Renzo Piano designs top-heavy white arts centre for Columbia University

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Lensvelt Center for the Arts by Renzo Piano photographed by Jazzy Li

Renzo Piano designs top-heavy arts centre for Columbia University

Renzo Piano Building Workshop has cantilevered the gallery and performance spaces at the top of this off-white arts school, which was designed for Columbia University's new campus in Upper Manhattan.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

The Lenfest Center for the Arts is the second building to be completed in the university's new Manhattanville campus, a few blocks north of its historic home in Morningside Heights, Harlem.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

Piano collaborated with architecture firm SOM on the masterplan of the wider site – a former industrial area sandwiched between two elevated transport arteries – and designed several buildings for the campus.

The Italian architect's first, a light-filled neuroscience research facility named the Jerome L Greene Science Center, opened at the end of last year.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

Clad in white aluminium, the new arts building beside the science centre hosts facilities for Columbia's School of the Arts – which encompasses arts, film and theatre – and the Wallach Art Gallery, which has been relocated and made publicly accessible.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

To create the building's "monolithic massing", Piano stacked four double-height spaces on top of each other, cantilevering the upper two over the pair below, and covering a balcony area beneath.

An adaptable space placed at the top is designed for symposiums, readings, music, events, and exhibitions, while the main gallery is placed on the floor below. A 150-seat cinema and a 99-seat flexible space occupy the lower two floors.

Tall narrow windows slotted in between the cladding panels provide views outside as a backdrop to the galleries and performance spaces, while glass walls wrapping the ground floor are intended to open the entrance to the public plaza called Small Square.

"In addition to providing views to the exterior, these windows also allow pedestrians to glimpse activity within the building, especially at night, reinforcing the participation of this building with the surrounding city," said the architecture firm.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

Mechanical blinds allow the university to control the amount of daylight entering the windows.

The skylight on the top floor is also fitted with a motorised shade and a grate that blocks southern light.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

These new photographs, which were sent exclusively to Dezeen by architecture photographer Yueqi Jazzy Li, also show exposed steel beams and bracing elements lace over the exterior of the building left.

Piano similarly left the structure exposed on the Jerome L Greene Science Center as a reference to the huge supports for the elevated rail line to the east and raised Riverside Drive highway to the west, which separates the site from the Hudson River.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

While the exterior steel structure is painted to match the neutral colour of the cladding, the interior features bright orange accents, including the reception desk and walls of the lift, to provide a contrast.

"In contrast with the off-white colour of the cladding panels, certain components visible from outside hold joyful colours, such as the elevator cabs, the stair walls, the exterior side of the theatre's blackout shade, and some millwork components," said the firm.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

The Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L Greene Science Center were completed as part of the first phase of the campus development.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

Two more of Piano's buildings will be built during this initial phase, including the School of International and Public Affairs and the Forum, which will house a 430-seat auditorium, meeting rooms and university offices and is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Lenfest Center for the Arts photographed by Jazzy Li

The recent expansion of Columbia's facilities also includes a new medical building at its Washington Heights campus by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which features a vivid orange "study cascade".

Renzo Piano ranked at number 22 on the Dezeen Hot List. The architect's other projects in New York include the Whitney Museum and the 565 Broome tower.

Photography is by Yueqi Jazzy Li.