Since its founding in October 1919, The New School has been an international destination for independent and provocative minds. Since 2014, its architectural nerve center has been an SOM-designed building on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
In keeping with The New School’s motto, “To the Living Spirit,” its University Center creates an unmistakable, energetic presence. Glass-enclosed stairwells climb across the building’s bronze facade to reveal the bustling campus within. Unlike the horizontal layout of a traditional college campus, the 16-story building stacks the diverse activities of the university within a single New York City block. Its lower seven floors contain studios, classrooms, labs, an auditorium, library, cafeteria, a faculty resource room, faculty offices, student lounges, and a lobby/cafe — all navigated through a unique wayfinding system created with multidisciplinary graphic designer Ruedi Baur. The remaining nine floors hold 600 dorms, adding an extra layer to building’s daily hum.
With the institution’s centennial occurring this month, we asked Jon Cicconi, an associate director at SOM and one of the architects of the building, to reflect on the project and how the final design came to be.
What was the site like before SOM started design work?
Jon Cicconi: The site was home to a two-story, windowless retail mall from the ’50s on a part of Fifth Avenue where most of the buildings are around 15 stories high. The New School eventually acquired it, made some modifications to bring in natural light, and turned it into a student center. It was dark and not at all worthy of the institution, but it also functioned as the library and became the one space students really felt was theirs. So even though administrators knew the building was far from ideal, the process of decamping from that building took quite a while. A temporary library was built while our project was being constructed, but the school lost quite a bit of student space in the interim, so there were protests and sit-ins. It was a complicated process.