In the Name of Public Safety, NYU Veils the Modernist Clarity of Philip Johnson's Bobst Library

In the Name of Public Safety, NYU Veils the Modernist Clarity of Philip Johnson's Bobst Library
NYU's Bobst Library
(Courtesy tarynmcpherson via Flickr)

Popular review website Yelp hardly seems the place to look for architectural criticism. But of the 23 informal reviews of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, most of them have a thing or two to say about the Philip Johnson-designed space, which must indicate something about how the public sees the main library at New York University. The library’s interior atrium, a 150-foot-high central void spanning across a lobby of tromp l’oeil floor tiling, is indisputably sublime. Called a “huge waste of space” by one former student and a “pleasing, open, panopticon-like” design by another, the atrium has drawn comparisons to sets from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” for better or for worse. And with the allusions to the brutality of modern society, one cannot help but recall the library's recent history of suicides.

In 2003, two students leaped to their death from the open-air crosswalks in Bobst Library, prompting the University to erect plexiglass barriers where Johnson’s design had offered open, vertigo-inducing vistas. In 2009, a student scaled a plexiglass barricade on the tenth floor and jumped to his death. This year, the University contracted local firm Joel Sanders Architect to design a more permanent and effectual solution to the safety issues that have marred what former New York Times critic Paul Goldberger called “one of New York’s most spectacular architectural experiences.”

The result is a series of perforated aluminum screens, custom designed to enclose the atrium fully. The screens are attached to I-beam-like supports, all painted in a matte bronze color to match the low balustrades of Johnson’s original design. Gone is the attempt at a minimalist intervention; the porous screens deliberately obscure Johnson’s clearly defined, modernist interior. Whereas the original design teased its inhabitants to attempt to visually grasp a systemic whole, the new aluminum screens — which are punctured with randomly spaced rectangular openings to evoke digital pixilation — dissolve views of the library into scattered fragments of visual data. From behind the screen, I couldn't help but feel a little caged in, my line of sight prematurely cut off by the artful intervention.

Yet some aspects remain more or less unchanged. The view from the lobby — which I could only catch glimpses of from an untethered opening in the construction netting — is still dazzling, even in the re-design’s incomplete state. From the ground floor, the screens appear like thin curtains of gold mesh, their “pixels” deftly complementing the existing rhythm of the interior. The screens are respectful of the original design, but the space has been transformed into something entirely new. Though the dizzying sublimity of Johnson’s modernism has been forgone, with it — hopefully — goes a dismal recent history that a university hopes to keep in the past. Though we will have to wait until Labor Day, when the renovation is expected to finish, to know if Johnson's library ends up feeling more prison-like to its students than ever.

To see a clip of the current state of Philip Johnson's Bobst library, click on the video below: