HU Building: Eyesore or Modernist Marvel?

Wednesday's Optic says two regents have gotten "out and about," as this forum promotes, and have discovered rusty metal plates that they don't like the look of on the new Student Union building.

Getting out and about has revealed other unfortunate things about the building right along.

First, the clearing of the site and its excavation revealed a footprint far too big for the site.  Where is the parking? some said.  Others said it must be underground, but it wasn't.  Instead, mention was made of the Univeristy's wanting to jump over Eighth Street to put parking on a block that would remain residential on the Seventh Street side.  It seems that action is on hold for now, but those who are out and about should keep their eyes on the east side of Eighth Steet (forever). 

Then the superstructure went up, and those who were out and about got a feel for the incredible mass of the building.  Armchair urban planners could see how the architects had carefully matched the height of the building to that of the campus structures to the west and to the height of various elements of the churches to the east and southeast.  They noticed that the top floor of the building was set back to reduce the mass at the edges.  These are standard tools architects use to get approval for buildings that would otherwise be deemed an assault on the neighborhood.   But just look at the size of the thing!  It makes the historic churches in three directions look like bits of a model railroad set.

Then the surface materials were applied.  One by one, those who were out and about saw materials not usually found in nature or buildings around here.  Huge expanses of dark brick dominated for a while.  Then came even larger expanses of glass, that seemed to break almost as quickly as it was installed. Finally, it seemed, came the rusted metal, which somehow felt almost natural and maybe to connect the other materials in some unifying way and to be a bit softer because of the varied colors and patterns.

I noticed that the Barclays Center -- the new sports and performance venue in Brooklyn, NY -- had a similar material for its facade and looked it up.  The construction website said this was a recycled product  Aha, I said:  the use of recycled material must improve the LEED score for a building.  That is what this rust is about.  And we were in good company.  Cutting edge.  But more about that in a minute.

Then the metal venetian blinds started going up over the glass.  Those who were out and about had been wondering how the building would cope with the heat trapped by all that glass, and now they knew.  When heat was needed, the blinds would be opened.  When heat was to be avoided, the blinds would be closed.  How long would they work? Inquiring minds wanted to know.  One comment was that the blinds were made out of recycled school bus sides and would further help the LEED score, even beyond their contribution to renewable energy values.  But the blinds do seem to be destroying the balance between brick, glass, and rust.  Perhaps creating a junkyard with metal fence motif.

The current headline, "Student Center still hot topic," made me look up the rusted siding one more time.  Since the story does not mention the exact material, it is hard to look it up.  But there are at least two possibilities:  recycled steel as mentioned above, and varients of something called Corten or weathering steel.  The latter is fairly controversial.

U.S. Steel, which invented it, no longer makes it.  It has been in use for at least 50 years.  Railroad cars and sculptures are two major uses.   U.S. Steel never intended it for use as building walls or roofs, but it has been used in many such projects around the world.  If it is thin, it can rust through.  If it is thick, the rusting stops long before it rusts through.  Some buildings have been changed or torn down after supposed failure of the product.  If the right fasteners are not used or if there are joints that trap water, the product can fail. 

Maintenance is an issue.  Rust stains from it can mar surrounding materials, including the sidewalks around the buildings.  The patina of rust forms best where there is frequent wetting and drying.  In dry climates it takes forever.  It wet climates, it never ends. Near the sea or areas with acid air, things don't go well, but that's their problem.  Some folks varnish the panels when they reach "maturity" to freeze the rust process.  Others have painted the stuff, some with success.

If those who are out and about knew exactly what the material is, we could get a better idea of its fate and comment more intelligently.

One guess:  Twenty years from now, Highlands will plaster everything but the windows, paint the walls pinky tan and the trim reddish brown, and the building will fit right in to the campus.

Soon we can stop going out and about at this site and will have the chance to go in and about, where we will undoubtedly see a first class facility that will enhance campus life greatly.