Volume 77 / Number 40 - March 5 - 11, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

© Noah Sheldon

The “urban quad” of the new Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

Parsons celebrates new ‘urban quad’

By Stephanie Murg

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, a series of Jim Dine prints hangs in a gallery where a Dumpster used to be. A housekeeping closet has morphed into an airy white seminar room fitted out with the latest electronic gadgets. Giant, deep-set windows invite the city into a hive of creativity once hidden behind an opaque institutional façade. These and many other seemingly miraculous transformations are the result of almost four years of work, millions of dollars, and an architectural team with a gift for highly creative problem-solving. Welcome to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design.

Those Dine prints are entitled “Creation,” a much better word than “renovation” to describe this project, in which New York-based Lyn Rice Architects combined the ground levels of four historic buildings to form an “urban quad” that mixes learning and public program spaces with exhibition galleries. The new 32,800-square-foot center was made possible in part by a $7 million donation from entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson, the CEO of Salamander Hospitality and a founding partner of BET (Black Entertainment Television).

“Sheila came to us—at least it felt to me—by accident,” said New School President Bob Kerrey at the center’s February 20 dedication. He went on to describe Johnson, who now serves as both a New School Trustee and Chair of the Parsons Board of Governors, as “unrelenting in her pressure on me and the entire university community to excel.”

Johnson can trace her decision to give Parsons its largest ever donation to what she calls an “A-ha! moment.” It came several years ago, when during a meeting with Kerrey at the school, he wanted to show her something on an upper floor. When they encountered long lines of students waiting for the elevator, he suggested an alternate route. “He brought me through the Dumpsters,” she said.

The area occupied by the new campus center was then a labyrinth of maintenance functions broken up by links that tenuously connected the four existing Parsons buildings, which date from the early 1900s. Disturbed by the ad hoc setup and impressed with Parsons’ initiative to encourage greater collaboration at the school, Johnson had a vision “to create a space to bring everyone together so they could share ideas,” a place that would enrich The New School as a whole, not only Parsons. “It has finally happened,” she said, looking out at the center on the day of its dedication.

One appreciates the ingenious design of the new space all the more upon learning about what preceded it. “When we took our first walk-through [of the site], everyone’s head was just spinning after going through this rabbit warren of spaces,” says Lyn Rice, principal of Lyn Rice Architects. “It was pretty intimidating. We asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to bring these spaces together?’”

Organized around the idea of an urban quad, Rice’s open, innovative, and versatile design triumphed over those of competing architectural firms and last year won a design award from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. One of the keys to the plan was the inclusion of 66 Fifth Avenue, a Parsons building that was not part of the original project. “We started talking about opening that space up…and then for the first time we would have an internal connection from Fifth Avenue to 13th Street, so you can enter from either direction,” says Rice.

Entering from 13th Street, one steps in into the heart of the center, a 1,600-square-foot sky-lit quad enclosed by a glazed roof. The view of the sky through a white lattice is framed by distinctly urban features. “While we’re connecting out to the street, we also wanted to connect up and back, showing these classical New York fixtures—fire escapes, water towers, all these things that remind you that you’re in the middle of a great city,” says Rice.

The building’s dynamic mixture of urban and natural elements is a consistent delight. Having stripped away accumulated layers of interior partitioning, plaster ornament, and other finishes, Rice discreetly inserted new structures, from the rich bamboo shell of the 89-seat Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen auditorium to the refined “box within a box” of the state-of-the-art Kellen gallery, which currently houses an exhibition of works from The New School’s art collection. The quad’s east wall is formed by panels of yellow-poplar bark, which adds a powerful pop of nature and texture to the surrounding planes of concrete, aluminum, and steel.

Student work is visible throughout the center, with one colorful photo blown up to billboard proportions and visible through the new transparent façade of deep-set windows that wrap 250 feet around the complex’s perimeter. Another such student-created “supergraphic” wraps a wall of the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries that extend out to Fifth Avenue.

Some of the most challenging work on the center was carried out below ground, creating an area that few visitors see. “We were able to literally scoop out a new cellar space with earth-moving equipment,” says Rice, of the area that now houses a chiller plant with the capacity to provide air conditioning to all 12 floors of the surrounding buildings. “So it’s not just a cosmetic upgrade but also a structural project.”

A final fillip of innovation came in designing the building’s canopies. When Rice and his team discovered a zoning regulation that limits lettering on Fifth Avenue to twelve inches or less, they didn’t take the news lying down. Well, in a way, they did. “We wanted much larger letters, so we used four foot letters, but we turned them on their side, so that they’re only twelve inches tall,” says Rice. “And in doing so, we achieved a kind of porous, tree-like canopy over the entry and doubled the signage.”

It is fitting that elegant, creative solutions such as this went toward creating a campus center at one of the world’s leading design schools. According to Parsons Dean Tim Marshall, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center has already deeply affected the school community. “The space reflects beautifully the mission of the school,” he said at the center’s dedication. “[Members of the Parsons community] feel valued and important to come into this space every day.” It is a unique place of learning and creation, one that itself has much to teach.

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