as an organic part of my environment. In the ultimate triumph of bad design over aesthetic sensitivity and the human spirit in general, the looming dread of the NWSB will one day seem no more intrusive to me than the ornamental whimsy of Teachers College across the street.
If I can close on another confluence of novel solutions, architecture, and authoritarianism: For years, the North Korean government airbrushed the still-unfinished, 1,000-foot Ryugyong Hotel from official photos of Pyongyang. Authoritarians with little accountability to reality can will a building out of existence even as it casts its shadow—which is to say that you can’t will a building out of existence if you still have to look at it. It’s a trick not even Kim Jong-il can pull off. Neither can you. I hope you remember what that iconic view of Low looked like, because our campus is scarred forever.
The author is a List College Senior majoring in English and Judaic studies.