Fine Arts Building (former library) and
Shuster Hall, Lehman College
Goulden Avenue at
Bedford Park Boulevard West
Marcel Breuer, with Robert Gatje and Eduardo Catalano
Marcel Breuer’s first buildings in New York City were completed in 1960 on the western edge of Hunter College’s uptown campus (today, Lehman College), where their severe geometry joined, somewhat uncomfortably, the neo-Gothic of four structures from the 1930s.
Breuer’s Shuster Hall, initially used for classrooms and offices, is a three-story rectangular block covered in smooth limestone. Running across its east and south façades are broad horizontal bands of open terracotta grid work, which mask the strip windows behind and shield them from direct sunlight. Narrow frameless windows puncture the other two façades, arranged in staggered rows to emphasize the plane of the wall. Shuster surrounds a small square courtyard, not visible from outside, which brings light to its inner rooms.
Alongside, slightly advanced toward the campus, is the narrower two-story art facility, with gallery and studios, which in 1960 was the college’s new library. Breuer wrapped its shoebox shape in a curtain wall of clear glass, flooding the reading rooms with light. Aside from low partitions, bookcases, and illumination, the interior space was unobstructed except for two rows of columns. From their capitals spread out and upward are broad inverted umbrellas, or calyxes, which joined edges and braced one another to form an undulating ceiling. Since each umbrella was formed of plates curved in the self-supporting shape of the “hyperbolic paraboloid,” Breuer was able to mold them of extremely light, thin-shelled reinforced concrete, using only six columns to support the 160 by 180 foot ceiling, which also served as the library’s roof.
This remarkable interior was visible from the street, where the passerby could compare the library’s transparency and weightlessness with the opaque bulk of Shuster Hall. One building seemed to be the other turned inside out, mass exchanged for space, stone bearing-walls for flexed concrete. The odd couple was yoked together by a neutrally functional raised corridor, reached by a ramp, which served as a common entrance lobby.
But dramatic contrast wasn’t the whole story at Hunter.
Covering the two sunward sides of his library, Breuer erected freestanding screens made of square sections of orange flue pipe, the same grid work that had been used on Shuster. His motive was practical: he hoped this “architectural air conditioning” would spare the installation of a cooling system. Yet he also seems to have welcomed the opportunity to mask the glass wall and radical arches, and to make his two buildings, from the campus side, seem like siblings. In relation to Hunter’s existing Gothic ensemble, the visual effect was undeniably pleasing. The orange screens in their limestone frames matched the colors of the surrounding buildings, and produced intricate patterns of shadow resembling the play of sunlight on nearby stone carving. Critics of Breuer’s supposed indifference to architectural “context” would be placated. Meanwhile, to receive a proper modernist jolt, a visitor had only to circle around for the unimpeded view from Goulden Avenue.
Lehman College Art Gallery