New York City Landmark: 2002
Beginning in the 1940's, New York University embarked on a campaign to further develop their campus - then located in University Heights in the Bronx. Marcel Breuer, already a famed architect by that time, was commissioned to design several buildings. He was asked in 1956 to develop a comprehensive design for the replanning and new construction of the campus. Five buildings were constructed from Breuer's plan, with Begrisch Lecture Hall being the most radical.
Begrisch Hall, composed of reinforced exposed concrete, is a building that mirrors the form and function of its interior. Used as a lecture hall, Breuer has revealed the steep theater and the aisle steps of the interior in the design of the structure as a whole.
The building features two sidewall trusses that appear to sit just barely on the ground, even as they support two cantilevered upward slopes that form the theater section of the lecture hall. The sidewall trusses are the only element of the building that actually touch the ground, so the hall has the feeling of hovering over the land. The building is entered through a small exterior staircase or an enclosed walkway coming from an adjacent building.
The main facades of the building, east and west, are decorated with separated panels of concrete in trapezoidal shapes. Each panel is textured so that the grooves of the exposed concrete run in different directions. The north and south facades are simply faced in a simpler exposed concrete. Because of the unusual shape of the sloping cantilevered wall, there is an underside of the building that is quite exposed on the exterior. This facade has a highly textured pattern of grooves following the facade down to the ground. This area also exposes the form of the interior lecture hall stairs that it is supporting.
Begrisch Hall is a brutalist style of building - the term brutalist coming from the French "beton brut" refering to exposed, unfinished concrete.
Breuer began his master plan for the University Heights campus in 1959. While the planning was not officially finished until 1970, Begrisch Hall was completed in 1961.
Prior to implementing the university's new building campaign, the prominent buildings on the University Heights campus were designed by Standford White. The main focus of these buildings was the famed Gould Library. For over 50 years these buildings were uncontested, and the university made an effort for subsequent designs on the campus to blend in rather than attract any attention away from the Classical White structures. This philosophy changed radically when they commissioned Breuer - an architect known for refusing to conform to Classical standards of design or order - to plan five new structures on the campus. These radical new buildings were set completely apart from White's older designs, and made a clear statement that the campus was launching itself into a new modern era.
Begrisch Hall uses many of the modernist techniques seen radical and unique at the time. Breuer's use of the brutalist method of exposed concrete as the only facing of the building was a favored technique of his, but still wholly uncommon in most designs up to that time. The strange trapezoidal shape of the lecture hall, using side trusses and sloping cantilevers to form the odd, asymmetrical quality of the building, was exemplary of the modernist movement.
Given that Begrisch Hall was constructed on a campus previously populated with Classical designs by Stanford White, this modernist building certainly made a social statement. Breuer exhibited an unwillingness to cooperate with the current atmosphere of the campus or design buildings that would contribute to the general aesthetic already put in place by White's earlier buildings. His new design for the campus was almost like an assault on the current buildings on the campus and the brutalist style of Begrisch Hall could not help but make a bold statement. By commissioning Breuer to plan their new building campaign, New York University was knowingly thrusting themselves into the modern aesthetic.
Begrisch Hall holds its status as an important building of the modernist movement. It's unique design and brutalist qualities continue to give the lecture hall significance as an architecturally interesting and important structure. Already a famed architect at the time of the hall's design, Breuer's fame has not waned, and his designs are still lauded.
The continuing significance of Begrisch Hall stems from its daring and radical design, especially when considering the previous physical context in which it was built. Breuer's modern designs, injected into a campus defined by the ordered designs of Stanford White, turn the campus into a kind of modernist sculpture garden. Since Breuer was already well-known at the time, this design did not have a particularly dramatic effect on his career. It is, however, yet another large success in a canon of impressive and powerful designs.
Depicted Item: NYC Landmarks Commission Designation Report
Source: NYC Landmarks Commission
Depicted Item: Bronx Community College Architecture
Source: Lehman College Art Gallery
Date: Accessed November 29, 2010