A conversation with the architects behind Columbia Business School’s new home

When it came to selecting the architects for its new buildings, Columbia Business School issued a tall order: design a space for the future of business—green, collaborative, socially minded, and always evolving— located in the capital of the business world.

Rising to the challenge were two powerhouse firms known for their innovative academic buildings and some of New York’s most iconic public spaces.

In creating Henry R. Kravis Hall and David Geffen Hall, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) — in collaboration with FXCollaborative and Harlem-based AARRIS ATEPA Architects, a certified Women and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE), as associate architect — took the lead on design.

They collaborated with FXCollaborative, the designer of Columbia’s School of Nursing and the new master plan for Penn Station. The two firms previously collaborated on projects including the transformation of Lincoln Center’s 16-acre campus and reunited to tackle the Business School’s new home in Manhattanville.

We spoke with Charles Renfro, the partner-in-charge of many of DS+R’s academic projects, and Sylvia Smith, the senior partner who leads FXCollaborative’s culture and education studio, about sustainable architecture, how the School and the buildings differ from other business schools, and how their design encourages collaboration.

What inspired the design of the buildings?

Charles Renfro: Our design team met with the deans and faculty of business schools around the country to understand what makes the mission of Columbia Business School distinct. What we found is that their research projects emerged collaboratively, fluidly, and dynamically, oftentimes solving real-world problems. We wanted to make a building that encouraged this in two ways: one, by communing with its surrounding city and community, and two, by creating a sense of connection where projects could grow and be nurtured organically. We wanted the building to be expressive of the activity within, for the mission of the School to be projected by its very image.

Sylvia Smith: Many of the business schools we toured were defined by singular, large atria. We felt that a variety of collaboration spaces would better reflect and support Columbia’s unique program. Our wonderful stairs link the collaboration and networking spaces and express the choreography between programs.

Renfro: At the Business School’s former home at Uris Hall, the library wasn’t perfect, but everything happened there. The students and faculty figured out how to use the space that was given to them and make the best of it. And when we analyzed what was happening there—from flirting to eating lunch to power napping to actually doing work and debating—we realized that if we spread all of that energy throughout these two buildings in a series of networks, it would allow everyone to communicate and connect across floors.

How do the buildings encourage collaboration?

Renfro: One of the main principles that led to the organization of the buildings is the integration of populations that are typically segregated, like students, faculty, and admin staff. These populations are usually concentrated in blocks of space. We decided that they should be shuffled together. Typically, classrooms and student spaces are located at the bottom of the building, with faculty offices and admin spaces stacked at the top, far away from the students, with the best views. This reinforces top-down thinking. By shuffling the populations and stitching them together through a network of stairs and adjacent social spaces, everyone has the same access to views, to the ground floor, and to each other.

How did the surrounding area inform the design?

Renfro: The master plan for Manhattanville was designed by Renzo Piano to be radically open with no walls separating the campus from the community. It stipulated that the ground floors of the entire campus should be active, transparent, and permeable to the community. That was a perfect starting point for us because DS+R’s and FXC’s projects always advocate for blurring the boundaries between public and private. We created an urban layer, in which each of these two buildings meets the ground level with transparent ground floors and programming open to the public. Kravis Hall is wrapped by retail space and sits back from 12th Avenue to make a plaza that could be used for community programming or a green market. Geffen Hall has a cafe on the corner that’s open to the public. We think of these buildings as contributors not just to the aesthetic landscape of the Manhattanville area but to the health of the neighborhood.

Smith: The buildings frame the Square—a public park—and are very much a part of the community experience. The glass-enclosed Cooperman Commons on the ground floor of Geffen Hall is a welcoming space that invites informal use as well as more structured gatherings—a place to read, drink a cup of coffee, or enjoy the view of the Square. Passersby can see the activity inside.

How is sustainable architecture used?

Smith: It was something we considered from the beginning. Columbia wanted the buildings to meet LEED Gold standards [see Editor’s Note]. Our office practices an integrated design process where the architects and engineers test the building’s energy use as the design progresses. Now that the buildings are occupied, we are evaluating and fine-tuning their performance.

One of our challenges was the building size. Higher floor heights require more façade surface, use more materials, and are less sustainable. Chilled beams [an energy-saving HVAC system], which exist in certain spaces, allowed us to reduce the floor-to-floor height and use less material. It is the largest chilled-beam installation in the city.

Renfro: Knowing that they are 24/7 buildings, we wanted to make comfort front-and-center and put forth the wellness of the users as a sustainability measure. So the buildings are all naturally lit, but are glare controlled. All of the spaces have a certain degree of adaptability in terms of shading, light, and other features that can be tailored. We also increased ventilation rates. One of the major goals of architecture is to think about all aspects of the environment, including the health of the occupants.

As you experience the buildings now, what do you find most satisfying?

Smith: I love the infusion of natural light everywhere, and the views within and between the buildings and to the city beyond. I also love seeing the variety of spaces in active use: the network-connected and more hidden study rooms host individuals and small groups, students are hanging out in the large and small gathering spaces. The buildings are animated!

Renfro: It’s working like we imagined.

Smith: We still have architects on campus. Instead of meeting in the project managers’ offices, they will find an empty space in the School because it’s wonderful to be in the buildings.

Renfro: There was a moment when we had a kind of “eureka” about the stair in Geffen—where it weaves be- tween the columns and connects them upwards. When I go in there today and see that beautifully woven social stair, and look through it over to the social stair in Kravis, I feel like it’s a successful mini campus. The buildings feel like they’re speaking to each other. They’re in discourse, but not yelling at one another. They’re communicating and collaborating across the Square.

Editor’s Note: Columbia Business School’s facilities are expected to receive a LEED 3.0 Gold certification. Columbia University’s sustainable design and project plan for Manhattanville has earned the first LEED ND Platinum certification in New York City, as well as the first Platinum certification for a university campus plan nationally.