02/09: The Diana Center, Barnard College

The following is an excerpt from an assignment for a theory class taken at the same time as the Co-Lab studio. The assignment was an ‘analytical description’, essentially an in dept case study or ‘precedent study’. I had chosen to analyze the site in Olde City by way of advertisement and visual communication, and I chose to write about the Diana Center because of the way this building dealt with the same issues. My own disclaimer- I have never been to Barnard College and based my critique on published articles and a lecture by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi (principal architects of the project) given at PennDesign.

In the aftermath of the student protests and uprisings of the late 1960s Barnard College turned to architecture to solve the ‘problem’ of the crowd and the city.  This intervention took the form of the McIntosh Student Center, with blank concrete walls facing Broadway and a large podium dividing open space on the campus.  It was an articulation of the idea that “a woman’s college, indeed any college ought to be isolated from the dangers of the city, from the unpredictable nature of the city.”[1]  By 2003 Barnard sought a new architectural solution to the new problems facing their urban campus, namely how to reconnect the campus to the city, and how to better connect adjacent university buildings to each other.  For the design team of Weiss/Manfredi Barnard’s campus was “a porous oasis”, caught in a ‘tension’ between being a part of and apart from New York City.  Their design solution, the Diana Center, sought to foster that same tension at the scale of the building, balancing various programmatic elements, and at the urban scale, reengaging the surrounding campus and street.

from barnardachives blog

from barnardarchives.files.wordpress.com

section diagrams

from Architecture and Urbanism October 2005

view from broadway

from Architecture and Urbanism October 2005

The Diana Center makes a compelling case as to what an urban university can and should be.  Marion Weiss framed the focus of the building as “how does it mediate, literally, the idea of participating as part of a campus but also participating in a city?”[2]  Part of what the building and the university is responding to is the presence of the outside world already found inside the ‘ivory tower’ of the academic campus.  Starbucks serves students and professors alike (on the ground floor of the Diana Center)[3] and Facebook can be found on the smart phones and laptops of the vast majority of students.  The cascade of double height atria, separated by fully transparent glass, accepts and facilitates this infiltration of the social into the belly of the academy.

lounge view up

from Architecture and Urbanism October 2005

section diagrams

from Architecture and Urbanism October 2005


The Diana Center argues that visual registration, as curated through the use of transparent glass and voids within a building can connect a diverse group of people, helping to instill a greater awareness of the academic community.  While successful in this execution, transferring ‘lessons learned’ to different programs and contexts (for instance, a co-lab in Olde City, Philadelphia) could be problematic.  A university campus is, in the context of the city at large, a rather homogenous population of users and neighbors.  The college campus is filled with young students (theoretically) eager to learn and paying hefty sums of money to be there.  The immediate neighborhood is Columbia University, which offers some gender diversity but remains an academic setting.  The Diana Center may not be able to engage a radically different population group (compared to the Barnard community) simply because such a community is unlikely to have a reason to visit.  As much as Marion Weiss implies that the Barnard Center “participates with the city” (and it certainly tries harder than the McIntosh building it replaced) it remains to be seen how much of the city makes it to the Morningside Heights part of Manhattan to be able to participate.

[1]    Weiss, Marion, and Michael Manfredi. “A Nexus in the City.” Works and Words: The Diana Center. Meyerson Hall, Philadelphia. 19 Mar. 2012. Lecture.

[2]    ibid

[3]    Stallone, Jessica. “Students Propose Changes to Diana Center Spaces.” Columbia Daily Spectator. Columbia Daily Spectator, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2011/10/27/students-propose-changes-diana-center-spaces&gt;.



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