On March 10, 2020, SOM Design Partner Colin Koop will share the stage at the SXSW EDU’s Learn by Design competition with Barnard College’s Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Pedagogy Jennifer Rosales. Together, they’ll present the ideas behind Barnard College’s The Cheryl and Philip Milstein Teaching and Learning Center, a multimodal library and Center for Teaching and Learning. SOM and Barnard are one of five teams competing at the annual event, which celebrates collaboration between designers and educators in pursuit of dynamic learning environments. They’ll be judged by a panel of educators, designers, early adopters, and SXSW EDU attendees. To mark the occasion, we sat down with Koop, and directors Carrie Moore and Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa, to take a look back at the challenges and surprises that ultimately led to a final product that reflects SOM’s collaborative spirit and evolving approach to architecture for higher education.
Barnard, one of the most selective academic institutions in the nation and a premiere women’s college in Manhattan, provides its students with a high quality liberal arts education in partnership with its neighbor, Columbia University. Founded in 1889 by Annie Nathan Meyer, Barnard is one of the original Seven Sisters colleges. Today, it embraces its responsibility to address complex and urgent issues regarding gender and helps students achieve the personal strength necessary to meet the challenges they’ll encounter after graduating. Located in a cosmopolitan megacity and committed to institutional diversity, Barnard prepares its graduates to flourish in different cultural surroundings in an increasingly interconnected world.
Students can make as much use of Columbia’s resources as they desire, which makes for a distinctive partnership with ambiguous borders, both intellectually and architecturally. The Cheryl and Philip Milstein Teaching and Learning Center establishes a new campus anchor for collaboration and learning within the Barnard community. A distinguished zinc and glass addition to the campus skyline, The Milstein Center — which was completed in advance of its scheduled Fall 2018 semester opening—is built at the very heart of Barnard’s compact and distinguished urban campus. It replaces the former Lehman Library, doubles the amount of study spaces and classrooms of its predecessor, and establishes a new emphasis on connections between people and easy access to a variety of resources while celebrating Barnard’s unique collections and archives.
The 128,000-square-foot building, with a base of five floors and a tower of 11 floors that structurally aligns with the adjacent brutalist Altschul Hall, is designed to encourage interaction between students and faculty in one dynamic complex. Organized as a fully interdisciplinary community, the complex transitions from active, bustling spaces to quiet, reflective spaces as one moves their way to the top. Inside the library, a signature stairwell leads users up from a ground floor space with a cafe, suite of multimedia Centers, and a wide variety of study areas to quieter, more individual spaces surrounded by books. The Milstein Center alleviates the campus’ office space shortage, becoming the new multidisciplinary home to departments affiliated with social sciences including economics, urban studies, political science and history. It also contains expanded conference facilities and features the Vagelos Computational Sciences Center, the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The Milstein Center is home to several academic centers that help students explore new ways of learning through hands-on research, collaborations, and conversations including the Empirical Reasoning Center, Design Center, Digital Humanities Center, Sloate Media Center, and the Movement Lab. These innovative centers provide a range of resources that reflect the connections and intersections that lie at the core of Barnard’s educational philosophy. “The new building permits students to find a space that invites them to study and learn, that engages them with all kinds of technology, and enables that staff of the library to move forward and help support and innovate our curriculum,” says Provost Linda Bell.
Outdoor spaces play a critical role in the center’s vibrancy as well, with terraces on the second, third, and fourth floors that make for exceptional areas for studying or socializing. SOM also slightly raised the elevation of the Lehman Lawn, the open space between Barnard’s wrought iron fencing and The Milstein Center, in order to create a more accessible entry to the heart of the campus and connected campus experience. “The Milstein Center is more than a wonderful new building. It is a game changer for Barnard…and it will help Barnard become even more extraordinary,” says the college’s president Sian Beilock.
Inside and out, top to bottom, the building is a fresh and diversified source of vitality for a comprehensive, cutting-edge education nestled within an urban campus. How did it all come to be? The team answers below:
What made Barnard a unique client?
Carrie Moore: There were so many women represented on the client side, starting at the interview. For me, that was profound because I could look out to the other end of the table and see people who looked like me and that was not the case on any prior projects I had worked on. Of course Barnard is a women’s school, but I do think team diversity is where things are shifting within higher ed in general. That dynamic was a key component to the project’s success.
Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa: Working on a site like The Milstein Center is quite special because the intervention that was required is right at the heart of the campus that is essentially the size of one large Manhattan block. Ask any student and they will tell you that Barnard is a special campus and community in the middle of the big city.
If you’re standing on the main lawn you can see every corner of the full campus, so site visits became the perfect opportunity to casually take in feedback from students and faculty we’d run into outside of formal meetings. The physical place makes a strong campus and community like none I’ve ever seen working with higher education clients. Those experiences sparked so many ideas and spearheaded the need to create something special that is uniquely of this place — a new kind of library.
What did Barnard outline as their key needs?
Colin Koop: They essentially had a building dedicated to book storage and faculty offices but what they wanted was a building that was more interdisciplinary — a crossroads with a set of space types which would appeal to a broad demographic of teachers and students. They had a desire for engaged pedagogy, a movement lab, and study spaces. The campus as a whole did not have enough seats for students to study, collaborate, or socialize, so huge swaths of students were heading to Columbia to find seats. This wasn’t just about the pedagogy of the library, but also the quantity of area that students could use for anything.
How much of a role did students have in the design process?
Meredith: When we began thinking about what our first meetings might be like, I made a call to Debora Spar, the college president at the time, who was the champion for this project from the beginning. I asked, ‘What’s the right way to begin to engage with the Barnard community?’ and she said, ‘Start with the students… let’s listen.’ So together with Debora and Brightspot Strategy, we crafted a series of listening sessions on multiple themes that shape the student experience at Barnard: how they study, how they want to collaborate with their peers, what they’d like to see in a new kind of library, what we can learn from what works today, and what’s missing. Our initial interactions were a set of questions and intake sessions to learn from students, staff, faculty, and leadership. From those sessions, we were able to better understand how to best scaffold their learning and support different student experiences through the course of their studies.
What kind of surprises showed up along the way?
Meredith: We were dealing with a very constrained site with ever-increasing requirements and nuances. It was a fast-paced schedule, with a growing list of program needs to be met within a constrained budget. During the programming process, we learned that Barnard students can access several physical spaces at Columbia University, so the question then became ‘What do we already have at Columbia versus what do we need here?’ One of the greatest challenges was to reevaluate with library staff and faculty how to right-size the facility in the absence of a library Dean in the design phases: How many collections would it hold? What would be kept offsite? How would the special collections and archives grow? What instructional and media spaces would it serve? We also had to determine what other types of study and learning spaces would be critical for a 21st century library. The challenge was then to balance a variety of needs within a total space budget, while finding opportunities to create new Centers and flexible spaces that could host student-centered needs that had not yet been defined.
Carrie: After all of the consensus building and collaboration in the programming effort, we all eventually had to make a tough call around shrinking the size of the building to keep it within a shrinking budget. There was one program reconciliation meeting with faculty where by the end of it, everyone from Barnard’s side was in agreement on what they would sacrifice for the sake of a better project overall. We expected this conversation to be a struggle, but because there was so much involvement from the start, everyone was on the same page. We had that one session and then we were able to move forward with everyone getting what they were looking for, which was remarkable.
Meredith: A good example of this is how we ended up designing a lecture space inside the center to serve dual purposes. Large lecture halls are always going to take up a lot of real estate within a project, but in speaking with faculty and students at Barnard, it was determined that if we were going to invest in such a large space for a lecture hall, we were going to have to make sure that the space would function for other types of curriculum. In problem-based learning environments, students need to work in groups and everyone knows it’s hard to when you’re sitting in a lecture hall setting. So, we designed that space to accommodate two rows per tier, meaning students can turn their back to the row behind them on the same tier and collaborate in a group setting. Without changing any furniture or interrupting class to change the configuration of a room, that physical space can function for lecture and group-based learning equally well. Carefully planned academic space can fulfill a variety of different wants and needs for different disciplines and curricula.
Colin: For me, the biggest surprise was how many books we ended up with in the building. We inherited an existing library which was virtually uninhabited by people and whose collection was — beyond its excellent collection of feminist literature and zines — unremarkable. It pales in comparison to the quality and quantity of books at Columbia, where Barnard’s students have lending privileges. Our earlier designs for the building had significantly fewer books, but faculty and students felt strongly that the collection had intrinsic value in expressing to students a library atmosphere. Late in the process, we created additional space to get in as many volumes as they were hoping for, and I actually think that’s been quite successful.
Barnard eventually brought on Jennifer Greene as head librarian, who has a compelling and contemporary vision of what a library should be. She really built an impressive service model for how the librarians can get from behind the desk and guide students through research, to help them advance their own interests and be resources for students. She transformed the ground floor and made it a place where students knew they could go to get help from librarians, and access a lot of resources and technology-rich environments they didn’t have before. There’s even a classroom for librarian instruction courses. Jennifer transformed the library from a storehouse of knowledge to an engaged environment, and that influenced the final design.
Going back to the shared resources Barnard has had with Columbia for so long, was the school looking to be less dependent on their neighbor through this project?
Colin: I wouldn’t say they feel dependent on Columbia. They have a relationship where students at Columbia can take classes at Barnard and vice versa, and that allows both schools to offer more degrees than they would on their own. The architecture undergrad program, for example, is a Barnard program Columbia students go to. I think the project represented a desire to keep Barnard students on campus and maybe even attract Columbia students. That’s where the seat count and the diversity of offerings come in. Columbia doesn’t have a motion science lab, but now Barnard does, and that’s attractive to research faculty at both schools. The Milstein Center is about reestablishing a heart for a community and a set of resources appealing to Barnard’s students.
The building needed to be clearly something of Barnard while also inviting Columbia students to come in and collaborate.
Meredith: Columbia has more than fifteen different libraries on its campus plus its affiliates, so the real question became how to create a library that is a part of that inter-institutional network but also distinctive, and completely new. As a place, it needed to be clearly something of Barnard, while also inviting Columbia students to come in and collaborate. Just last year, I was walking through the campus at the one year anniversary of The Milstein’s completion, and some of the faculty who helped us shape the program for The Milstein Center came up to me to say that Columbia students are coming to study “on our” campus now! For the first time in Barnard’s history, Columbia students are coming to Barnard’s library to study, relax, or just to find respite from the rigors of being a student in New York City. That’s quite special.
One of the things that the faculty told us at the very beginning of the planning process is that there were no offices for mathematics faculty on Barnard’s campus. Imagine being a student who is interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines, but must go to Columbia’s campus to meet with a mathematics faculty member. This became a real impetus for the project, not only to envision a library, but to create a new celebrated home for the STEM disciplines on Barnard’s campus and to show a strong commitment to women in those disciplines — after all, architecture is one of those. Many women’s colleges and other universities are emphasizing a commitment to women in STEM disciplines. When we were taking a critical look at the offerings of the library or pairings placed in the same building in the library, we asked programs like the Empirical Reasoning and Computational Sciences how we could help the college infuse a STEM curriculum into a very scholarly place like the library. In fact, The Milstein Center connects with Altschul (Sciences Tower) via a suspended bridge, intersecting the Computational Science Center with the natural sciences. What I think is interesting about The Milstein Center is that it’s not just about the traditional notions of a library—it’s beyond a library, it’s inviting other disciplines to participate.
How did everyone involved reach a consensus on what this building should look like?
Colin: Barnard expressed very clearly that they wanted something contemporary, with materials that signaled to the outside world that it’s part of an ongoing transformation of the school’s mission, while also resonating with its context and not looking like someone dropped a UFO.
We honed in very early on the idea of using a natural metal that would patina over time, with a graceful tone resonating with weathered brick or stone. The patinated zinc we have is a set of chestnut and amber colors that will continue to change and deepen in their richness as they age. And the architecture is this idea of terracing, of creating more ground plane in a constrained environment for the students to go out and refresh themselves. One of the special things about the building is that there are accessible outdoor spaces on the second, third, and fourth floors, which are also sustainable green roofs that help handle stormwater and solar heat gain. The form of the building allows us to gracefully step up from the lawn to a tower massing in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s burdening the rest of the public realm with big shadowy buildings.
Carrie: And the tower portion happens to occur adjacent to the Altschul tower that isn’t going anywhere. The massing responds to its context with emphasis on the terracing adjacent to the lawn. We wanted to create a lawn that would be consistently active and full of daylight.
How has this project influenced the way you approach higher ed work since?
Meredith: This is the first time Colin, Carrie, and I collaborated so intensely together. When you’re working on education projects you have to collaborate and do it with passion and rigor. You have to consider all perspectives and understand all of the aspects behind what it is to create a building for a highly complex program. Increasingly, higher ed clients are not asking for single-use buildings for one department. The parameters of what we are asked to do are so much more complex combined with the fact we’re often building for institutions in New York City. How do you manage this complex project with multiple stakeholders and a rigorous, fast-paced schedule on top of the myriad needs and desires for what this place must do for its curriculum, for its students and faculty? Coming together to think about how to create a dynamic place but also get it done was a huge leap forward for our higher ed practice, and is what we continue to take forward — a lot of tools and methods of client engagement down to the architecture — into new work.
Carrie: This project helped us realize how much value every person on our team brings. In higher ed we have so many counterparts that are beyond faculty and students, it involves facilities and executive leadership, too. It’s interesting how, in all of the projects we’ve done since Barnard, there’s a synergy between the client side and someone on our team who’s tied with those values in a way that elevates the work overall. It’s changed the way we organize teams. We’re looking at things holistically—having someone who can speak to a faculty member about visualizing how their new space could inform how they teach, and then translate that into a set of documents that then they can see through in construction, and convince the facilities folks what it ultimately means for them. Everyone has to be multifaceted, and it demonstrates the value of a knowledge base our teams have here. A design mindset and a technical mindset carry equal weight in a resolution to something that maybe wasn’t clear to us before.
Colin: All of this underscores how important the programming process is to these new forms of academic buildings. You can’t design a place that transforms the mission of the university unless you have the right building blocks. If we had decided on a big storehouse for books, plus some offices and a couple of classrooms, the building wouldn’t have been a success. The desire for universities to go to interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary models outside their structure requires them to create spaces where people can share ownership and use them collaboratively. That’s anathema to universities, where everything is defined and tenured faculty get x-amount of research or office space. Those definitions build silos, but this building came about through active participation with everyone on campus, and the outcome was an integrated program. The building succeeds because of that and it’s something we’re applying to a lot of our other academic projects. We’re really working hard in the programming phases to get people thinking beyond their own needs and to look instead at the bigger picture. That allows us a lot more freedom when it comes to concept design, schematic design, and everything that comes after.
Read more about SOM’s higher ed work: