The Glass and the Gray

I. L. Sherman takes the 1 and the proverbial sledgehammer to the Columbia Business School.

For some buildings, it is not enough to just be ugly. They must impose their ugliness on beautiful places. Not content with the greater crime of gentrification, they are determined to add aesthetic degradation to their rap sheet. New York is full of such offenders: a row of pristine brownstones comes to an abrupt end at a pebblecrete police station on the Upper West Side; a lone duplexed brick house stands between glass-walled apartment buildings in Prospect Heights.

The best and worst of New York converge at the point where the 1 train emerges from underground and rises over Broadway. There’s something thrilling about aboveground rail in subway cities. Maybe it’s the electricity of trespass; maybe it’s just relief at having cell signal again. In any case, the train’s skyward ascent has given a magical aura to the neighborhood around the 125th Street station, a place I’ve only ever seen as picture postcards through subway windows on my commute home to Washington Heights.

But what makes this place special is not magic. It’s history. The rail bridge, the pre-war apartments, the blossoming Callery pears in spring—all this is embedded in the landscape. The 125th Street station lies at the beginning of what’s known as the Manhattanville fault—one of the city’s highest risk sites for an earthquake. Past earthquakes have not been major; the last had a magnitude of 2.4. The true upheaval of West Harlem can be traced to its history of development. As Columbus has imposed his name on countless streets and cities and one country, so has one of his namesakes, Columbia University, laid claim to large tracts of the neighborhood. After decades of annexation, what remains feels like the sole province of landlords, a student neighborhood that most students can barely afford.

My appreciation of architecture is tinged with the knowledge that many of the buildings I find beautiful were built on foundations of exploitation and that many continue to harm their environment, physical and social, in tangible ways. Columbia could have been content to misappropriate, taking the beautiful buildings of Harlem and transmogrifying them from the inside out. It was not. The university’s twenty-first century expansion has seen it determined to stamp its wealth and power on the landscape, to externalize the ugliness of gentrification and, if you will indulge me, ruin the view.

FROM THE 1, the Columbia School of Business announces its presence with less elegance than a pile of cinderblocks. There is no finesse to its silhouette, a series of crude rectangular prisms piled on top of one another. This is the back of the building, a largely windowless facade that calls to mind the comically obvious secrecy of the AT&T Long Lines Building, now known as 33 Thomas Street. But don’t worry: the ugly view is only for the locals and commuters, not the students. Around the other side, there’s an attempt at prettifying the site with a stretch of lawn—I will not dignify this patch of grass by calling it a park—and, beyond that, another cookie-cutter building, with a view of the Hudson.

The building by the river is called The Hub, because of course it is. The same machine that turned academia into a factory has wrung every last shred of creative thought out of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. In their place, we have miserable little lawns, and we have hubs: places where things are supposed to come together, though the exact nature of the convocation is always left undefined.

I could describe The Hub for you, but what’s the point? You already know what it looks like. The Hub’s two main construction materials are Glass and Gray. Glass is such a feature of otherwise featureless contemporary architecture that it has become noteworthy. Here, gray is distinct from the color, the eloquent tone of pyrite and snow days and the gelatin silver process in photography. This Gray could be made of anything—it doesn’t matter. The materiality is entirely subsumed by this sickly, bluish iteration of the color, the same shade on new buildings everywhere. If so much money is being invested in the proliferation of featureless conformity, then there’s no more fitting medium than Gray for the business school, which is itself the actualization of capital’s metaphorical dimension.

In the language of the business school, you can say anything to justify anything. Do open spaces lead to collaboration? Sure, why not. The winding staircases suggest interpersonal connectedness, I guess? Don’t worry if the modern architecture seems out of place!

The first time I caught the 1 train past 125th, I hated the School of Business almost instantly; a sudden reaction, straight from the gut. I didn’t know what the building was, but I found it aesthetically repulsive. Or maybe that’s too generous—I don’t know that there is an actual aesthetic to be found in a building that is little more than form but also somehow manages formlessness, physically imposing but blithely featureless, so bland it’s offensive. After I learned its purpose, the stylistic decisions began to make a twisted sort of sense: the floor-to-ceiling windows embody the antiprivacy ethos that drives surveillance capitalism, and the proliferation of blank, unprogrammed open spaces underwrites the capitalist myth of egality. You, too, can be rich and live freely, so long as you buy in.

I am not the first person to take umbrage with the concept of the business school, nor even the first to connect its hollow sense of purpose to bad taste in the name of sleek design. Martin Parker, himself a teacher at business schools, wrote for the Guardian in 2018 about their “generic modern [architecture]— glass, panel, brick” and their tendency to be sore thumbs on campus: “Unlike some of the shabby buildings in other parts of the university, the business school tries hard to project efficiency and confidence.”

Parker’s conclusion (aside from his thrilling thesis, “I think that we should call in the bulldozers”) is telling: “Having an MBA might not make a student greedy, impatient or unethical, but both the [business] school’s explicit and hidden curriculums do teach lessons.” The business school will not explicitly acknowledge that capitalism has become the fabric of society. It takes this as an implicit given and builds from there, a curriculum and a literal edifice that both embody a philosophy that ends in a cul-de-sac. Kind of like placing a lawn in the dead space between two impenetrable buildings and saying that you have introduced nature, when, actually, the river is right there.

IN JANUARY OF 2023, the New York Times published an article that insists Columbia’s School of Business has eschewed its focus on the market economy in favor of “bringing people together” to “debate issues going on in the world.” But nobody goes to business school to learn how to make the world a better place, to ask “big questions” and solve “big problems.” People go to business school to learn how to make money.

The Times interviewed the architects, who also saw a connection, albeit a different one than I did, between their job and the school’s mission. In the language of the business school, you can say anything to justify anything. Do open spaces lead to collaboration? Sure, why not. The winding staircases suggest interpersonal connectedness, I guess? Don’t worry if the modern architecture seems out of place! The Times is here to affirm that the building was designed to connect with its environment: it offers “views of the campus, a tangle of nearby viaducts, as well as brick tenements and public housing towers—in the process reminding people of the messy world beyond.” Yikes!

Of the architecture itself, the Times shows only the good sides: many-windowed open spaces glowing in a soft yellow light. The photographs look overly warm, like they were run through a faux-vintage Instagram filter. It’s not how the School of Business looks from the train, either. No amount of yellow light can disguise the sickly pallor of the building’s monochrome walls. The ethos of the modern business school, this one in particular, is tied up in lofty dreams of shaping the future. But no building stays shiny and new forever. From the subway windows, it looks shabby; already past its prime.

When I catch the 1 train home at night, every building bleeds into the darkness, leaving behind only light: cozy apartments with houseplants in the windows, New Jersey glittering across the river, and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center catching the street lamps, the brashness of Glass tempered without any Gray. All I see of the Columbia School of Business are the glass-walled fire stairs, the glowing red exit signs. Decontextualized in the dark, it manages an eerie sort of beauty. If only it were always nighttime.

I. L. Sherman moved to New York City from Australia just to be a hater. She finds the 1 train largely beyond reproach.