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At Columbia’s $600 Million Business School, Time to Rethink Capitalism

One zigs, the other zags. One teases the passer-by with bands of translucent glass wrapping a core of clear windows; the other, with floors angled in and out — a gentle architectural mambo. The pair of buildings that comprise Columbia University’s new business school, on its growing Manhattanville campus, exude a nervous off-kilter energy.

The 11-story Henry R. Kravis Hall, named for the co-founder of the private equity firm KKR, rises in front of the delicate steel-arched viaduct carrying Riverside Drive. It is separated from an eight-story structure named for the entertainment mogul David Geffen by a circle of grass, trees and benches embedded in a plaza. The ensemble joins a sleek new campus that so far includes a neuroscience research center, an arts center, and a think-tank-style building, called The Forum, devoted to academic discourse.

But the real story of the business buildings lies within. Appearing wraithlike behind the glass, stairways in both wind over and around themselves like crinkly strands of DNA as they ascend full height. These are what the architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with the FxCollaborative architecture firm, call “network” stairs. Twisting through ceiling surfaces curved and warped to accommodate them, they beg to be used. Their design reflects the close fit of the architecture to person-to-person connection and intensified interaction — what the school’s leadership sees as essential to the sprawling aspirations it has for its graduates to do good as they make money.

The design of the complex just blocks north of Columbia’s main Morningside Heights campus coincided with business schools around the country coming to terms with a rising chorus of criticism that companies are too predatory, exploitative and monopolistic, and that business education had to change.

View of Kravis Hall and the lawn at Columbia Business School, seen against the Hudson River and the Riverside Drive Viaduct. The facade is adorned with “bandages” of translucent glass, indicating professors’ offices. Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
View of Geffen Hall and the lawn at Columbia Business School, where floors protrude in a gentle architectural mambo. Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

“The forces at work in the world are necessarily causing a rethinking of the foundations of the economic system we’ve had,” Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, said in an interview. “Climate change, issues of social justice and what globalization means for societies — all of these are raising profound questions about the nature of what the future can be.”

Glenn Hubbard, the former business school dean who brought the project to fruition, saw the need to break free from fealty to the unregulated free market economy that over decades has led to extraordinary wealth concentration. The idea that business should focus only on making money, attributed to the economist Milton Friedman, “was a simple and direct idea that took over business, banking, even corporate law,” Hubbard explained. “We are trying to come up with a framework that can be more about flourishing, not just profit.”

“The vision now is to bring people together and debate issues going on in the world,” said Costis Maglaras, who was on the faculty as the project was being designed and who succeeded Hubbard.

Just as critics of capitalism are thick on the ground (Thomas Picketty, Tim Wu, Anand Giridharadas, to name a few),business education skeptics ask whether schools can actually get beyond delivering job-ready M.B.A.s to trading floors and consulting firms.

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“A piece of me thinks this is great; it’s what they should be saying,” said Steven Conn, author of “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools.” “As a historian I’ve heard this before,and it didn’t amount to much. Institutions are very difficult to change.”

In a Times Op Ed on business schools, Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote, “it is hard to teach narrow, applied skills and also encourage students to wrestle with giant, ambiguous questions about ultimate values and hierarchies of power.”

The architects have taken Columbia’s aspirations to heart in their design. That’s where the twisty stairways come in. They open onto informal lounges and numerous six-person study rooms at the landings, all walled in glass, that are popular even when the adjacent classroomsare empty.

At the new Geffen Hall at Columbia Business School in Manhattanville, students constantly encounter each other in lounges, cafes and the network stairs, at left.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Taken together these venues ease an informal, even serendipitous mixing of teachers and students. “All these varied spaces are visibly locked together,” Charles Renfro said. “We made that the iconic element of the building.”

At $600-million, the complex is anything but bare bones. Yet there are none of the trappings of schools that aggrandize the M.B.A. aspirant as a master of the universe in waiting: grand atriums, leather-chaired lounges, chandelier-festooned ceilings. “The buildings are seen as tools,” Renfro said. “They are about problem-solving and being in the world.”

No professors preside from corner offices. In Kravis, the architect said, “We shuffled together faculty and students on alternating floors.” Thus, professors and students constantly encounter each other in offices, lounges, cafes, and the network stairs. They also constantly encounter the city thanks to the stairs, which kaleidoscopically unveil views of the campus, a tangle of nearby viaducts, as well as brick tenements and public housing towers — in the process reminding people of the messy world beyond.

View of network stairs seen through the external clear glass of Kravis Hall. At landings the stairs open to informal lounges. “The buildings are seen as tools,” said Charles Renfro, an architect. “They are about problem-solving and being in the world.”Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

None of this was possible in Uris Hall, the business school’s reviled 1964 tower on the Morningside campus, with its austere corridors good only for shunting students from class to class. Faculty was sequestered in their own high-floor aerie.

To showcase the school’s integration of social concerns, the architects have made an innovation hub prominent. It unites the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, and the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center on the second floor of Geffen, with a network stair swirling through it within a glass tube.

Seeing the hub along their accustomed route, it was easy for students to engage. “The prominence is really helpful,” Bruce Usher, the faculty director of the Tamer Center, said in an interview. Even those devoted to the accumulation of lucre might discover how they can bring business skills to needy communities — at least that is the hoped-for outcome.

View of the network stair swirling within a glass tube at the new Geffen Hall.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

The centers run programs on managing nonprofits, addressing climate change, and improving employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. The Columbia-Harlem center coaches local producers of food, gifts and cosmetics. (Several products that were introduced with the help of the program are sold in a ground-floor public cafe and in nearby Whole Foods stores.)

Manhattanville’s 2007 master plan, by the Genoa-based architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop and New York-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill, also encourages the school to display its community commitments. It eased access to the campus by retaining existing streets, in contrast to the introverted main campus, designed in the late 19th century as a walled acropolis atop Morningside Heights.

Piano devised what he called an “urban layer,” the idea that all the new buildings would float above tall glass-clad street frontages that were largely committed to facilities open to the public.

The lobby at Geffen Hall at Columbia Business School, with a cafe open to all visitors in the background. The ground floor “urban layer” tries to blur the boundary between inside and out.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

As Columbia has built out Manhattanville it enlivened its streetscapes with several eateries, a rock-climbing wall open to all, a storefront and traveling “biobus” that introduces children to science, and a wellness clinic focused on the needs of nearby residents whose chronic conditions (often associated with poverty) go untreated.

Kravis is devoted mostly to classrooms and faculty offices while Geffen includes administrative functions, but both buildings are similarly extroverted. In a high-ceilinged corner of the Kravis Hall ground floor, students gravitate to curving, cushioned benches that rise in terraces and look out at people sunning on the lawn of the plaza that unites the two buildings (designed by the landscape architect James Corner Field Operations). Or they can chat with colleagues flowing up and down the adjacent network stairs.

The Commons at Kravis Hall at Columbia Business School. “The vision now is to bring people together and debate issues going on in the world,” said Costis Maglaras, its dean.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Its counterpart in Geffen is a plaza-facing Commons — a large auditorium walled in glass. Both these spaces try to blur the boundary between inside and outside, town and gown. Passers-by can see who is speaking in the Commons and hanging out in the Kravis terraced lounge. (Academic areas are generally off-limits to the public.)

The tall glass ground floors throughout Manhattanville amplify street-level energy by capturing the slanting sun and refracting fragmentary images of people and activity. Appealing as that is, the contemporary sleekness of the campus sets it apart from the gritty, red brick surroundings. With Manhattanville scheduled to grow over the years to 6.8 million square feet across more than five blocks, a comfortable intermingling of the campus and its neighborhood may develop only slowly.

Neighbors who resisted Columbia’s expansion can take some credit for Columbia’s belated recognition that it had to be better connected to the city it makes home.

Columbia promised that it would develop more opportunities and break down barriers to advancement in the Manhattanville campus for people living and working in the neighborhood who feared displacement by collegiate gentrification. Noisy protests threatened to derail the Manhattanville expansion in the mid-2000s — a reflection of the trust Columbia had failed to build since it lost a battle to build a gym in Morningside Park in 1968.

One of many lounges at Kravis Hall at Columbia Business School that encourage group work and informal conversations with faculty. Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
The plaza, left, surrounding a lawn, right, that unites the two Columbia Business School buildings, are open to the public.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Skeptics will be watching the pivot of Columbia and other top business schools, like the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, to more high-minded teaching methods. It may be all too easy to default to the comfort of traditional quantitative modeling and case-study what-ifs. After all, schools are also buffeted by those who continue to worship the ideology of unfettered markets, and loudly proclaim social and environmentally focused teachings to be excessively “woke.”

But Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who writes about politics and the tech sector, sees generational change. “Students really want to make the world better,” she said, summing up the challenge as, “How do I find personal and professional financial stability and not sell my soul?”

With starting salaries for graduates at elite business schools topping $155,000, the basis of all-important business school rankings,“Where is the institutional incentive to put out graduates who want to work with NGOs in Africa?” asked Conn, the author. On the other hand, he wonders if climate change and “authoritarianism 2.0,” are among challenges that businesses can no longer ignore, and which might alter those incentives.

The Tamer Center’s Usher sees no turning back. “The broader concern with the world is well integrated into core courses, and we have six electives on climate change alone,” he said. One reason is that “students are more desirable hires with this background.”

Columbia has chosen the programs it has brought to Manhattanville to “ask questions people did not think about 20 or 50 years ago,” Bollinger, Columbia’s president, said, pointing out that the business school is near the future home of the recently established Climate School (to be designed by Piano).

Bollinger is stepping down in June 2023 but feels sure Manhattanville will continue to “bet that these will be the big problems and the big endeavors.”

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