One zigzag, another zigzag. One teases passers-by with translucent glass bands wrapping cores of transparent windows; the other, floors in and out—a soft architectural mambo. The two buildings that make up Columbia University’s new business school, on its growing Manhattanville campus, exude a jittery energy.
The 11-story Henry R. Kravis Hall, named for the co-founder of private equity firm KKR, stands in front of the elegant steel-arched viaduct that carries Riverside Drive. It is separated from the eight-story building named after entertainment mogul David Geffen by a ring of grass, trees and benches embedded in the plaza. The ensemble joins a sleek new campus that currently includes a neuroscience research center, an arts center and a think tank-like building called The Forum, dedicated to academic discussions.
But the real story of the commercial building is inside. Appearing ghostly behind the glass, the staircase winds around itself like curved strands of DNA as it rises to full height. These are what architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with architectural firm FxCollaborative, call “web” stairs. Cut across curved and warped ceiling surfaces to accommodate them, they beg to be used. Their design reflects the building’s close alignment with human connection and enhanced interaction – something the school’s leadership believes is central to its graduates’ broader desire to do good while earning money.
The complex is designed just a few blocks north of Columbia University’s main campus in Morningside Heights. Change.
“The forces at play in the world are bound to lead to a rethinking of the foundations of our existing economic system,” Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger said in an interview. “Climate change, issues of social justice, and what globalization means for society— — all of which raise profound questions about the nature of the future.”
Glenn Hubbard, the former business school dean who brought the project to fruition, sees the need to shed allegiance to the unregulated free-market economy that has led to the extraordinary concentration of wealth over the past few decades. Economist Milton Friedman’s idea that business should focus solely on making money “was a simple and straightforward idea that took over commerce, banking, and even corporate law,” Hubbard explained . “We’re trying to come up with a framework that’s more about prosperity than just profit.”
“The vision now is to bring people together and talk about what’s going on in the world,” said Costis Maglaras, who served as a teacher and succeeded Hubbard when the program was designed.
As critics of capitalism are thick on the ground (Thomas Piketty, Tim Wu, Anand Giridharadas, to name a few), Business education skeptics ask whether the school can really go beyond providing job-ready MBAs to trading floors and consulting firms.
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“Part of me thinks it’s great; it’s what they should be saying,” says Steven Conn, author of “There’s Nothing Like Failure: A Tragic History of American Business School.”“”As a historian, I’ve heard it before, It doesn’t have much. Systems are difficult to change. “
Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in an article about business schools that “it is difficult to teach narrowly applied skills and to encourage , ambiguous issues and power hierarchies.”
The architects kept Columbia’s aspirations in mind in their design. This is where the twisty staircase comes in.They lead to informal lounges in the landing and numerous six-seat study rooms, all with glass walls, which are welcoming even when adjoining classrooms is empty. (All spaces are fully accessible for people with reduced mobility.)
Bringing these places together facilitates informal, even casual exchanges between teachers and students. “All these different spaces are clearly locked together,” said Charles Renfro. “We made it the signature element of the building.”
Costing $600 million, the complex is modest construction. And yet, there are no school signs that advertise MBA aspirants as cosmic masters in waiting: grand atriums, lounges with leather seats, ceilings adorned with chandeliers. “Buildings are seen as tools,” Renfro said. “They’re about solving problems and fitting into the world.”
There are no professors hosting in corner offices. At Kravis, says the architect, “we shuffle staff and students on alternate floors.” Thus, professors and students often meet in offices, lounges, cafes and on the network stairs. They also often encounter the city through the stairs, which kaleidoscopically reveal views of the campus, the nearby tangle of viaducts, and brick apartment and public housing towers—reminding in the process the chaotic world outside.
None of this is possible in Uris Hall, the business school’s 1964 tower on the Morningside campus, whose austere corridors are only good for moving students from class to class. Teachers are sequestered in their own high-level Eagle’s Nest.
To demonstrate the school’s integration of social issues, the architects highlighted a center for innovation. It unites the Eugene Lang Center for Entrepreneurship, the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, and the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center on Geffen’s second floor, with a spiraling network of stairs inside a glass tube.
Seeing hubs along their accustomed routes makes it easy for students to engage. “Prestige really helps,” Bruce Arthur, the Tamer Center’s dean of academic affairs, said in an interview. Even those committed to accumulating wealth may discover how they can bring business skills to communities in need—at least that’s the desired outcome.
The centers run projects on managing nonprofits, fighting climate change and improving employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. The Columbia-Harlem Center guides local food, gift and cosmetic manufacturers. (Several products launched with the help of the program are sold at the public cafe on the ground floor and at a nearby Whole Foods store.)
Manhattanville’s 2007 master plan by Genoa-based architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop and New York-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill also encouraged the school to demonstrate its commitment to the community. It simplifies access to the campus by preserving the existing streets, in contrast to the introverted main campus, which was designed as a walled acropolis atop Morningside Heights in the late 19th century.
Piano has designed what he calls an “urban layer,” whereby all new buildings will float above tall glass-covered street frontages that will be used primarily for facilities open to the public.
As Columbia University builds Manhattanville, it passes several restaurants, a climbing wall open to all, a storefront and a traveling “biobus” that introduces science to children, and a company focused on meeting the needs of nearby residents with chronic diseases. Health clinics that make streetscapes more active (often associated with poverty) go untreated.
Kravis is primarily used for classrooms and faculty offices, while Geffen includes administrative functions, but both buildings are equally extroverted. In the high-ceilinged corner of Kravis Hall’s first floor, students are drawn to the curved, cushioned benches that rise up among the terraces, watching people bask in the sun on the plaza lawn that connects the two buildings (courtesy Landscape Architecture Designer James Corner Field Design) Operation). Or, they can chat with colleagues flowing up and down the adjacent network stairs.
Its counterpart in Geffen is a Commons facing the square – a glass-enclosed auditorium. Both spaces attempt to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, town and robe. Passers-by can see who’s speaking at the Commons and who’s hanging out at the Kravis Terrace Lounge. (Academic areas are generally off-limits to the public.)
Tall glass floors throughout Manhattanville enhance street energy by capturing oblique sunlight and refracting fragmented images of people and activity. Despite the campus’ attractiveness, it is the modern and stylish presence of the campus that sets it apart from the rugged red brick surroundings. As Manhattanville plans to grow to 6.8 million square feet across five city blocks over the next few years, the comfortable integration of the campus and its community may only develop slowly.
Neighbors who have resisted Columbia’s expansion can take some credit for Columbia’s belated recognition that it must be better connected to the city in which it is located.
Columbia University promises that it will expand opportunities and break down barriers to advancement for those who live and work on the Manhattanville campus who fear being displaced by gentrification. Noisy protests in the mid-2000s threatened to derail Manhattanville’s expansion plans—reflecting the trust Columbia had failed to build since losing a 1968 battle to build a stadium in Morningside Park.
Skeptics will watch Columbia and other top business schools, such as Penn and Harvard, shift to more noble teaching methods. It can be easy to acquiesce to the comfort level of traditional quantitative modeling and case study assumptions. After all, schools are also under attack from those who continue to worship free-market ideology and loudly claim that socially and environmentally-centred teaching is overly “woke up.”
But Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who writes on politics and technology, sees generational change. “Students really want to make the world a better place,” she said, summing up the challenge as “How do I find personal and professional financial stability without selling my soul?”
Graduates of elite business schools earn starting salaries of up to $155,000, the basis of the most important business school rankings, “Where are the institutional incentives to send graduates wanting to work in African NGOs?” asks author Conn. On the other hand, he wonders whether climate change and “authoritarianism 2.0” are challenges that businesses can no longer ignore, and that might change those incentives.
Usher of the Tamer Center sees no turning back. “The wider focus on the world is well integrated into the core curriculum and we have six electives in climate change alone,” he said. One reason is that “students are more desirable employees with this background”.
Columbia University President Bullinger said Columbia chose the projects it brought to Manhattanville to “ask questions that people didn’t think of 20 or 50 years ago,” noting the business school’s future home to the recently launched Climate Institute Not far from schools (designed by Piano).
Bollinger will step down in June 2023, but is confident Manhattanville will continue to “bet these are going to be big problems and big efforts.”