US Building of the Week

John A. Paulson Center at NYU

Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake
30. January 2023
Mercer Street Academic Podium Facade (Photo: Connie Zhou / JBSA Images, courtesy of Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Project: John A. Paulson Center at NYU, 2022
Location: 181 Mercer Street, New York, NY, USA
Client: New York University
Architects: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake
Davis Brody Bond Team:
  • Partner-in-Charge: William H. Paxson, AIA, LEED AP, BD+C
  • Design Partner: Carl F. Krebs, FAIA
  • Principal, Project Management: Anthony Sieverding, AIA
  • Project Architects: Mayine Yu, AIA, LEED AP; Daisy Houang, AIA; Fernando Hausch-Fen, AIA
  • On-Site Architectural Representative: Nnadozie Okeke, AIA, LEEP AP BD+C
KieranTimberlake Team:
  • Design Partners: James Timberlake, FAIA, LEED Fellow; Richard Maimon, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C; Matthew Krissel, AIA
  • Principal: Jon McCandlish, AIA, LEED AP
  • Project Architects: Fátima Olivieri-Martínez, AIA, LEED AP BD+C; Cooper G. Schilling, AIA, LEED AP BD+C; Zinat Yusufzai, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Athletics Design: Sasaki
Aquatics: Counsilman-Hunsaker
Envelope: Heintges Consulting Architects Engineers, P.C.
Graphics: Pentagram
Landscape Architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Lighting: Tillotson Design Associates
Theater Design: Fisher Dachs Associates
See bottom for list of engineers and other consultants.
Caption TBD (Visualization: Brooklyn Digital Foundry)

The history of the John A. Paulson Center at NYU is as long as the building is big. It dates back to 2007 and NYU's creation of an overall strategic plan that would add 6 million square feet of space in and beyond their core campus around Washington Square Park. Formalized in a smaller scale in 2012 as The Core Plan, and approved by the New York City Council that year, the plan allowed for the development of facilities on two superblocks south of the park. The site of one of those facilities, the Paulson Center at 181 Mercer Street, is on a superblock highlighted by the Silver Towers designed by James Ingo Freed and I.M. Pei in the 1960s. The plot was formerly home to the Jerome S. Coles Sports and Recreation Center, a squat, unassuming brick building home to NYU's main athletic facility. That building closed in 2016 and was demolished the following year, when construction of the future Paulson Center began. Five years later, in December 2022, the building was formally dedicated, named for hedge fund manager John Paulson following his $100 million gift. It opened to students the same day spring classes resumed, on January 23, 2023 — partially opened, more accurately, with classrooms and dormitory in operation but other components to follow.

Academic Podium & Faculty Housing Tower on Houston Street (Photo: Connie Zhou / JBSA Images, courtesy of Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)

From bottom to top, the Paulson Center contains athletic facilities (four basketball courts, a six-lane pool, squash courts, locker rooms) in two below-grade levels; a six-story podium with lobbies, 58 classrooms, three theaters plus rehearsal and practice rooms, cafes, and student commons; three interconnected dormitory towers with more than 400 beds; and an 18-story tower with 42 units of faculty housing. The top floor of the podium serves as a sky lobby with outdoor terrace for the student housing — a transition between the dorm rooms upstairs and the learning spaces downstairs. 

The rectilinear podium is roughly the same footprint of the former Coles Center, but it is shifted eastward, toward Mercer Street. Where the former building was set back from Mercer and provided open space off the street, the Paulson Center reintroduces the parallel Greene Street on the west side of the building, but as a generous pedestrian walkway with access to a playground next to the Silver Towers. In turn, the building is open to public ways on all four sides — a true 360-degree building, rare in Manhattan — and provides entries at the corners: student housing and classrooms at the northeast, athletics at the northwest, theaters at the southwest, and faculty housing at the southeast (see the Level 01 Axonometric below for orientation). Without a rear elevation, loading is located in the middle of the long Mercer Street elevation, convenient to the back-of-house theater spaces.

The entrance at the northwest corner, along Bleecker Street, with a view down the pedestrian walkway aligned with Greene Street. (Visualization: Brooklyn Digital Foundry)

Feasibly, NYU students could live in one of the dormitory towers, attend classes downstairs, eat meals in the second-floor commons, exercise in the basement, and go to a play or music recital at night. They could lead full collegiate lives without ever leaving the building — this city within a city, or campus within a campus. Although this hypothetical aspect of the project relates to the programmatic complexity of the building and was not articulated by any of the architects at Davis Brody Bond or KieranTimberlake during their guided tour of the building, the architecture responds to its position in the city through its enclosure. Transparency is paramount, such that “students within the building will have the city’s vibrancy and street life as a backdrop to their own learning experience,” per a statement from the architect team. 

Although floor-to-ceiling glass wraps the podium and the towers, it is far from the ubiquitous flat skins common in 21st-century New York. The student housing, for instance, features angled “wedges” that add texture to the facades when seen from the outside, frame views for the residents inside, and provide shade at certain times of the day (see enclosure renderings at bottom). Fritted glass in various patterned gradients across all parts of the building cuts down on solar heat gain and decreases the likelihood of bird collisions; considerations of the latter led to denser gradients at outside corners, where birds are prone to strike, among other design responses informed by the American Bird Conservancy and Bird-Safe Building Alliance.

The publicly accessible lobby at the north end of the building, along Bleecker Street; the stair at left leads to The Commons. (Visualization: Brooklyn Digital Foundry)

Circulation through the buildings is fluid, interweaving the mixed uses together and encouraging students to take the stairs as they move through the building. Except for the faculty housing, which moves people up to the tower via elevators, people are greeted at each lobby with generous stairs, be it the gradual sweep up to The Commons, the wood-lined stair descending to the gyms and pool, or the theater lobby's appropriately theatrical steps. 

At the heart of the podium is The Commons, a double-height circulation spine that doubles as a gathering and dining space and extends across the width of the building. Its walls, curved in plan, give the impression that the space is a giant void within the podium when seen from the outside, while from inside the views dramatically open up toward the urban backdrop, as the architects intended. Curves are not limited to this central space. They are found in the lobby benches, the Aalto-esque column wraps, and at each corner in the podium's perimeter circulation. While the outboard circulation enlivens the facades through the movement of bodies and is very much in line with upper-educational trends that see circulation spaces as opportunities for informal interactions, it pushes the classrooms and other instructional spaces to the center, free of windows and visual connections to the city, the sun, and the sky.

The Commons (Photo: Connie Zhou / JBSA Images, courtesy of Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)

Prioritizing natural light and views for the perimeter circulation over the internal classrooms is questionable, but it is logical for the three theaters also in the middle of the podium. The theaters are shared by NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and Steinhardt School of Music, whose facilities combine to make up more than a quarter of the building's square footage. From large to small the theaters comprise: the 350-seat, three-level Iris Cantor Proscenium Theatre, complete with fly tower and orchestra lift; the 145-seat African Grove Theatre, a traditional end-stage theater named for the nation’s first Black theater, which was founded on the same block in 1821; and the Warehouse Theatre, designed as a an experimental, box-within-a-box that can reconfigured and seat up to 140, depending on the layout. 

Whereas the palette in the theaters is dark, with black steel and other materials in abundance, the Ensemble Rehearsal Room is an unexpected, light-filled space. Located in the middle of the sixth floor, between two green roofs, the double-height rehearsal space looks upon the city through glass on three sides. The sights of the city are strong but the sounds are nonexistent, thanks to two layers of glass and a faceted acoustical inner layer.

Theater lobby accessed from Houston Street (Visualization: Brooklyn Digital Foundry)

Where the building at 181 Mercer Street, between Houston and Bleecker Streets in New York's Greenwich Village, was previously devoted to play, the new John A. Paulson Center at NYU mixes living, learning, working, dining, and playing in one large building — akin to five buildings in one. As such, the six-story podium, with its floor plans interweaving classrooms, theaters, lobbies, and cafes via perimeter and internal circulation, is considerably more interesting than the stacked athletics facilities below grade and the towers for faculty and student housing above the podium. 

Walking with the architects up, down and across the podium during the tour, it was not hard to imagine students being stimulated by the place: making the building their own as they find their own routes to and from the various spaces within the building. With so many different functions on so many floors in such a large footprint, the perimeter circulation — which I initially found questionable — eventually made sense: Instead of depending on signage and other wayfinding tactics, the city outside the glass walls becomes the means of navigation. Put another way, the circulation unites the city within and the city without.

Review by John Hill.

Iris Cantor Proscenium Theatre (Photo: Connie Zhou / JBSA Images, courtesy of Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)

Civil/Geotechnical Engineer: Langan Engineering and Environmental Services

MEP Engineer: Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers, P.C.

Structural Engineer: Severud Associates

Sustainability: Atelier Ten

Acoustics/AV/IT/Security: Cerami & Associates

Code and Life Safety Consultant: Code Consultants Inc.

Construction: Turner Construction Company

Cost: Dharam Consulting

Elevators: Van Deusen & Associates

Expediting: Design 2147

Facade Maintenance: Lerch Bates

FF&E: Spacesmith

Food Services: Davella Studios

Materials Handling: Kleinfelder

Performance Acoustics/AV: Jaffe Holden

Roofing/Waterproofing: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.

Ensemble Rehearsal Room (Visualization: Brooklyn Digital Foundry)
Level -02 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Level 01 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Level 02 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Level 05 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Level 06 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Level 13 Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Overall Axonometric looking northwest (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Longitudinal Building Section looking west (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)
Envelopes at (L-R) Faculty Housing, Academic, Student Housing. (Drawing: Davis Brody Bond | KieranTimberlake)

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