The New Coffee Trailer at Columbia University

| November 5, 2010

It clashes with surrounding buildings with a modern defiance. It serves the community in deeply important and practical ways. And its cold, metallic surfaces reflect orange sunsets with a surprising warmness. What is it?

A coffee trailer in New York City, of course. But also: it’s Columbia University’s new $200 million interdisciplinary science building at the intersection of Broadway and West 120th Street.

When the freshly-poured sidewalk opened yesterday, the local coffee trailer (or is it a stand? or cart?) rolled back into place. As I approached the intersection, it was plainly clear to me: the starchitech José Rafael Moneo has created a monumental tribute to the community’s humble source of caffeine.

Over the course of its construction, and before the comparison to the coffee trailer could be made definitively, the building appeared as a large air conditioning unit (a feeble response to climate change?). But with the trailer back in place, the building’s stark, patterned, mechanical form struck this new, friendlier note.

The building likely mirrors the coffee trailer that historically made its home on the corner. I imagine Moneo visiting the site for the first time: after travelling to campus, he walks north up Broadway. It’s a cold, rainy November day, and he arrives at “his” intersection for the first time. It’s a little before 9am (the subway was pleasantly on time), and he has a moment to himself before his team arrives. There’s a coffee trailer parked on the sidewalk – no bigger than a large refrigerator – with two men inside, back to back, serving coffee and preparing hot breakfast sandwiches on a small grill. “That’s it,” he says to himself, with all the determination and confidence of an experienced architect. “That’s my building.”

According to The New York Times, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger asked Moneo to:

… support, and make a statement about, Columbia’s commitment to interdisciplinary science; to open the university to its neighborhood and animate its backyard… although the building also needed to get along with its immediate neighbors…

Moneo clearly followed Bollinger’s “complex set of mandates” very closely, as it certainly doesn’t get any more interdisciplinary than caffeine. Aesthetically, the result is glorious. And the neighbors? Now back in place after a nearly two-year-long displacement (to a mid-block location), the coffee trailer has assumed its new role.