Volume 73, Number 25 | October 22 - 28, 2003

Talking Point

N.Y.U. library’s grand design didn’t include users’ safety


Call it the “Atrium of Horror.”

The N.Y.U. Library, called “Bobst” for someone who gave money to help build it, is a terribly designed, dangerous, vertigo-inducing, ugly structure with more space for air than books.

The building is basically a shell that encases a 10-story-high vacuum, a soulless, hard-floored atrium of horror.

Why this attack on a library?

Two suicide leaps in the past month by undergraduates inside the atrium.

They didn’t have to happen.

Anyone who has ever walked along the railing at the atrium’s edge on Bobst’s upper floors is stunned by the optical-illusion floor far below (do the squares recede or come towards the eye?) and the shortness of the rails.

A recent piece in the New Yorker about the 1,200-plus suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge points out that suicidal moods are often short lived.

Take away the option of a perfect place to commit the act and a person might pause long enough to think twice.

But Bobst speaks the cold language of suicide. Its design is early-1960s modern heartless. Brutal geometry. Humans are specks in its cruelly soaring spaces.

Step through the revolving doors into it, look up at the thin walkways along the atrium’s edge and one thought naturally occurs: “A fall from there will kill.” More surely than a bottle of pills, a razor blade or a gunshot.

Philip Johnson is the most overrated architect in the history of architecture and this red monstrosity of his proves it.

I teach journalism at N.Y.U., so I am biting the hand that feeds me to write this.

But that hand has blood on it for ever building this structure and for not having higher barriers around the balconies. N.Y.U. won’t knock it down because replacing it would cost too much and Johnson’s reputation is so sacred.

In an e-mail on the suicides to the campus community sent the Monday afternoon after the second library suicide (Oct. 14, 2003), N.Y.U. President John Sexton noted that “the search for a rational cause, so instinctive in a community defined by its commitment to ideas, is a fruitless undertaking.”

Later in the e-mail he defended Bobst as a “house of knowledge,” and wrote that we should not “permit our thoughts to be dominated [by the suicides] each time we enter and use the library.”

What will help is if there are no more plunging bodies, something that Sexton’s “rational” pledge to install tall glass panels around the railing should ensure.

But I for one will never forget those dead students, nor that a community defined by its commitment to ideas ever built a building so irrational that it would one day require glass suicide barriers.


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