Tucked away within the clinical galleries of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Piet Mondriaan's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, a seemingly detached fragment of the 1811 Commissioner's plan animated by jazz age euphoria and refracted through the lens of an anxious European émigré fresh to these shores, hangs silently on view; prodigal son recast perhaps as memento mori to the talismanic gridiron of Manhattan. Conceived between 1942 and 1943, the work was a love letter to a city where spirit and rigor could be found in equal measure. Here, the ordering black orthogonals of Mondriaan's mature work gradually evolved into syncopated hues of yellow, red, and blue, suggesting order through rhythm, with streets defined as much by force and concentration of activity as by the precision of their initial inscription. One need only look due south to Rockefeller Center to comprehend that the fine line between singular transgression and respect for convention is never more apparent than when played out within the ambivalent confines of Manhattan, the island's own status as a "city within a city" having long exceeded the threshold for cliché, so as to now comprise its own genre.
A handful of blocks northwest of the institutional site of Manhattan's entombed heart, Skidmore Owings & Merrill's (SOM) new 58,000 square metre extension of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, described by design partner Mustafa K. Abadan as a "campus within a building", is a work that consciously attempts to conjure a range of associations, from the pulsating canvas of Boogie-Woogie to the organizational potential offered by the city's street grid. It is also a project that by virtue of its pedigree must invariably contend with the storied legacy of SOM New York, a firm whose faceless conceit belies a strong track record of elevating the mundane to a level approaching art in a city with a history of doing the same. In a list that hardly bears repeating, but whose recitation is demanded if for no other reason than New York hubris, projects such as Lever House, Manufacturers Hanover Trust, Chase Manhattan Bank, Pepsi-Cola World Headquarters, 9 West 57th, and more recent additions such as 101 Warren Street, 7 World Trade Center, and the Time Warner Center have come to define the built environment of post-war Manhattan and comprise a Modernist canon so insular, that evolution by means of escape seems both daunting and criminal. If in 1947 Henry-Russell Hitchcock proposed that architectural production would assemble its ranks behind the "genius" and "bureaucracy" divide, one wonders today that as the named "geniuses" have as often as not flagged in their capacity to deliver genuine surprise, the bureaucratic anonymity of firms such as SOM might exist to deflect the burden of perpetual innovation away from the individual architect, engendering both the freedom to fail and, if fully embraced, the opportunity to produce unexpected moments of quality, or at the very least, interest. In many respects, John Jay delivers such a moment.
Poised between West 58th and 59th streets within a small stretch of blocks scattered along the West Side Highway — an area whose rapid, ambitious re-development is only by the Hudson Yards project directly to the south and the High Line-fueled frenzy just a bit further down the road — John Jay is attached at the hip to Haaren Hall, the college's primary home, a brick-clad landmark with Flemish-Baroque styling constructed in 1906 (later renovated by Rafael Vinoly in 1988) and faces down McKim Mead & White's handsome, earthen-hued IRT Powerhouse across Eleventh avenue. While clad almost entirely in steel and glass, the new volume's exterior establishes a connection to existing buildings, making use of the sizable downward slope of the site to extend a cornice line from Haaren Hall through the podium of the new project, visually encompassing the roofline of the Powerhouse in a bloodless coup over the adjacent block. This urban assemblage is reinforced by a clever use of aluminium fins affixed at a perpendicular to the mullions of the glazed panels. The façade here comprises vertical fins of three different widths, each covered on one side with a dense pattern of reflective red dots, and arrayed in alternating bands corresponding to each of the podium's four- and the tower's fourteen floors. The combined effect when approaching the building's main entrance is that of a shimmering red monolith brokering a tonal continuity between its elders.
For a college of justice, this playful violation of the physical limits of the grid through rhetorical sleight of hand seems strangely appropriate. The motif of convention and transgression courses throughout the project, awash as it is in metaphor literally applied. Case-in-point is the building's heart, "the social cascade." This is a generously proportioned interior street that, on the one hand, is the actual width of a city street in plan, illuminated from the ceiling by a seemingly random pattern of fluorescent tubes meant to suggest cars in motion, yet on the other is intended in section to evoke Broadway's oblique run through the orthogonal grid, transposed here into the floor plates of the podium and tower. Just as Broadway's collisions with the normative block structure of Manhattan produced a sequence of serendipitous spaces of exception within the fabric of the city, here too are "Times Square moments" where the staggered void comes into conflict with its containing frame.
Conveyed on the façade by transparent gashes, the expression of such staged conflict evokes similar gestures present in several recent projects for higher education in the city, from Weiss/Manfredi's Diana Center at Barnard and Thom Mayne's new academic building for Cooper Union to SOM's own Student Center at the New School, currently under construction, and the yet unbuilt projects by SHoP and Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University's Medical Center, respectively. In each of these projects, sectional continuity is posited as the agitating element, and indeed, as Abadan suggests, if John Jay can be considered "antithetical" to the SOM legacy in any way — the legacy of "Manhattanism" implied here as well — it is in this aggressive use of the section, and in the attempt to shift the locus of circulation from the elevator to a generous promenade tasked with the demands of leisure, study, and movement. For a commuter college whose students were often quick to return home after class, the provision of this social centre has already begun to reap returns including a significant increase in student participation in extracurricular programs. Informally renamed "the Jaywalk" by students, the cascade suggests that a reevaluation of the dominance of the elevator in the urban campus — as exemplified by The Newman Vertical Campus at Baruch College, Columbia's International Affairs and Northwest Corner buildings, and much of NYU — is prompting a subtle revision in type, skirting the tacit formal laws of the city out of convenience, necessity, or poetic license, as a jaywalker might.
While the façade and section are the most overtly theatrical elements in the project, John Jay is a thoroughly choreographed exercise in achieving a range of architectural effects with limited means. After continuous exposure, the serial deployment of generic elements and patterns in the interior crafts an experience that is curiously ritualistic, yet also evokes a scavenger hunt for variations on an unstated theme. The fluorescent tubes scattered across the ceiling of the cascade make an appearance in the raw as vertical lanterns arrayed down a hallway of faculty offices, and then again as directional highlights on the undersides of each flight of the tower's column of scissor stairs. Coated in a sharp blue, the stairs themselves perform double duty as circulation and sculptural element, backlit by day to appear as hazy impressions behind the translucent walls of the tower's classrooms. Paint is heavily relied upon to add variety to the interior. Its use is surprisingly successful in the interior classrooms, where jarring yellow walls substitute for natural light. In the upper cafeteria, a splash of green floor tiles intended to synch with the nearby roof lawn is less compelling.
As with the latter, there are other moves where theatricality makes an unfortunate detour into didacticism. Cartoonish supergraphics, seemingly ripped from the city's image-softening rebranding initiatives — or if being generous, from the New Museum — issue boldfaced slogans about the school's devotion to justice. And while such sentiments, along with the architect's suggestion that the building's glazed mass represents "the transparency of justice", are no doubt sincere, to accept such claims at face value is to miss a large part of what the building actually does, namely, to stage an effective dialogue between the symbolic objectivity of the law and fact of one's contingent position in relation to it. For all its manifest symmetries, it is a welcome irony that the John Jay extension is best encountered from the exterior at the oblique, though its most defining moment, however, occurs upon entering the Moot Court on the East side of the tower.
From the gallery, the wood paneled training space recedes in favor of a ceremoniously-framed view, escorting the eye past the bench and over the roof gardens, to be arrested for a breath by three wind battered flags on axis atop Haaren Hall, before emptying into panoramic diffusion over the ordered entirety of a city that tends to reward the jaywalk and hand down mixed verdicts to its more brazen transgressors, irrespective of their genius or bureaucratic assurance. With John Jay, SOM has composed an inspired work that raises the neighborhood's architectural stakes largely from within the terms set forth in the city's familiar game. As a host of like-minded projects rapidly begins to ascend onto the scene, New Yorkers will soon be able to judge the extent to which the Manhattan of Mondriaan's canvas is to be taken as a living document or if its limits persist for good reason. Justin Fowler