Monday, December 4, 2023

Photo of the Day: Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia University, NYC

The other day, I posted about the Jerome L. Greene Science Center at Columbia University. Today’s post concerns the second in the triad of buildings at the southeastern quadrant of the university’s 17-acre Manhattanville campus that opened in 2017 and that I saw and photographed a few weeks ago.

The Lenfest Center for the Arts, part of the university’s graduate School of the Arts, was, like the Greene Center, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, with Davis Brody Bond as executive architect. 

This 60,000-sq. ft., glass-enclosed structure contains publicly accessible facilities of the free Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery; the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room for film; a flexible performance space for theater, music, dance and cross-disciplinary productions; and a flexible presentation space for readings, lectures, exhibitions and symposia.

Though it was anchored in the media and financial capital of the world, Columbia for decades claimed its lack of space left it at a competitive disadvantage with the other Ivy League schools and other major selective universities. The acquisition of land once devoted to manufacturing in Manhattanville went a long way towards correcting that.

In particular, Lenfest Center draws on resources from the university as a whole. Columbia stated when the center opened that it wanted to be “open to and engaged with the surrounding West Harlem community.”—and the university has pledged $170 million to the streets near the Manhattanville project.

It is good that the university has bowed in the direction of better community relations, particularly given a notorious history that may have reached its low point with its notorious and losing 1968 struggle to build a gymnasium in Morningside Heights.

But, as a New York Times article in late September noted, the university’s expansion into Harlem now makes it the largest private property company in New York City. And opinion remains divided as to how much Columbia has hired residents and local companies.

Lenfest Center has worked to draw from and contribute to the cultural landscape of New York City. 

But at a time when, as the Times article observes, it has benefited from 200-year-old legislation that allows it and other local nonprofits to pay almost no private property taxes—an advantage over its Ivy League rivals—questions will probably raised more insistently on how this cultural center could benefit the community more.

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