NYU’s Brilliant Design Solution to A Building’s Suicide Problem

After several students jumped to their death inside the library, the university renovated the 150-ft.-tall space to prevent further tragedies

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David W. Dunlap / The New York Times / Redux
David W. Dunlap / The New York Times / Redux

Over the summer of 2012, a new system of perforated aluminum panels is being installed around all the balconies and exposed staircases in the atrium of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at New York University, where three students have died in falls since 2003 (two of them suicides, one ruled accidental).

It wasn’t all that long ago when the only thing separating people from the 12th floor of New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library and the bottom of the atrium 150 feet below was an aluminum baluster that could easily be climbed over. When the building was completed in 1973, critics lauded it as a success with Paul Goldberg of the New York Times calling it “one of New York’s most spectacular architectural experiences.” Safety concerns did not emerge until later, when several students jumped to their deaths.

Following a spate of suicides, including two that occurred less than a month apart in 2003, the university took action by installing eight-ft.-high plexiglass walls along the interior balconies. But after another student managed to climb over these barriers, and jump to his death in 2009, the university looked for a better solution.

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The result is a project, designed by Joel Sanders Architect due to be completed by Labor Day, that has found an impressive marriage of safety and architectural beauty. Twenty-ft.-tall, gold-colored aluminum enclosures, which resemble digital pixels, are made of perforated metal screens that allow for light to come but have no gaps big enough for anyone to climb over; each of the pixel-like tines are only four inches apart.

“The whole idea was to come up with something sympathetic to the Philip Johnson design while being in and of today,” Andrew Repoli, the director of construction management at the university said in an interview with the New York Times. “This is almost like a beautiful piece of lace that’s been stretched taut against the balcony slabs.”

Not everyone agrees, however. Twitter is already abuzz with critics questioning the makeover, with one asking: “Why does NYU’s library look like a matrix prison that belongs in Gotham city?

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