BMCC New Commons

New York, NY
City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 7 World Trade Center collapsed into the adjacent southernmost building of the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Besides that collateral destruction, much of the four-block-long Chambers Street campus was co-opted for the use of the recovery teams.

In 2003, BMCC reclaimed its facilities and resumed classes but “acutely” missed a common space. The College selected an unused roof atop a low-rise building as the site for a 6,500-sf, $3½-million commons, and then hired Helpern Architects – the “heroes” who had swiftly designed BMCC’s temporary campus to design it.

BMCC’s mandate: Create a design that wouldn’t put heavy weight on the existing structure, and also celebrate the recovery. Helpern proposed a two-story-high atrium space over which there would be a folded, white teflon-coated Kevlar fabric roof that recalled a ship’s sails [the Hudson River is a block away]. The plan included transparent glass side panels, a radiantly-heated floor, moveable tables and seating for 300, and internal stairs that linked the space to an existing cafeteria. Air conditioning – also from under the floor – would eliminate the need for exposed heating pipes and ductwork and thus maximize usable space and energy efficiency.

The financing was equally creative. BMCC was to be the sole source along with private funds. Besides giving the community college maximum control over the conceptual design and how the commons would serve the college community, this approach would save a substantial amount of time.