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Soon to Open, Cooper Union’s New Building Surprises Inside and Out

Cooper Union building

Morphosis designed Cooper Union’s new academic building. (Cooper Union rendering)

New York — Cooper Union’s new academic building, scheduled to open in about three months, is not yet covered by the undulating stainless-steel screen that promises to make its exterior an instant landmark. But a hard-hat tour of the building last week revealed that its interior will be every bit as striking.

The nine-story, 175,000-square-foot building was designed by Thom Mayne, who is a principal in the Los Angeles firm Morphosis as well as a professor of architecture at the University of California at Los Angeles. Located just across Third Avenue from Cooper Union’s 1859 main building, the new structure will house the engineering school and the humanities and social-sciences faculty, and will also have space for some art- and architecture-school classes. It is designed to earn at least gold-level certification in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program — and it may even make platinum, according to Ryan A. Murphy, a project manager for the contractor, the F.J. Sciame Construction Company.

Mr. Murphy’s tour of the building showed off a number of green features, the most prominent of which is also an intriguing design element. It’s an atrium that sweeps irregularly up through the middle of the building, where it will help both air and people circulate. In the case of the latter, the stairs are part of a circulation system in which one passenger elevator will stop at every floor but the other will make only express stops, at five and eight. From the fifth floor, staircases angle across the atrium to four and six, and from the eighth floor staircases drop to seven and float up to nine. The intent is to make it easy and fun to take the stairs between floors, instead of the elevator. (There’s also a freight elevator larger than some New York City apartments.)

Other sustainable features that Mr. Murphy pointed out include a patch of green roof on the eighth floor, adjoining a terrace with spectacular views to the north, and a co-generation plant on the roof that will use waste heat from the building to generate electricity. There will also be photovoltaic panels on the south side of the building, and computer-controlled sections of the stainless-steel exterior screen will open and close to circulate air or to shade the building’s windows, as necessary.

The building will have a number of other interesting features, including polished concrete floors, a variety of informal social spaces, a curved below-grade auditorium, and windows just outside the auditorium that frame views of the 1859 building. But whether people will take to its unusual shapes once the exterior screens are all installed remains to be seen. Already the design has been criticized in print, and even some Cooper Union architecture students have expressed reservations. On the other hand, Peter Cooper — a 19th-century inventor of extraordinary imagination and considerable success — would almost certainly be delighted. —Lawrence Biemiller

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