A savvy design that saves student lives

New York University's Bobst Library was host to several student suicides over the last decade. How do you design the danger out of classic 1960s architecture? Joel Sanders Architect finds a solution.

I remember those days in 2003, when I was a student at New York University, and three students leapt to their deaths in a span of a few weeks.

The school has a longstanding reputation for isolation; that's the name of the game when you enroll in a campus-less institution embedded in the country's most populous city. I used to joke that I lived in the city and attended classes, rather than went to college. It's part of the appeal.

The students who committed suicide took advantage of a prominent piece of architecture on NYU's Greenwich Village campus: the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, which rises 12 stories on Washington Square Park's southern edge and is built in such a fashion that it physically resembles a prison. I mean this not in a derogatory fashion, only in that the academic building places its stacks and classrooms along the outer edge, leaving its center open as a wide, unbroken atrium. A column of air, all the way to the top.

It's an impressive view, both from the ground and top floors. Despite the aluminum railings, it's also temptingly dangerous for someone who wants to kill themselves. And so three students did in rapid succession, after which the university installed eight-foot-tall polycarbonate barriers along the highest floors' balconies. (It also opened up a wellness hotline.)

It wasn't enough. Three years ago, another student succeeded in using the library to commit suicide. So the university went back to the drawing board. How can we preserve this elegant, open, historic (if the 1960s are historic enough for you, that is) space, yet protect troubled students from themselves?

How do you reimagine a classic piece of architecture for a new era of hazards?

You call the firm Joel Sanders Architect, that's how. David Dunlap's post at the New York Times' City Room blog explains how the firm -- which has experience doing projects for Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania -- tackled finding a careful balance between safety and sights:

Instead of trying to create an inconspicuous barrier, Mr. Sanders and his colleagues have designed randomly perforated aluminum screens that completely enclose the balconies around the perimeter of the atrium and the open staircase connecting them, transforming the space in consequence.

The effect of the rectangular pieces of screen alludes to digital pixels, bringing the building into the 21st century. But they're also gold, giving the structure a shimmering look that would not be out of place in its heyday. And overall, the perforated approach preserves much of the light and air flow so cherished by the original design -- without adding too much weight to the balconies.

The Times calls it a "digitally inspired veil." I call it a great example of how smart design can solve a problem and preserve an intended experience.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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