Tropolism Buildings: Stephen Gaynor School and The Ballet Hispanico


Rogers Marvel Architects has been hard at work on their first building. Lucky for us, no one has seen it. Lucky for me, I used to work there (though never on this project), and Rob Rogers was generous enough to give me a sneak peek. Read the whole article, complete with luscious photos, after the jump...


It is a mid-rise, mid-block tower for the Stephen Gaynor School and an expansion of the Ballet Hispanico (which is retaining their old building on 89th Street). The building is on 90th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus, is a typical Upper West Side block. Concrete and brick housing projects from the 1950s through the 1990s; an early 20th century school next door, and an elevated public playground across the street, elevated to house a parking garage below).


The playground is the first of many fortunate aspects of the site. The playground gives one the opportunity to get a little higher and closer to the building, from a public place, and see the meticulous detail and materials on the building's facade. It also allows one to see the building frontally, from 91st Street, all the way through the block. It is a very rare condition in New York: you can't see the base of the Empire State Building from 35th Street.


RMA has taken advantage of the increased visibility and given us something to look at. The most striking feature is the cast concrete canopy, covering a two-story play space on the 4th floor. From the street and the block-through playground across from the building, this canopy holds the street wall while signaling another elevated outdoor space for children on 90th street. One imagines (in warmer months) the entire street to be filled with the sound of kids. The canopy, along with the rest of the building's skin, creates a sense of openness about the building.


And what a skin it is. The lower floors are clad in copper panels, which already have the beautiful patina of a gently aged penny. Much like the wood cladding spotted on 10th Avenue in November, or the bush-hammered concrete at the Chelsea House (formerly known as Chelease), this is yet another welcome drift from the usual what-color-brick-shall-we-pick (or how-thin-can-we-slice-the-stone) that prevails on Manhattan towers. The upper stories sport brick, but no bricklayers were on the job. It is a panelized brick system, one that saved the school and ballet half a million dollars in staging costs. The panels are staggered and wrap around the building's corners, and the bricks oriented vertically, so that the non-loadbearing nature of the brick is made clear. Rob said the panel manufacturer has begun recommending the staggered joint design to its other masonry panel clients: it conceals the imperfections in long vertical expansion joints. American building industry: leading the way in innovation.

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This could have easily turned into an overwrought 1990's boutique architect building, like the American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates. RMA has chosen a more moderated approach. In this case, the parts of the building that keep it part of the city are things that were probably dictated by medium-low construction budget: the bronze-color aluminum window systems; the grade B concrete work; the very recognizable yet still beautiful brick color (I think Polshek used it at Columbia on a megadorm in the 80s). The building stands in a world where the ordinary has been simply considered: some parts replaced, some parts altered, some parts left without alteration. The effect is that of being at an Alvar Aalto building: brilliant in managing its presence.


The interior structure and organization is as well-managed. The Ballet occupies the upper stories with clear-span dance studios. The middle and lower floors are for the School. The basement required a clear-span space for a full basketball court gymnasium. The middle and lower floors didn't require the clear span, and so a large concrete V-truss was created in the middle of the building to transition from short span to long span. Around this truss the internal stair winds, so that at every floor the V is a different shape. This plays an important programmatic role because the school is for children with learning differences, some with spatial orientation challenges. The V's effect is one of orientation: kids know what floor they are on, and where they fit into the whole.

The three full-floor dance studios on the upper level are bracketed by uptown and downtown vistas of Manhattan, and are as large as those of the major companies in New York. It's not every day a firm gets to contribute to the cultural infrastructure of the city.

During our trip up the stair, around construction scaffolding and guys cutting metal studs, Rob pointed out that on each floor a view to the exterior came all the way into the central stair. Another orienting trick. After a few floors up, Rob seemed to lose his tour-guide formula and simply started exploring the space again. He pointed out this or that lateral view, corners he enjoyed, economies met, solutions created. Rob is like a kid, with enthusiasm for the big and small, exploring a sequence of discovery moments, sometimes as architect, sometimes as person in a great building.

Project Facts

Construction cost: $19.5m

Project Credits:

Clients: Stephen Gaynor School

Ballet Hispanico

Architect: Rogers Marvel Architects. Robert Rogers, Jonathan Marvel, Thaddeus Briner, Lissa So

Structural Engineer: Severud Associates

Mechanical Engineer: Flack & Kurtz

Curtain Wall: Axis Group

Elevator: Van Deusen

Acoustic Engineer: Hansen

Contractor: Turner Construction

Brick Panels: Island Industries


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