Lerner is a (Quintessential) Columbia Building

Published on April 27, 2016

“You know, I have no fond memories of Lerner, and I’ve spent so much darn time there.”

It’s almost midnight, and Daniel Stone, a senior at Columbia College, and I are strolling past Butler Library on our way to Lerner Hall. I have just wrapped up an interview with Stone, who jokingly insists that I refer to him as a “sculpture and Lerner Hall enthusiast” in this piece. His joke downplays the truth of the matter: Although he’s modest about it, Stone has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Columbia. During the course of our interview, Stone talked me through the history of student spaces at Columbia and referred me to a 1954 essay on social spaces at Columbia. Now, he’s about to give me a tour of the back corridors of Lerner.

We wind down the ramps from the campus entrance, descend into the vacant first floor Party Space, and enter one of several unmarked doors. “There’s a lot of empty space here that you can have offices in,” Stone says as we pass through a nondescript gray corridor. “If this is a student center, we’re walking around spaces that aren’t for students.”

The pipes and machinery of Lerner’s innards hum in the empty space.

As we slip through a series of generic hallways and up several sets of stairs, I think back on his first remark: “I have no fond memories of Lerner.” This strikes me as particularly somber; when Lerner was first conceived, it was meant to serve as a “a hi-tech version of Low Library steps on a Spring day.” But as the temperature begins to rise, and students spill out onto the Steps (to read, to lounge, to smoke, to chat), it occurs to me just how great the gap is between Low Library and Lerner Hall—between expectation and reality.

And yet, in ways that aren’t readily apparent, the two buildings are remarkably similar. Lerner is pilloried on a semi-regular basis, primarily for its lack of space. In its time, Low bore the brunt of similar criticisms: Originally intended as a library, it was eventually deemed too small as students struggled to find room to work. It was subsequently converted into an administrative and ceremonial space and retains this purpose to this day. (Though it occasionally moonlights as a sit-in space.)

Columbia is readily associated with Low and Butler Library, but perhaps Lerner also deserves a spot in the pantheon. Lerner is a Columbia building through and through, in both a literal and more figurative sense. That it sits between Broadway and campus speaks to its breadth of purpose.

As students mill up and down the ramps, tending to their business, conference rooms and performance spaces are abuzz with a rich energy—people are working, studying, creating. Earlier this year, Neil deGrasse Tyson took the stage at Roone Arledge Auditorium to remark on the historical detection of gravitational waves. In a few days, the Varsity Show cast will perform their yearly show on that same stage.

More importantly, however, the key players, struggles, and philosophies behind Lerner’s façade speak to quintessentially Columbian narratives: the story of robust academic debate, the story of students versus the administration, the story of the spirit of Columbia and the spirit of anarchy. There’s a reason Lerner Hall’s architect considered the building “an operatic battle between good and evil elements.

In the story of Lerner’s planning, construction, and use, these elements wind together into a narrative in which it is hard to discern left from right, and up from down.

I suppose that’s only appropriate.

Taken for granite

Have you ever looked at the brickwork on the buildings of Columbia’s campus? I mean really looked? If you ever do, you’ll find that many of the buildings, especially the older ones, have their patterns laid out in a similar fashion of alternating long and short bricks.

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Bernard Tschumi, former dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the architect behind Lerner Hall, first brought this to my attention. “It’s called Flemish bond—I learned things about bricks that I didn’t know before,” he says. Lerner uses that same style of brickwork. Its granite is also cut from the same quarry as granite used elsewhere throughout campus. These are not coincidences.

Lerner was borne of a particular set of circumstances, and in order to understand the building, it is important to first consider the context in which it was built. In the early ’90s, when the process of designing Alfred Lerner Hall was still in its early stages—initial plans for it were drawn in ’93—Tschumi found himself embroiled in a debate between postmodern and classical architectural traditions.

In a lecture delivered at Columbia in 1991, before he began work on Lerner, Tschumi spoke out rather forcefully about the ascendance of a new role for architecture. “It is my contention that far from being a field suffering from the incapability of questioning its structures and foundations, [architecture] is the field where the greatest discoveries will take place in the next century.”

“No more master plans,” he declared.

Ironically, within the next few years, Tschumi would find himself working within the confines of a master plan laid out by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in the late 19th century. In 1893, Columbia hired Charles Follen McKim, famous for his work on New York’s Penn Station, as well as his expansions and renovations of the White House under Theodore Roosevelt, to design the new Morningside campus.

The master plan, though never followed through on in its entirety, laid out the style and geometric configuration of the campus between 114th and 125th streets. When Tschumi discusses the master plan, its key features take shape under his fingertips. Architecture, I learn, with its walls and ramps and voids and columns and gables, lends itself to motion. By the time our conversation is over, his side of the glass table is covered in fingerprints.

A plaque bearing McKim’s name now sits in the plaza in front of Low Steps. Written in Latin and in dactylic hexameter—the meter used by Homer and Virgil—it reads: “The monuments of an artist look down upon us through the ages.” McKim’s legacy, the undercurrent of which runs through most campus spaces, is memorialized centrally on campus; it is not to be taken lightly.

Tschumi, though unassuming in person, is arguably the most consequential architect in Columbia’s history since McKim, if only because he designed a student center—ostensibly serving the entire Columbia student population—that is radically out of step with the master plan. Beginning in the mid-20th century, Columbia began pushing beyond the borders delineated by the master plan, in large part due to necessity. But the spirit of Columbia’s main campus remains aligned with that original plan; many of those who dared to deviate have failed, sometimes disastrously.

One notable example of such a failure is the ill-fated two-year term, between 1968 and 1970, of I. M. Pei as Columbia’s consulting master planner. Pei, now world famous for his Louvre pyramids and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, was still a relatively young architect then.

Pei’s hiring, announced in the wake of Columbia’s tumultuous 1968 protests, was meant to mark a shift away from aggressive expansion and towards careful use of available land: an olive branch to the community after a deeply traumatic year. Pei—who specialized in urban planning—seemed uniquely qualified for the job.

In fact, Spectator coverage from a few days after Pei’s hiring opens with an explicit reference to his careful, community-oriented approach to design: “While many of the best architects in this country have devoted themselves to producing remarkable buildings which solve technical problems, I. M. Pei has always been more concerned with the human needs of entire communities.” In a later quote, Pei insisted that Columbia’s growth would be accomplished with “a minimum of dislocation.” Moreover, in a sharp, perhaps deliberate contrast with McKim, Mead & White, Pei proposed “intensive use” of Columbia’s campus including an underground facility beneath the South Lawn.

In time, however, Pei’s plans ran afoul of both University administrators and the students. From the start, Pei insisted on total autonomy from the University in the development of his plans and seemed primarily interested in acting as a mediator between community and University interests. In one meeting early in his tenure, Pei insisted that his firm reserved the right to critique the University’s negotiations with the community.

One quote, captured in the book Mastering McKim’s Plan: Columbia’s First Century on Morningside Heights, demonstrates the University’s growing frustration with Pei. One administrator in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs complained: “The Pei people lose sight of the fact that we are their principals and clients in this matter, and seem to act as though they are an independent third party—some sort of secular holy spirit—sent from on high to save us from our sins.”

(Courtesy of Spectator Archives.)

Pei also proposed to construct two 20-story towers—to be used primarily for administrative and faculty offices—directly on the South Lawn. This inspired a swift and startling backlash. One letter submitted in Spectator even floated the possibility that the loss of South Field would “undoubtedly be as harmful to Columbia’s students as the gym would have been to the Harlem community.” In 1968, the aforementioned gym sparked a series of riots that ultimately had to be dispersed by the police; these riots had led to Pei’s hiring in the first place.

The University, still reeling from the ’68 protests, was unable to procure the funds necessary to implement Pei’s ambitious plans. As questions of funding began to take center stage, the architect grew embarrassed: The lack of progress was having a deleterious effect on the already-fraught relationship between the University and the surrounding community. Approximately one year later, Pei resigned.

In our conversation, Tschumi alludes to Pei’s time at Columbia just once, and very briefly, but it’s a history he likely knows well. After all, Pei’s inability to enact his vision at Columbia falls into a broader narrative of contemporary artists beating against the traditions of more conservationist and contextualist factions.

In the ’70s, this debate touched Tschumi’s writing and thinking. As he describes it, “a large number of architects thought ‘modernity is wrong, let’s go back to the past.’” Tschumi, on the other hand, was part of “a very small minority of people who were not terribly keen on that, and were not terribly keen on staying with the corporate modernism of the ’50s and ’60s.”

But Tschumi’s timing, unlike Pei’s, was perfect. At the time, Tschumi, as dean of GSAPP, served as an architectural advisor to University President George Rupp. This gave him a certain amount of security in his stance, security that Pei sorely lacked. Moreover, according to Tschumi, meetings with members of the Morningside Heights community made one thing clear: “The community frankly couldn’t care less about anything which was on campus.”

If there were any complaints lodged, they were largely aesthetic. Tschumi sees this as part of that greater debate between the contemporary and the traditional. Luckily for him, “The people who were fighting for the new were slowly getting the upper hand,” he says.

Tschumi’s stake in this debate may seem at odds with the idea of a classical master plan from the late 1800s, but he reassures me. “I was caught on one hand—but willingly caught—between the fact that there was a master plan dating from the late 19th century, which had been good for Morningside Heights … and on one hand the necessity to move forward in history,” he explains.

Looking at Lerner Hall, though, it’s hard not to cling to Tschumi’s wording: “I was caught.” One of the most important aspects of the McKim, Mead & White master plan that Tschumi incorporated into his design for Lerner is the idea of the “void.”


The McKim, Mead & White master plan is arranged in a building-void-building structure, where two structures stand opposite one another with a courtyard between them. Fayerweather and Avery halls were the only buildings ever actually constructed in accordance with this idea. Lerner works in a similar manner: The two wings—Broadway and campus—bookend the void in which the ramps can be found.

But while the ramp area—the void—is clearly in line with Tschumi’s vision of architecture as a forward-thinking art, the wings are not. Tschumi emphasizes that Lerner was among the first buildings in New York to use structural glass. The use of “the ramps themselves as the support of the glass was quite unusual and certainly a quite remarkable engineering and architectural sort of achievement,” he explains.

When Tschumi talks about the wings, on the other hand, he mentions “the program,” or the functions carried out by those wings: a dining space, a game room, WKCR, and so on. The wings, to Tschumi, are naught but a requirement. When Tschumi says he was caught, it recalls the ramps, quite literally caught—wedged between the Flemish bond and granite of the building’s campus and Broadway wings. In this respect, Lerner is a deeply Columbian building, trapped in an academic debate about concepts with only a minimal bearing on campus life.

When my interview with Tschumi ends, we walk to the elevator and pause, briefly, near his collection of study models—three-dimensional mock-ups of his designs. On top of a small cabinet stands Lerner, or rather, a segment of Lerner. Missing from his study model are its campus and Broadway wings. I point out this omission to him.

He smiles. “That’s right, of course.”

The elephant in the void

One Friday morning, I find myself in a conference room in the American studies department in Hamilton Hall, sitting across from Roger Lehecka, a former dean of students of Columbia College. Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear to me why Lehecka was held in such high esteem during his tenure; although he hasn’t been dean of students for almost two decades, he speaks with the warm understanding of someone who is fundamentally on your side.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Lehecka was involved in discussions about the renovation of Ferris Booth Hall, the student center that would be demolished to make room for Lerner. I hoped to find out from a prominent administrative figure at the time why Tschumi’s vision for Lerner seemed so at odds with what students wanted from a student center.

Lehecka’s response is sobering. “It wasn’t as though it was [Tschumi] against the administration, it was more complicated,” he explains. “Over a decent period of time—there was a lot of back and forth of how do you get what Tschumi saw as a grand vision and a big statement, and not just an architectural statement, but a statement that students mattered.”

“A statement that students matter”—this may seem strange to undergraduates passing through Columbia under University President Lee Bollinger, whose legacy will undoubtedly be defined by the graduate and professional-focused Manhattanville expansion. In the ’90s, however, under University President George Rupp, there was a paradigm shift: Rupp chose to focus on the inadequacies of undergraduate life.

“[Rupp] talked, right from the beginning, about how undergraduates were central to a healthy university, which is not how presidents had talked in the 20th century before,” Lehecka says. Previous University presidents as far back as Nicholas Murray Butler had stressed the importance of graduate and professional schools.

“Rupp came in and talked very differently, and, question was, did he really mean it?”

It soon became apparent that he did. As Lehecka recalls, Tschumi went to Rupp with three designs, and Rupp, having talked about it for a few minutes, pointed to the most expensive one.

“I would say, from George Rupp’s point of view, that there were decades to make up for where the only approach, outside of curricular things, was utilitarian,” Lehecka says. “His impulse was to do something that would make a very big statement. This was the first thing being done for [undergraduate] students this way.”

Rupp confirms this in a curt but presidentially evenhanded email to me: “Columbia was indeed better known for its distinguished graduate programs than for its superb undergraduate offerings. We decided to focus more attention on the undergraduate programs both because their distinction was less recognized than their merits warranted and because the university as a whole could unite around a shared interest in celebrating excellence in undergraduate education.”

Recognition is a keyword here. After all, Lerner’s enormous glass wall is meant for just that purpose: visibility. Lerner, as it was conceived, was a space for students to simply be and for that state of being to be visible to the rest of campus. The vision of Lerner as a high-tech version of the Low Library steps illustrates this idea perfectly—Lerner, much like the steps, was not intended as a place for meetings, or for doing things. This was the essence of Rupp’s “big statement.” Undergraduates matter beyond what they do; therefore they need a space that is not purely utilitarian.

The unfortunate corollary of this attitude is that non-utilitarian space, or space that isn’t assigned to any particular group or for any particular activity, can very easily be stolen.

As early as 2002, student spaces on the fourth and fifth floors of Lerner were being encroached upon by administrative office space. As such, students pounced when 5,000 square feet of unused space opened up on the newly completed sixth floor in 2003.

Given the fact that Lerner was nominally a student center, the four undergraduate councils—Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, Barnard’s Student Government Association, and General Studies Student Councilsubmitted a proposal to reserve the space for undergraduate use to a committee of students and administrators. Members of the undergraduate councils were “almost certain” that the administration would ultimately reserve the space for undergraduate use.

In response, administrators said that they would not rush a decision.

In 2004, the four undergraduate councils developed a 36-page proposal for the use of the sixth floor. However, according to a 2006 Spectator article, no administrative action was taken in response. It was around 2006 that Columbia floated a plan to house a gym on the sixth floor, at least for the duration of the construction of the new Northwest Corner Building. One year later, though, this plan was abandoned.

After four years of “not rushing” a decision, Columbia kicked the can down the road once more. “The thing with Lerner six is … we’re only going to get to do it once. Let’s do it right and let’s find out what that is,” Joseph lenuso, then-executive vice president of Columbia Facilities, said after four years of the sixth floor remaining vacant.

Finally, in 2009, the sixth floor of Lerner was finally opened to…


the Student Affairs, Judicial Affairs, and Financial Aid offices.

And just one year later, the Center for Student Advising opened up shop on Lerner’s fourth floor.

It’s hard to justify the creeping loss of already limited space to administrative offices. Despite Lerner ostensibly being a student center, it is painfully clear that there’s a glaring disparity between the weight of administrative and student requests for space. The undergraduate student body has grown by at least 25 percent since Lerner opened its doors, yet the amount of space allotted to students has decreased significantly. The War on Fun rages on.

This lack of student space in Lerner has prompted some to look elsewhere: For example, the Morningside Student Space Initiative—a subcommittee of the University Senate’s Student Affairs Committee—has floated the possibility of opening an undergraduate lounge in Uris Hall. The irony of undergraduates moving into a graduate school building on account of administrators encroaching upon space in the student center designed for undergraduates by an undergraduate-oriented University president (a mouthful, truly) should not be lost on anyone.

Lerner is a Columbia building. And by virtue of being one of the most recent battlegrounds in the War on Fun, it tells a distinctly Columbian story—one of many.

On this subject, Lehecka speaks slowly and carefully—his response is even-handed, but it’s clear he’s navigating dangerous territory. “You know, nobody would claim the athletic director is out of line by saying we need more space for our teams, we need more space for practice, we need more resources to pay coaches.” As he says this, he gets progressively quieter; his voice loses inflection. “It seems now that it’s only in the student area that somehow people aren’t, they somehow aren’t supposed to do that.”

He pauses. “It just doesn’t seem like a balanced approach to things.”

The anarchist faction in the War on Fun

During the 2004-2005 academic year, Matthew Harrison, who was a senior at Columbia College at the time, was the president of CCSC. As president, he organized the very first Glass House Rocks and went on to work for Columbia’s now defunct Office of Student and Administrative Services after graduating.

In one very important respect, Harrison is the golden goose: As an undergraduate, he wrote a 41-page thesis on Lerner. Those who have it refuse to share it, and Harrison himself is cagey when it comes to the document: During the course of our conversation on the phone, it becomes clear that he considers his thesis spottily written, naïve, and worst of all incomplete, largely by virtue of it being written over 10 years ago.

Scrolling through it, however, it becomes depressingly clear that there’s a lot that Harrison knows that I don’t. Right off the bat, he asks: “If you’ve talked to Tschumi, you know he’s relatively good at massaging his vision to fit into what has happened to that building over time, right?”

Harrison is right. In the book Glass Ramps/Glass Wall: Deviations from the Normative, a collection of essays and sketches about Lerner published shortly after its construction, Tschumi writes that one of the goals of Lerner was to build “an innovative programmatic space.” By “programmatic,” he means a space in which use is predetermined, often by the form of the space.

And yet, this seems like a wink to those in the know.

How could the Tschumi of “innovative programmatic space” be the same Tschumi who, in his 1991 lecture at Columbia, half-joked that the Low Library rotunda would make a good swimming pool? “What a wonderful swimming pool the Rotunda would be! You may think I’m being facetious, but in today’s world where railway stations become museums and churches become nightclubs, a point is being made: the complete interchangeability of form and function.”

It hardly seems possible. Tschumi is concerned with spaces that allow for spontaneous interaction—the ramps, which were intended as the primary means of circulation, facilitate that.

This begs the question—how did Tschumi intend for Lerner to be used? At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. Some clients defer to the architect when thinking about their buildings; Lerner, however, has operated independently of its designer. “I have nothing to do with it, for better or for worse,” Tschumi tells me.

But although the architect equivocates, Harrison thinks he knows. “Lerner is a building that has always been better to misuse than use. Our hopes for Lerner are part of that misuse,” he says. Radical misuse is an attempt to pull what we want out of a space that isn’t defined in terms of any one activity.

Apparently, what Harrison wants out of a space is bowling. He enthusiastically endorses the idea of ramp bowling—candidates for student government, he says, should just start bowling in Lerner, spontaneously, and then let it get shut down. It might serve as an inspiration for other enterprising students. We briefly discuss the 2010 effort by a Columbia student to transform the ramps into a giant game of Donkey Kong—it’s a perfect example of radical misuse. Ultimately, that’s what the ramps are for: constant, almost spontaneous reinvention by students.

When I spoke to Tschumi about Lerner’s glass wall, he explained that it was meant as a window into student life. “People can walk on the ramp, get a glimpse that something is happening in the auditorium; or sit in the lounges and be aware of what’s coming.” But a darker corollary of that idea is that the glass wall is transparent about how Lerner is used—in a way that is not actually friendly to students.

The way to reclaim that space, then, is not to obtain more group space, but instead to creatively use and misuse the available empty space.

When I write that Lerner is a Columbia building, I mean that it stands for something distinctly Columbian—it stands for academic debate and the War on Fun. But ultimately—and manifestly—it stands for undergraduates not being a priority, and for the difficulties of making this campus feel like home.

Harrison is adamant about this. He’s almost pleading over the phone: “The ramps that just sit there? They’re such an affront, right?” Yes, I say. They are. “But where else on Columbia is the difficulty clear?”

“My undergraduate thesis—I get a call about or an email every couple of years, and it’s always somebody smart who is writing about how we ended up with this building and how it could be different.”

He pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “I’m not convinced it could be different.”

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