Brita Servaes

Like almost everybody at The New School I had anticipated the opening of the new University Center with great expectations and couldn’t wait to set foot in it. The sweeping exterior promised light and open spaces, uplifting flights of stairs, and grand vistas. The much touted concept of an interior promenade staircase appealed to my inner flaneuse.

And indeed, the promise is kept by the bright and airy entrance, the crayon colored elevators, the open arms of well furnished landings that invite me to sit bathed in natural light—and most of all by the lofty library with its green roof terrace inviting restful contemplation and flights of inspiration.  

So I was not prepared to be assaulted—by the sharp-edged cliffs of low ceilings that forced me to duck as I descended the stairs on the 13th Street side. Carefree passage and the easy flow of thought that mindful ambling offers were violently cut short by a near blow to the head and mind—in fact, the monstrous downward obtrusions of dark metal cladding struck me with claustrophobic panic. 

I began to find the violence of the stairway mirrored in other structural intrusions throughout the building. Broad-shouldered pillars obstruct sightlines, narrow my passage and force my path through an edgy labyrinth. Overhanging corners collide with the open spaces of hallways and landings.  Precipitous ceilings darken the bright vistas of glass panels.  These menacing protrusions rupture the open floor plan thus and vex me even more as I lose my orientation altogether.

As a sense of dread vies with the elation brought on by the promise of new spaces and fresh vistas that are certified to hold up the highest ecological standards, I wonder how human well-being and emotions are accounted for in this built ecosystem. Does it matter how this place makes me feel? 

▪Can a space be certified as sustainable when it assaults the people who use it—is the happiness of people not part of the sustainability equation of a building? 

▪Is there a relationship between the violent elements of a structure and structural violence in our lives?

▪How can we strike back when architecture assaults us?

Brita Servaes
Staff, The New School