In 1968, amid growing tensions over institutional expansion, Columbia University began construction of a long-planned gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park, triggering violent student and community protests. Because of Pei’s urban renewal experience and celebrated diplomacy, Columbia engaged him to prepare a new master plan for the university, the first since the campus was laid out by the renowned architects McKim, Mead & White in 1894. Pei saw it as an exciting opportunity.
After nearly four hundred meetings over fifteen months with university representatives, students, and concerned Harlem residents, a plan was presented to address Columbia’s long term space needs by using its existing quadrangle more intensively. Envisioned was the rehabilitation of existing buildings, two new 23-story towers, and expansive underground construction, including the controversial gymnasium, two swimming pools (for students and community residents), library expansion, bookstore, and related facilities, all interconnected by a skylit concourse. By focusing expansion within the university’s existing footprint, Columbia’s off-campus properties would be freed up for housing and other academic and community needs.
Although the master plan was well received, Columbia took no action. It was later perceived that Pei’s engagement was a disingenuous maneuver to buy time and appease the community.
Master Planning Team: I.M. Pei, partner in charge; Henry Cobb, August Nakagawa, Dean McClure
I.M. Pei & Partners