Metropolis: Wooster Science Building at SUNY New Paltz
Published in Metropolis, October 2017
Béton brut delights many an architecture fan, but Brutalist structures erected for educational use typically shunned windows to keep the occupants from being distracted. Fast-forward to current times and connection to the outdoors is a desirable trait, with researchers and designers hailing its contributions to wellness. The Wooster Science Building on the campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz, completed in 1967, was one such edifice that blocked access to views and sunlight. These flaws, among others, put it on the chopping block. But instead of razing it, Croxton Collaborative Architects kept 94 percent of its structural bones intact while bringing Wooster Hall up to date. “The original basic massing and stepped geometry were appealing,” recalls the firm’s president, Randolph Croxton, FAIA. “We wanted to build on that identifiable asset.”
Wooster has now donned a new skin of glass and terra-cotta capable of capturing 100 percent of the original thermal mass, maintaining a comfortable climate indoors even if there’s a power outage. Another noticeable structural intervention is a continuous glazed cantilever on the third floor that replaces the uneven floor levels with something more comfortable for users of all abilities. Inside, the humanistic design comes into further focus: The unified south-facing cantilever opens up to views and ample sunlight, improving both circulation and way-finding and, in a sense, aiding occupants’ circadian rhythms by giving them a sense of time of day.
“Sunlight in its dynamic traverse and the resulting angle of light, timing of sunrise and sunset, and interaction with clouds are all anchors of our biological calibration, not only knowing where we are but also when we are,” says Croxton. With this in mind, the architects designed and situated a new grand staircase that enhances pedestrian flow but also partakes in light play: Each day at solar noon, a skylight projects bars of sunlight onto the run of stairs. When the bars have reached the top step they mark the summer solstice; on the bottom step, the equinoxes. Croxton says of this modern-day sundial, “The daily event evokes a narrative among participants about the universal, authentic attributes of this place.”