Flatiron Institute

Flatiron Institute: A Case Study

New York, NY

Reinventing a Beaux Arts building as a think tank for advanced computational science research

Woven into the urban fabric of Manhattan’s Flatiron District, with its historic storefronts, lofts, and residential buildings, is the campus of a world-renowned and pioneering research institution shining light on the unknown. The Flatiron Institute convenes the brightest scientific minds from around the world to push advances in computational analysis in disciplines as diverse as astrophysics and biology, mathematics and quantum physics.

Working with our longtime client and partner, The Simons Foundation, we devised a master plan and designed a phased, gut renovation of the building to create spaces that generate creative collisions and inspire innovation while also responding to its own past and that of the historic Ladies’ Mile shopping district, as it was called in the early 20th century, but is now better known as Silicon Alley for the concentration of high-tech firms that have located here a century later. This new facility demonstrates the flexibility of existing structures and their ability to adapt for new uses and a changing population. The work continues with a two-story interior renovation at the foundation’s headquarters across the street; it expands the institute with a new Center for Computational Neuroscience and establishes a conference center to be shared with the foundation.

Project Facts

  • Client:

  • Cushman & Wakefield, Inc.
  • Size:

  • 108,000 sq. ft.
  • Services:

  • Interior Design
  • Markets:

  • Science + Technology, Renovation + Historic Buildings
  • Region:

  • United States
  • Studios:

  • New York


  • 2021 Honor Award, American Society of Landscape Architects
  • 2020 Honor Award, SARA | NY Design Awards
  • Finalist, Urban Landscape/Outdoor, NYCxDesign Awards
  • The Vision

    The client’s desire from the outset focused on enhancing cross-pollination between scientists, computer programmers, and administrative staff working in diverse disciplines. Our team developed a master plan for a vertical research campus in a tight urban setting, capitalizing on design, programmatic, and operational opportunities to catalyze collaboration and interaction between research groups.

    The team had to manage a complex leasing schedule that required threading entirely new infrastructure for the building around existing systems while several floors remained occupied by tenants.

    The master plan addressed this issue by organizing the work across several phases. We began by reconfiguring the lobby, infrastructure, and vertical circulation. Next came the research floors in two phases. The final phase built out the public “cross pollination” spaces: a top-floor dining room and atrium that leads to a rooftop-addition board room and garden; and a second-floor auditorium and lounge.

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    The design brief had to accommodate many functions within the tight confines of each floorplate: heads-down research, collaborative and communal spaces, amenities, and public-facing areas. To achieve these goals, the institute is organized around a series of two-story computational centers, each with a floor opening at the widest section of the oblong floorplate to visually and physically connect people on both floors. Commons spaces cluster around these openings on all floors, democratizing access to the daylight at Fifth Avenue and to the corner views facing Madison Square Park and the neighboring Flatiron Building, the institute’s namesake.


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    The layout places private and semi-private offices at the perimeter, providing calm spaces for investigation; their glass walls send more light into a central core with a variety of collaborative spaces. These core spaces are stacked as a trapezoid that rises up through the entire building, an homage to the shape of the nearby Flatiron Building. The angled volume opens up the corridors towards the wide Commons spaces on Fifth Avenue. Entirely clad in chalkboard, teams can write on the core walls as they tease out mathematical and scientific concepts. The large chalkboard surfaces foster collective activity by coaxing the researchers out of their focused thoughts and into the communal spaces, creating space for the unpredictable events that drive innovation.

    Flatiron Institute New York: The common area of the two-story quantum physics department, showing the chalkboard core that runs through the building, glass-front perimeter offices, and the main stair. Glass-walled conference room at the Flatiron Institute in New York

    A section from the initial model for the design shows the black, inner-core volume floating inside the historic building; light washing into the double-height common spaces; and the new stair connecting them:

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    Light of Knowledge

    Light was a motivating force throughout the design, animating scientific discovery—the light of knowledge—that happens throughout the institute.

    All the floors in the building are connected via a new glass-walled feature stair, lit from new windows and a skylight above, to bring natural light deep into the floorplate and the lower floors. The stair forms a vertical quad, interconnecting the main Commons spaces and conference rooms on the research floors, and allowing for glances into the investigations within each discipline. The windows open up to exciting views of the surrounding historic district, and its prominent placement encourages its use to move around the institute. As the stairs climb, a colorful tiled wall showcases accent colors to create an identity for each computational center and assist with wayfinding.

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    Shown in graphics below, the black core opens to expose knowledge and light at the major public “cross-pollination” spaces at the top and bottom of the building:

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    Light also features prominently in the building’s auditorium, where the Flatiron Institute and the Simons Foundation bring scientists, academics, and members of the public together for frequent events and programs. The design team fashioned it from a study of folding wood panels, with light streaming through them to illuminate both presenters and audience alike. The space also features large acoustical window walls, tempered with theatrical curtains, to bring natural light to daylong conferences.

    Drawing of paneled walls in the new auditorium of the Flatiron Institute in New York The new auditorium at the Flatiron Institute in New York
    A Higher Plane

    The central core deconstructs again as it reaches the top floors of the institute where we located a communal dining room, and gently inserted a rooftop addition to house the foundation’s board room. The board room floats above the dining room and blends into the garden through large-format, structural-glass sliding walls. The elevated garden has wrap-around views of the surrounding cityscape and grounds the facility within its historic urban context.

    Nature itself plays a prominent role, as the institute promotes collaboration of the sciences and integrating their work with the natural world. The institute’s roof garden, with its range of seating and teaming spaces, fosters professional interaction in an outdoor setting, positioning nature as an essential partner of interdisciplinary thought. Its soft, layered gardens also invite meandering walks, and carve out private spaces to get lost in contemplation.

    Rooftop garden at the Flatiron Institute, New York Rooftop seating area at the Flatiron Institute, New York

    Seasonally interesting and hardy plants enhance the terrace’s sense of place, while supporting resiliency within its urban context. The greenery, in turn, moderates the temperature of the building, combats urban heat-island effects, and captures stormwater, while a climate-sensing drip system irrigates the plantings to reduce water usage.

    Working with Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, the team also selected many of the plantings to support local pollinators. A sunlit atrium, meanwhile, washes light into the communal dining room below, where a large tree planter brings the garden inside, and a floating stair beckons staff up to the roof garden. The dining room features an open plan for maximum flexibility to host the institute’s daily meals and robust programming, and to provide the views and daylight available at the top of the building.

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    Honoring History

    Another priority in the design was finding a way to seamlessly fit this institute, with all its cutting-edge modernity, into the building’s historic, Beaux Arts architecture. The lobby, for example, was reimagined after the design team uncovered neo-Corinthian capitals, egg-and-dart plaster molding, and dentils, so the new entry on 21st Street highlights those elements. A sculpture with a figure carrying a torch, (bottom right foreground), inspired the theme of the Light of Knowledge and features prominently in the lobby.

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    The slate walls in the lobby pay homage to the favored chalkboard material of mathematicians and scientists. As the slate wraps to the exterior wall, it becomes a subtle reveal of the institute’s inner workings in one of the few instances where the reimagined building pokes through the existing envelope, and a respectful way to mark its insertion into the historic fabric.

    Entry canopy at the Flatiron Institute, New York Lobby at the Flatiron Institute, New York

    The entrance features sleek, architecturally exposed structural steel canopies; their honest expression of the steel-plate structure is a literal manifestation of the institute’s name and a nod to the adjacent Flatiron Building’s wedge shape, a design motif repeated throughout the project. The entrance, now relocated to the smaller 21st Street side, draws traffic deeper into the block to animate the street.

    The rooftop addition also complements the existing historic structure by using its structural roof cornice as a defining detail. Slate walls also appear on the roof garden, where some are honed smooth for their use as chalkboards.

    In total, the interplay of modern and historic speaks to the values of an independent, philanthropic research institute whose mission is to advance the future of science with respect for both the present and the past.

    Expanding the Mission

    The latest phase of this project continues across the street, within another late 19th-century, neo-Renaissance building where The Simons Foundation is headquartered. A two-floor renovation allows the foundation to expand the scope of its research capabilities and spread its knowledge to larger audiences. A new Center for Computational Neuroscience will use and develop computational models to reach a better understanding of how brains work and how machines learn, particularly with regard to artificial neural networks. The research space is connected with a light, airy stair, and as in the other Centers for Computation, organizes critical heads-down space as a perimeter around collaborative and social spaces that encourage informal and frequent interaction among scientists, programmers, and visiting fellows seeking to advance the frontiers of scientific research.

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    Flatiron 2

    One floor of the new space houses a conference center with two multi-purpose rooms, adding to the amenities available at The Flatiron Institute. The conference space adds to the number of seminars and events the foundation can host for scholars in each of its disciplines, many of whom travel from universities and institutes around the world.

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    Flexible conference room at the Simons Foundation headquarters, New York Flexible conference room at the Simons Foundation headquarters, New York
    Altering the Fabric

    Cities are constantly evolving, as they respond to societies’ needs and desires. The story of this transformation often reveals itself in how the historic building fabric has been adapted over time to suit its latest uses and needs. The now-landmarked Flatiron District was at the turn of the 20th century the vibrant Ladies’ Mile shopping district. Many of the buildings in this neighborhood were designed to support small manufacturing and commercial ventures that catered to the burgeoning demand for department stores. The lower floors were structured for retail uses with tall ceiling heights and large column spans, while the upper floors were structured for goods storage and light manufacturing. These buildings are ideal for adaptive reuse, and over the last hundred years they have supported a series of uses, including retail, manufacturing, office, and, increasingly, residential.

    The growing advanced-research campus exemplifies the transformation of the Ladies’ Mile historic district into a magnet for the tech industry, and solidifies the city’s place as a world-class hub of technological and scientific investigation. Our adaptive reuse of this historic structure shapes spaces to inspire creative collisions. The institute’s robust programing makes the spaces a thriving nucleus of intellectual exchange and a driver of in-person interaction; the aim is to provide ample opportunities for impromptu meetings and conversations which, like firing synapses, can spark the creative process and light the way to breakthroughs.

    While Perkins Eastman was working on this project, its Frank studio for experiential graphic design handled the signage and wayfinding graphics. Read more about that related work here.