Building The Cooper Union: A Model of Education

“This building has scarcely been absent from my thoughts a single day, for nearly thirty years. I have laboured for it by night and by day with an intensity of desire that can never be explained” Peter Cooper

This has been a wonderfully difficult year, a complex year, a hinge year in the long history of this great institution. At its core The Cooper Union is a social political project grounded in education, ethics and imagination, a project to remove barriers and elevate mankind through the human right of education.

As many of you know, the deep structure of this project is under great stress; the ideals, ethics, promises and trust that are the frameworks of the model of education of The Cooper Union have been shaken and elements of this framework have been broken.

Each year, in the first year studio we work to embody questions; to create situations within which the students can inhabit questions and create new works. Last year we levitated the great hall with the structures of the speeches of the previous 154 years. We did this to make these speeches present, to remind ourselves and others that the speeches and free speech as a principle is the foundation of the school, holding up the entire institution.

This was also done with a believe that Architecture can and must address these questions, that architecture is a social poetic discipline that at its root can manifest: The material and spatial structures of our social contracts.

As John Hejduk’s building perfectly manifests, the architectural program and the educational program are inside of each other, inhabit each other, hold each other up.

This year we had to think and work very hard to find the questions, to find the architectonics of this time, the acts of architecture that could embody this moment in the life of the institution: What is the structure of a promise, the space of a promise, the architectonics of a promise.

And we set out with a two basic gestures that I want to share:

First Gesture: to recognize that this class, this group of people are the continuation of the 155-year project of The Cooper Union. Nothing is OVER, Peter Cooper invited them too and we had to keep our promises and trust in the invention of this project by welcoming this new class into the school as envisioned by Peter Cooper.

We decided that the first principle was to trust in the new incoming class, to invite them into the project through the act of en-trusting them to articulate a vision of the school moving forward and to do this by literally crafting a model of The Cooper Union. We placed the weight of school in their hands, we asked them to measure, draw and build the school itself, to care for the school in the most profound sense of ‘building it’. We built a model of the Cooper Union because Cooper Union is a model; a model of education. As an act of architecture, we wanted this class to feel the weight of this model in their forearms as they move forward and through their works write the vision and mission of the school into the future.

The difficult art of the simple: We knew that the model must embody the model. Together with the class we worked on the deep poetic structure of the school and this moment in its life. Each step in figuring out how to build this was discussed and debated in the constant aspiration to capture the clear poetic structure that is the project: A hinge year, the model could hinge, the profound principle of inclusion, porosity, the model could open up and in-fact turn all the way inside out. The crucible of dynamic invention of the model is captured in the wheels, its mobile structure.

The architectural act of building the model, created and contained the deep relationships between care, craft and community; Craft gathers us together, through the collective actions of constructing a model of the school, a community was formed, a remarkable connective tissue emerged within the studio. This structure, this social contract ultimately embodies The Cooper Union.

All of this brought us to another Gesture; A social poetic act of architecture

This starts with a wild story:

There is a remarkable novel by Mark Helprin called ‘Winters Tale’. In it, the main character Peter Lake lives in New York City, in two times: 1900 and 2000. (How he does this is an astounding work of literature hinted at in the beginning of the book...) the piece opens with a large passenger ship entering NYC harbor (in 1900) heading toward: Ellis Island... Peter Lake is a small baby and just as the ship enters NYC waters.. it is struck and starts to sink...there is panic everywhere...and Peters parents run to the captains quarters where there is a large model of the ship in a glass vitrine...on a stand...(I believe the model was about 12 ft long and was called ‘city of justice’..)...they break the glass and take the model ship out... they take the top off and place baby Peter into the ship and carefully set him adrift in the the ship goes under... only peter in the double ship.. is left floating....The inhabitation of the double within the real waters of life...old world new world and more..

There is a lot in this story, but the key lies in the fact that the model finds it’s buoyancy in real waters:

We built a model of cooper union and the COOPER UNION IS A MODEL, it is a cultural institution, its structure is substance, memory and language, it is a social construction of profound human substance.

This ship has been built with great love and craft and two days ago we went on a journey out into the city and engaged the city in duets, acts of gentle choreography. We searched for the tones, gestures and resonances of this great model of education, as we played duets with the people and cultural institutions of the city. From Abraham Lincoln, in Union Sq, to the Flatiron building where Dean Hejduk built the Conciliator, all the way up to the New York City Public Library, a sanctuary of knowledge that is FREE.

We did this as a social poetic act of architecture, a gesture of ethics and imagination, of quite literally caring for the 'model' of The Cooper Union and reminding ourselves and the city that we have long, deep, bonds, promises and linkages that we must make visible and struggle to keep; to keep buoyant, to keep alive.

It has been an honor to work with each and every one of you and to teach with Professor Wes Rosen and Professor Rikke Jorgensen. You are all a remarkable group of people, and what we have just done together is unforgettable, we have created a powerful work of architecture that at once embraces this city and celebrates this extraordinary institution.


David Gersten