Syracuse is one of several U.S. cities searching for a viable future after the demise of its traditional industries. When visiting this city in Upper New York State you immediately sense as in Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Detroit economic erosion, fractured architectural ambition, and the relative absence of residents. That’s fundamentally bad news. The good news however if that many such cities have progressive universities, engines for culture and technology, and a post-industrial fabric of abandoned factories, nascent lofts and abundant open space, a low-cost alternative to New York, Boston or San Francisco for today’s highly mobile artists, researchers and entrepreneurs.
Syracuse’s rise in the early 19th century was due to its position on the Erie Canal, a vital artery linking the Hudson River, and thus New York, to the Great Lakes, Canada and the American Midwest. The urban core of Syracuse remains as a set of proud stone buildings gathered about a large square, a civic hub once bisected by a segment of the canal. Filled-in in 1925 to create Erie Boulevard, this now suppressed vector extends east as one thread in the rectilinear city grid, a grid subsequently overlaid by a system of raised freeways. Today a new building, the Syracuse Center of Excellence, rises from this flat, post-industrial landscape to herald a modest renaissance for the city.
Designed by Toshiko Mori from New York City, the Syracuse Center of Excellence is a strategic satellite of Syracuse University whose main campus sits in comparative isolation on a nearby hillside. Adjacent to Interstate 81 and an elevated interchange with Interstate 690, the building stretches across the ground plane and cranks in plan before rising to present a hovering, skinny and splayed façade to passing motorists. The building has thus characteristics of environmental sculpture, establishing the generous ramp as a plinth or springboard for the building proper. One might consider the primary floor and roof surfaces as a contiguous ribbon leading from ground to sky.
Like the pavilion Mori realized a few years ago in Jinhua, China, this project is a bespoke object in a field of grass and crisscrossing paths. Formerly the site of a typewriter factory, the lot also hosts a delicate tower for monitoring environmental data and in the future a local transportation node. The ground folds upward as the sedum covered roof of an extensive and largely opaque laboratory. In the opposite direction, toward the raised freeway, the four-storey shard of glazed research space hovers above an entry porch dramatically sandwiched between pathway and the building soffit above. One staircase drops from a recess overhead like a technological ornament.
Toshiko Mori’s practice is marked by sensitivity to light and to texture. These qualities were present in such early works as the Issey Miyake/Pleats Please boutique in New York’s SoHo where Mori inserted an inner lining of partially transparent glass and a vivid green box into a 19th century building and have evolved through bespoke residential and exhibition projects to current experiments like a weekend home clad in panels of recycled aluminum foam (selected for its light-modulating properties). As now in Syracuse, her architecture is in an empirical Modernist vein whereby form and space rely on the calibration of components to achieve optimal effect.
For Mori, Syracuse is a step-up in institutional and urban scale. Nevertheless there is synergy between her talent for the empirical and the project’s purpose. While the robust plinth houses industrial laboratory space, upper floors are a hybrid of study and laboratory so that scientists work in open proximity and in generously illuminated space. Floor plates are kept deliberately narrow to facilitate light levels and natural ventilation. The south elevation is fully glazed with integrated blinds to control glare and heat build-up. The bulk of the building is clad in grey fiber cement board, forming the tilted west façade yet incised with multiple horizontal windows to the north.
You enter the Center of Excellence from the porch beneath the iconic prow of the building and either take an elevator to an upper floor (on the way down, the elevator generates its own electricity) or proceed at ground level next to the exterior ramp into the main laboratory. There you find in the south wall one large aperture used for the temporary testing of building components. In principle you might also ascend the ramp on top of this laboratory and enter via a long horizontal notch cutting into the building two stories above ground level. The ramp is not fully paved; instead it is planted with sedum to aid rainwater retention and insulate the laboratory below.
The four upper stories mix glazed internal partitions and stylish low furniture so that foyers and offices and laboratories are visually interconnected. The impression created is not of any traditional building for science; the interiors are more reminiscent of a cool contemporary lounge with white furnishings and core walls painted a vivid apple green. There are raised floors throughout with radiant panels for heating and cooling simply suspended from the ceiling slab. Clearly visible through the glass exterior, the core also accommodates a stack for the slow expulsion of air from the large laboratory. Out of sight, below grade, geothermal pipes aid seasonal heating or cooling.
Mori has usefully brought her elegant functionalism to bear upon the Center of Excellence. At the urban scale, the building subtly cranks according to plan and context to assume identity. One of the design team’s achievements is to limit the color and material palette so that the building appears as a luminous, unornamented monolith, a vessel capable of accommodating technical apparatuses such as photovoltaic panels and, potentially, wind turbines. As fitted out and used by the scientists from Syracuse University, the Center of Excellence is no mere 3D billboard. It is in fact an empathetic exposition of technology and the need for environmental scrutiny.