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NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
A Building for the City but Not the Village
April D. Lambert
Prof. Alistair Black
December 15, 2011
“The two elements most destructive of urban parks are highways and education institutions.”
--Jane Jacobs, quoted in Franz Schulz (1994). Philip Johnson: Life and Work.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
“Merely that a building works is not sufficient.”
--Philip Johnson (1954)
An Unloved Building
No one would argue that New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library (Fig. 1) is
a beloved building. In fact, it is hard to find any praise at
all for the 12-story building on Washington Square Park in
New York City’s West Village that serves as the
university’s central library. Instead, the building that
occupies a full city block and houses more than 3.3 million
volumes has been described as “merely a great arrogance”
(Goldberger, Bobst Library: An Emphasis on Space, 1973),
a “glowering mass” (Harris, 1999), and a “hard-floored
atrium of horror” (Salkin, 2003). The Bobst Library is just
one battle in the ongoing war – soon to enter its third
century – between NYU’s efforts to expand and
modernize and the surrounding neighborhood’s desire to
Figure 1. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 1974.
retain its historic village-like atmosphere and sun-lit
Washington Square Park. Built amidst protests, designed by architects whose styles had moved
on long before the structure actually opened, and named after a donor accused of anti-Semitism
and child molestation, Bobst Library has had an uneasy history. Its modern architecture, which
stems primarily from the International Style best represented by the world’s greatest skyscrapers,
seems appropriate for perhaps the most urban university in the United States. But the building
stands in stark contrast to the surrounding historic West Village, with its low-rise, primarily 19thcentury architecture. Even when not compared to its surrounding neighborhood, the building’s
most striking feature, a 100-square foot interior atrium soaring 150 feet high and with a vertigoinducing floor, draws criticism for prioritizing monumentalist design over human reactions.
(Kay, 1974) After almost forty years, however, Bobst is firmly a part of a neighborhood that
itself has changed significantly since the 1960s, and it stands as a prime example of midtwentieth century architecture, both its positives and negatives. It is still a highly functional
building, requiring only minor renovations in the last decade to address twenty-first century
technological needs. And it continues to represent the extremely urban nature of NYU.
Plans and Protests
NYU built its first building on Washington Square Park as early as 1837, when the
surrounding neighborhood was still very much a village in the midst of a not yet fully developed
Manhattan. (Goldberger, Washington Square, 1976) Built in the Gothic Revivalist style while
the rest of the buildings on the square were in the Greek Revivalist style, this first building began
a struggle between the University and the surrounding neighborhood that continues almost 200
years later. By the early 1960s, NYU was the largest single institution of higher learning in the
United States, but it had no central quad or other space that defined the university’s space. The
university hired architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster to develop a “Master Plan” for
expanding the campus and creating a more unified look for the extant buildings, which ranged in
age and style across a number of city blocks mostly to the east of the park. (Schulze, 1994, p.
303) Johnson was the twentieth century’s “Dean of Architecture” and one of the foremost
proponents of the International Style. (Goldberger, Philip Johnson Is Dead at 98, 2005) His
partner Foster, whose greatest work was in collaboration with Johnson, would later be credited as
the “man who more than any other has changed the face of New York University.” (Dunlap,
2002) As the Director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA), Johnson befriended Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, who served on both the
MoMA board and NYU’s governing council. Mr. Wrightman, at his wife’s urging, introduced
Johnson to NYU’s administrators and suggested that he would be an appropriate choice to
develop a master plan for overhauling the Washington Square campus.
The choice of Johnson (Fig. 2) and Foster to develop the Master Plan clearly indicated
that the University was going in a modern direction for its new construction. Johnson, who
became a scholar of architecture long before he began designing
buildings himself, was credited with introducing America to modern
architecture in a 1932 exhibition at MoMA that examined European
architecture since 1922. In an accompanying book, Johnson and his
co-author Henry-Russell Hitchcock dubbed this style the
Figure 2. Philip Johnson.
“International Style” and articulated three principles of this new
architectural style.
First, the style emphasized an expression of
volume rather than mass. Rather than conceived of as an assembly of boxy rooms, International
Style buildings were envisioned as space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces. Second, regularity
was prized over symmetry or other kinds of obvious balance. Third, applied ornament was
eschewed for a dependence on the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine
proportions. (Henry-Russell Hitchcock, 1966, p. 29) As explored further
below, Bobst mostly embodies these three principles, though not entirely.
As typically expressed, International Style buildings have a square or
rectangular footprint, a simple cubic extruded rectangular form, windows
running in broken horizontal rows forming a grid, and façade angles of 90
degrees. (
%28architecture%29) A fine example of the International Style is New
York’s Seagram Building (Fig. 3), designed by Mies van der Rohe and
Johnson in 1958. In the middle of the twentieth century, the
International Style was expressed primarily in large skyscrapers in
major American cities such as New York and Chicago. Other
Figure 3. The Seagram Building, NYC. Designed by
Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, 1958.
modern styles like the Second Chicago School developed directly from the buildings first shown
in America in Johnson’s International Style exhibition.
So when Wrightsman and the NYU council selected Johnson and Foster to develop the
Master Plan, they knew they were hiring modernist architects. While Johnson was beginning to
venture outside the strict boundaries of the International Style by then, and would eventually
champion Frank Gehry’s postmodernism (Muschamp, 1998), he was still primarily associated
with the International Style in the early 1960’s.1 In December of 1964, Johnson and Foster
unveiled the Master Plan, a “huge rebuilding program that would not only have added to but
substantially altered the neighborhood mostly to the east and south of Washington Square Park.”
(Schulze, 1994, p. 303) The Plan included the building that would become the Bobst Library on
the southeast corner of the Park, a number of other new structures extending to the south and
west, the extension of Bobst’s red sandstone façade to extant surrounding buildings, and, most
ambitiously, a glass-roofed street
extending three blocks to the east of the
park. At 150 feet, the library’s height
would more than double the height of
its then-neighbors. (Schulze, 1994, p.
303) “The objective was to establish a
uniform image to all buildings, a clear
identity for the school and a center to
the scattered urban campus.” (Blake,
1996, p. 127) At the time, the park
Figure 4. View of Washington Square Park from the north-east. www.
was surrounded mostly by low-rise buildings. The buildings on the north and west sides of the
Park, primarily early-nineteenth-century row houses, was designated an historic district by the
city. The south side of the park included McKim, Mead & White’s Judson Memorial Baptist
Church, built in 1893. (Schulze, 1994, p. 303) Bobst was to be the largest building immediately
on the square.
Upon its announcement, the Master Plan sparked immediate protest from the community.
The library, as the first structure proposed to be built, bore the brunt of the neighborhood’s ire.
They objected to its scale, arguing that it would cast a shadow on the southeast corner of the
park; its design, calling it ugly; and its very existence as an exhibition of NYU’s expansionism.
Johnson would also design the 1973 addition to McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library that resembles
Bobst not at all.
(McFadden, 1972) NYU needed to seek zoning changes to begin construction, providing
opportunity for the community to present objections. Vocal critics included Jane Jacobs, author
of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and vociferous advocate for the protection of
small-scale city neighborhoods like Greenwich Village (Ourousoff, 2006), who said that “All of
the glamour of Philip Johnson won’t save that corner of the park from gloom . . . The two
elements most destructive of urban parks are highways and educational institutions.”
1994, p. 304) Jacobs also stated that an unnamed source had informed her that the building was
going to actually be used as administrative offices rather than a library, which was a problem
because part of the construction was being funded by a grant from the federal government that
could only be used for library construction. Jacobs accused NYU of lying to the government,
citing the large atrium in the plans as evidence that the building could not be used as a library.
“Where are the book stacks?” Jacobs asked.2 (Burks, 1966) Despite the arguments of Jacobs
and others, the zoning changes were approved. A later lawsuit to prevent construction was
quickly thrown out by the courts.
Construction began in 1966 and, due to escalating costs and a change of contractors, was
not completed until 1974, a delay of more than two years from the original plan. (Kandell, 1971)
By then, the financial situation of NYU, which had been flush in the 1960s, had changed
dramatically. Falling enrollment, rising crime, and the legacy of a decade of protests, both over
campus plans and other political issues, had left NYU nearly bankrupt. Johnson and Foster’s
Master Plan would never be realized. In addition to Bobst, only two other buildings, neither
situated on the park, were constructed in a similar style, Tisch Hall (1972) and the Hagop
Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies (1973). Additionally, the façade of the Andre and
Bella Meyer Hall of Physics was reclad to match Bobst in 1972. (Schulze, 1994, p. 304)
Revitalization of NYU in the 1990s and early 2000s has led to further expansion, but not in
accordance with the Master Plan. Similar reactions from the neighborhood continue, however,
as many objected to a 1999 plan to construct a new student center of similar height and size next
to the library because it would cast a shadow on the Park. One resident noted that the University
would be “building a standard corporate building like any building in any corporate park in
As discussed below, the atrium occupies only about a third of the footprint of the building, and the stacks surround
the atrium on three sides on most of the upper floors. Jacobs appears to have been misinformed.
America.” (Goldman, 1999) The student center was built as planned and opened in the early
On the Cusp of Postmodernism
Bobst Library was designed by Johnson and Foster in 1964 but took nearly a decade to
construct. In the intervening decade the dominant style of architecture, and Johnson’s style in
particular, began to shift from modern to postmodern. The International Style remained a strong
influence, but architects began to play with references to other architectural styles in new ways
and began to develop a postmodern vocabulary that would culminate in the works of Frank
Gehry and his contemporaries. Thus, in his review of the library upon its dedication in
December 1963, New York Time architecture critic Paul Goldberger noted that the building was
out of its time:
[Bobst] is not the building we would have seen if it had come off [Johnson’s]
drawing board two or three years ago instead of almost ten. . . . [i]t is really
a building of another time – of an era just 10 years ago when architecture
was at once grander and more naïve. . . . Bobst is in a sense, architecture
for the Great Society. But the Great Society is now long gone – and to many,
the great space now reads as a merely a great arrogance.”
(Goldberger, Bobst Library: An Emphasis on Space, 1973) Bobst is usually classified as a
modern building in the International Style. It emphasizes volume over mass, includes several
examples of uniformity, and largely eschews applied ornamentation, meeting the three criteria
Johnson and Russell-Hitchcock had defined in 1932. However, there are a few elements that do
not fall strictly within the International Style, prompting some to conclude that the building is
actually of postmodern design. A more detailed examination of the building reveals that the
design was on the cusp of postmodernism – while predominantly of the International Style, its
references to other styles speaks to the postmodernism its architect was beginning to champion.
Bobst Library (Fig. 5) is a 12-story, 425,000-square foot building clad in longmeadow
red sandstone with a random chisel pattern finish. The exterior of the building includes a
rhythmic vertical articulation composed of recessed negative pilasters and solid or glass infill
panels. The top consists of a contrasting horizontal fenestration
housing the 12th-floor Administration Offices.3 (Blake, 1996) While
the building thus demonstrates the 90-degree angles and uniformity
called for by the International Style, the red cladding on the exterior,
while not exactly applied ornamentation, is far more ornate that the
Seagram Building (Fig. 3) or other prototypical examples of the
International Style, whose exteriors typically include only steel and
glass. The use of the red sandstone is a nod to the earthiness of the
neighboring park, adding a layer of the Village onto the exceedingly
Figure 5. Exterior view of Bobst Library’s south
urban design employed by the International Style. A former president
of NYU stated that Bobst’s design “contributed greatly to defining the
public identity of New York University as an institution that is part of
the modern city, yet at home with the older atmosphere of the square.” (Dunlap, 2002)
The most striking feature of the interior of the building is the 100-foot square atrium
soaring 150 feet upwards from a black, white, and gray marble inlay floor. (Fig. 6) Despite his
criticism of the overall style, New York Times critic Paul Goldberger
considered the atrium to be “one of New York’s most spectacular
architectural experiences.” (Goldberger, Bobst Library: An Emphasis
on Space, 1973) Yet, the use of a third of the footprint of the building
for open air drew criticism, and not just from Jane Jacobs, for wasting
space, particularly in a place like Manhattan where space is so
exceedingly valuable. Johnson knew of this criticism, stating “I knew
they couldn’t stand me down at NYU . . . They said, ‘My God, what
do you think you’re doing? All that space. We don’t need this open
space here.’ Well, I thought they did. My idea of functionalism did
not agree with theirs.” (Lewis & O'Conner, 1994, p. 93)
Figure 6. Bobst Library atrium, on day of dedication,
from 10th floor.
Jacobs was not completely wrong about university administrators being housed in the building.
The atrium’s black, white, and gray marble inlay floor is modeled on the trompe l’oiel
pattern of Palladio’s 17th-century Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in
Venice (Fig. 7). (Goldberger, Bobst Library: An Emphasis on Space,
1973) The view of the floor from the balconies that surround the atrium on
each floor can induce vertigo and some have stated that the pattern of the
floor resembles metal spikes from above (Fig. 8). (Afridi, 2004) After two
students leapt to their deaths from the upper balconies to the atrium floor in
2003, some alleged that the vertigo-inducing view of the floor from above
Figure 7. Interior of Church of San Giorgio
Maggiore in Venice. From Encyclopedia Brittanica,
actually led people to jump to their deaths. “The building is
basically a shell that encases
a 10-story-high vacuum, a
soulless, hard-floored atrium of horror. . . . Bobst speaks the
cold language of suicide. Its design is early-1960s modern
heartless. Brutal geometry. Humans are specks in its cruelly
soaring spaces. Step through the revolving doors into it, look
up at the thin walkways along the atrium’s edge and one
thought naturally occurs: ‘A fall from there will kill.’”
(Salkin, 2003) After the 2003 deaths, the university added
Figure 8. Close-up of Bobst atrium floor.
Plexiglas walls to the upper floor balconies to prevent further suicide attempts.
Many of the library’s services and offices are located on two sub-levels below the atrium.
On the north side of the building are five two-story reading rooms with glass walls that look out
over the park.4 The stacks, other reading rooms, carrels, and special collections areas extend
back from the central atrium on the east, west, and south sides of the building. Nine elevators
and five chevron-shaped staircases occupy the south side of the atrium, while balconies with
gold anodized aluminum railings ring the atrium on four sides. The overall effect, according to
Paul Goldberger, is one of “fussiness:” “The central problem here is that Johnson and Foster
seemed unwilling to let a powerful space alone – they tried to make it pretty. But you can’t be
pretty, or delicate, on such a large scale . . . the whole space look[s] fussy, and not a little
garish.” (Goldberger, Bobst Library: An Emphasis on Space, 1973)
I once watched an outstanding electrical storm from one of these reading rooms.
It is in the interior of the building that the International
Style is most apparent. When the building is viewed
across the atrium on each floor, the likeness to the
Seagram Building is striking (Fig. 9). The stacks are
aligned with the steel frame and the windows, creating a
uniform, repetitive series of rectangles. Rectangular
light fixtures echo this repetition. The chevron-shaped
staircases cut diagonals through the rectangles on the
south side of the building, but by doing so they
Figure 8. Bobst interior viewed from across the
emphasize the uniformity and perfect 90-degree angles
on the other sides.
In sum, Johnson and Foster’s Bobst Library for NYU tries to resolve a number of
conflicts, and few would argue that it has been ultimately successful. The architects tried to give
a NYU an urban building for a village environment and seemingly failed to make anyone happy
except for NYU administrators who had to sell the library to the public. The designers tried to
satisfy locals who argued that the Village’s historic characteristics and Washington Square Park
should dominate the design as well as NYU administrators who wanted to demonstrate that
theirs was the country’s foremost urban institution. The architects straddled two architectural
ages, taking elements from both without executing either to its fullest potential. Yet after almost
forty years of operation, the building continues to serve the purpose for which it was built. The
atrium, criticized as being a waste of space, defines the floor layouts and prevents even the most
directionless from getting lost amongst stacks housing more than three million volumes. A
remodeling project in the mid-2000s updated some spaces for modern technology, but none of
the overall structure of the building was changed. If he saw the atrium today, Johnson would be
happy that, despite the Plexiglas added to the balconies and some furniture and greenery added to
the atrium floor to break up the space and reduce vertigo, his great space remains intact.
However, Johnson may be the only person completely happy with the Bobst Library.
Afridi, H. (2004, March 21). Taking Refuge Behind Glass Walls. New York Times , p. CY3.
Blake, P. (1996). Philip Johnson. Boston: Birkhauser Verlag.
Burks, H. C. (1966, June 21). U.S. Held Misled on N.Y.U. Library. New York Times , p. 45.
Clark, A. E. (1978, August 3). Elmer Holmes Bobst, at 93, Gave Library to N.Y.U. New York
Times , p. B2.
Dunlap, D. W. (2002, October 8). Richard T. Foster, Architect, Is Dead at 83. New York Times ,
p. C19.
Gent, G. (1972, December 17). Bobst Library's Benefactor, 88, Believes Dreams Breed Ideas.
New York Times , p. 66.
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Goldman, M. (1999, March 28). An N.Y.U. Plan Casts a Shadow. New York Times , p. CY6.
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Times , p. CY21.
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Times , p. 1.
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