One is zig, the other is zag. One mocks passersby with strips of translucent glass surrounding a core of clear windows; the other, with floors angled in and out – a gentle architectural mambo. The pair of buildings that make up Columbia University’s new business school on the sprawling Manhattanville campus exudes a tense and relentless energy.
Named after the founding partner of private equity firm KKR, the 11-story Henry R. Kravis Hall rises in front of the slender steel-arched viaduct that spans Riverside Drive. It is separated from an eight-story structure named after entertainment tycoon David Geffen by a circle of lawns, trees and benches embedded in a plaza. The community joins a sleek new campus that now includes a neuroscience research center, an arts center, and a think tank-style building called The Forum dedicated to academic discourse.
But the real story of business buildings lies inside. The ghostly staircase behind glass spirals around and around themselves like wrinkled strands of DNA as they rise to full height. These are what architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with architecture firm FxCollaborative, call “network” stairs. Curved and curved ceiling surfaces are bent to accommodate them. His designs reflect the architecture’s close harmony of person-to-person connection and intense interaction – something the school leadership deems essential to the expanding aspirations that its graduates have to do good while earning money.
The complex’s design, just a few blocks north of Columbia’s main Morningside Heights campus, coincided with a rising chorus of criticism from business schools nationwide that companies were too predatory, exploitative, and monopolistic, and that business education needed to change.
“The forces at work in the world are necessarily causing a rethinking of the very foundations of the economic system we have,” Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger said in an interview. “Climate change, social justice issues and what globalization means for societies – all this raises deep questions about what the future might look like.”
Glenn Hubbard, the former dean of the business school who brought the project to life, saw the need to break free from the reliance on the unregulated free market economy that had led to the extraordinary concentration of wealth for decades. Hubbard explained that the idea, attributed to economist Milton Friedman, that business should focus solely on making money “is a simple and direct idea that has taken over business, banking, and even corporate law.” “We’re trying to find a framework that can be more about development, not just making a profit.”
“The vision right now is to bring people together and discuss what’s going on in the world,” said Costis Maglaras, who was on the faculty when the project was designed and replaced Hubbard.
Just as critics of capitalism are thick on the ground (Thomas Picketty, Tim Wu, Anand Giridharadas ,To name a few), business education skeptics ask whether schools can go beyond offering job-ready MBAs to trading floors and consulting firms.
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“Part of me thinks this is great; That’s what they have to say,” says Steven Conn, author of “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools.” ” “ As a historian, I’ve heard this before, and it didn’t really matter. It is very difficult to change institutions.”
Molly Worthen, professor of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote in a Times Op Ed article on business schools: “It’s hard to teach narrow, hands-on skills while simultaneously encouraging students to grapple with huge, vague questions about ultimate values and power hierarchies.
The architects took Columbia’s aspirations to heart in their designs. This is where the curved stairs come into play. On the stairwells, they open into informal all-glass-walled lounges and multiple six-person study rooms, popular even when the adjacent classrooms are empty.
Taken together, these spaces make it easy for teachers and students to mingle informally, even by chance. “All these various areas are visibly locked together,” said Charles Renfro. “We’ve made this the iconic element of the building.”
The $600 million complex is everything but bare bones. Yet none of the school decorations that glorify the MBA candidate as a master of the universe await: grand courtyards, halls with leather armchairs, chandelier-adorned ceilings. “Buildings are seen as vehicles,” Renfro said. “They’re about problem solving and being in the world.”
There are no professors presiding from corner offices. “We mixed faculty and students on alternate floors,” said the architect at Kravis. Thus, professors and students constantly encounter each other in offices, lounges, cafes and network ladders. They’re also constantly encountering the city, thanks to the stairs, nearby viaducts, brick apartments, and public housing towers that reveal the campus landscape in an ever-changing way – in the process reminding people of the messy world beyond.
None of this was possible at Uris Hall, the 1964 cursed tower on the business school’s Morningside campus. The faculty was isolated on their own higher floors.
To showcase the school’s integration with social concerns, the architects featured an innovation hub. The Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center on Geffen’s second floor connects the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center with a spiraling mesh staircase in a glass tube.
It was easy for students to interact with, seeing the center on their familiar route. “It really helps to be important,” Bruce Usher, faculty director of the Tamer Center, said in an interview. Even those who are devoted to accumulating earnings can explore how they can bring business skills to communities in need – at least that’s the hoped-for result.
The centers run programs to manage nonprofits, address climate change, and improve employment opportunities for people who have been previously incarcerated. The Columbia-Harlem center coaches local food, gift and cosmetics manufacturers. (A few items promoted with the help of the program are sold at a public cafe on the ground floor and at nearby Whole Foods stores.)
Manhattanville’s 2007 master plan by Genoa-based architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop and New York-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill also encourages the school to showcase its community commitments. Unlike the introverted main campus, which was designed as a walled acropolis atop Morningside Heights in the late 19th century, it preserved the existing streets, facilitating access to the campus.
Piano designed what he calls the “urban layer”; the idea was that all new buildings would float above long glass-enclosed street facades dedicated largely to public facilities.
In building Manhattanville, Columbia enlivened the streetscapes with several restaurants, a rock climbing wall open to all, a showcase that introduces children to science, and a traveling “biobus” and a nearby health clinic focused on the needs of residents with chronic conditions. (often associated with poverty) goes untreated.
Kravis is mostly devoted to classrooms and faculty offices, while Geffen houses administrative functions, but both buildings are similarly outward-facing. In a high-ceilinged corner of the Kravis Hall ground floor, students gravitate towards curvy, cushioned rows that rise from the terraces and gaze at people sunbathing on the lawn of the plaza (designed by landscape architect James Corner Field) that connects the two buildings. Operations). Or they can chat with their peers running up and down the adjacent network stairs.
Its counterpart in Geffen is a Commons overlooking the plaza – a large glass-enclosed auditorium. Both spaces try to blur the boundary between inside and outside, between town and robes. Passersby can see who is speaking in the Commons and hanging out in the Kravis terraced lounge. (Academic spaces are generally closed to the public.)
Tall glass floors in Manhattanville raise street-level energy by capturing the slanting sun and breaking up fragmentary images of people and activities. So attractive, the campus’ contemporary chic sets it apart from the bold, red-brick surroundings. As Manhattanville is planned to expand to 6.8 million square feet in more than five blocks over the years, the relaxed mingling of campus and its surroundings can only develop slowly.
Neighbors resisting Columbia’s expansion may have some share in the belated acknowledgment that Columbia should be better connected to its home city.
Columbia promised to develop more opportunities on its Manhattanville campus and break down barriers to progress for people who live and work in the neighborhood who fear displacement due to university gentrification. Loud protests threatened to derail Manhattanville expansion in the mid-2000s—a reflection of the confidence that Columbia has failed to build since 1968 lost the battle to build a gym in Morningside Park.
Skeptics will be watching Columbia and other top business schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard transition to higher-minded teaching methods. It can be very easy to default to the convenience of traditional quantitative modeling and whatever case study it is. After all, schools are also battered by those who continue to worship the unbridled market ideology and loudly proclaim that socially and environmentally oriented teachings are excessively “awakened”.
But Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who writes about the politics and technology sector, sees generational change. “Students really want to make the world better,” he said, summing up the challenge: “How do I find personal and professional financial stability and not sell my soul?”
With starting salaries in excess of $155,000 for graduates from elite business schools, the foundation of crucial business school rankings is “Where is the institutional incentive to kick out graduates who want to work with NGOs in Africa?” asked writer Conn. On the other hand, he wonders if climate change and “authoritarianism 2.0” are among the challenges that businesses can no longer ignore and that could change these incentives.
Usher from Tamer Center sees no return. “The broader interest in Earth is well integrated into the core courses and we only have six electives on climate change,” she said. One reason is that “students are more attractive to recruits with this background.”
Columbia president Bollinger noted that Columbia chose the programs it brought to Manhattanville to “ask questions people didn’t think about 20 or 50 years ago,” pointing out that the business school is near its future home of the recently established Climate School. (To be designed by Piano).
Bollinger will step down in June 2023, but is confident Manhattanville will continue to “bet these will be big problems and big efforts”.