New York University has just installed aluminum suicide barriers in their renowned Bobst Library, replacing the eight-foot-tall plexiglass barriers in place since 2003. Designed by New York architect Joel Sanders, the barriers ensure that student suicides, such as those that occurred in September and October of 2003 and in November 2009, do not occur again in Bobst’s well-trafficked atrium.
The screens are meant to channel digital forms, with pixelated patterns occurring between vertical strips. The panels, designed by Sanders with the help of SHoP Construction Services, come in 39 varieties and completely enclose Bobst’s cantilevered balconies and open stairs. The digitally inspired design has prompted some critics, such as City Room’s David Dunlap, to forecast a negative reaction to the project. Dunlap writes, "Among facets that critics may seize upon—and, this being N.Y.U., there will certainly be critics—is that the screens express technology’s new primacy, all but obscuring traditional forms of scholarship behind a cascade of random data."
Gawker’s Caity Weaver singled out the 8-bit aesthetics that characterize the glitzy design: "Nothing is worse than an architectural aesthetic that, while the height of modernity at the time of its construction, feels dated and stale just a few years down the line. Accordingly, designers took inspiration from one of the most elegant and beautiful motifs of the modern era: clunky digital pixels." Students’ reactions have not been muted either, with the new screens seeming to some a “Matrix prison” (see image at the bottom of this post).
It seems to me, though, that much of the criticism of the new intervention stems from the heavy emotional baggage surrounding the issue, as well as from the perceived cynicism of the NYU leadership, evident in their callous approach to the suicide issue. However, judged independently of that, the new barriers seem quite graceful (and perhaps beautiful) and do not detract from the exceptional space (originally designed by Philip Johnson, by the way). Some have likened them to lace stretched across the balconies, and in a way, they act as a memorial to the deceased, as their presence will always remind students of what made them necessary.
Images: David Dunlap/The New York Times
Photoshopped image from NYU Local