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At Cornell University, Groundbreaking Could Mark the End of 12-Year Saga

June 18, 2009

By Stephen Zacks

For more than a decade, Cornell University has grappled with its plan to construct a new facility for its College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP). On June 8, however, a backhoe began digging up dirt at the building’s proposed site—the north edge of the Arts Quad—perhaps marking the end of an epic drama that has involved a large cast of characters, a global financial crisis, and the looming threat of academic decertification.

Cornell University
Image courtesy AAP
Construction of Paul Milstein Hall, designed by OMA, has finally started.
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Scheduled to open in the fall of 2011, the Paul Milstein Hall, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), will contain studios for the architecture program, along with a 275-seat auditorium, space for juried critiques, and a gallery to be shared by all AAP departments. The two-story, 47,000 square foot building, whose design has faced a fair amount of opposition, survived the last stretch of the approval process with its Miesian box not only intact but extravagantly cantilevered.

The odyssey began in 1997, when the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) reprimanded the AAP for its insufficient and out-of-date facilities. The college—which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, along with art and urban and regional planning—is spread among four buildings (Rand, Sibley, Tjaden, and the Foundry), none of which had been purpose-built for the architecture department.

The college promised to rectify the situation and commissioned Boston-based Schwartz/ Silver Architects to design a new arts library to make way for expanded architecture studios. The scheme was never approved. Next came proposals for new buildings by Steven Holl, and later, Barkow Leibinger—both of which hit roadblocks and were never realized.

OMA was hired in 2005 to devise a new plan. Rem Koolhaas proposed a rectangular box for an unoccupied area between Rand and Sibley Halls, thus connecting the two buildings. The glass and steel box would float above a domed crit space, and the northern edge of the building would reach across the street toward the historic Foundry, which houses sculpture studios. No architecture can please everybody, says Shohei Shigematsu, director of the OMA New York office, “but our original aim was really to create a place where the college can fulfill its ambition.”

The scheme triggered an avalanche of new preservation concerns and objections. In response, OMA scaled back the design, lessening the building’s visibility, and cantilevered the second floor, reducing its impact on the Foundry’s sight lines. More problems ensued. The city planning commission disputed the university’s right to build above the street. Meanwhile, the NAAB returned in 2008 to evaluate the undergraduate program and delivered a loud no-confidence vote on the facility’s lack of progress, granting a reduced accreditation period of three years. It also canceled a 2009 review of the school’s new master’s program. Then, last fall, the university’s endowment was hit by the collapsing banking system, and all capital projects were put on hold.

This spring, however, with the threat of another NAAB rebuke on the horizon, and with some financial stability returning, the university trustees at last relented, voting on May 23 to proceed with construction of Paul Milstein Hall (named after the major New York developer and philanthropist, whose children attended Cornell). “It would have been very easy for them to say we just can’t do this, the economy has hit us hard and we just have to wait,” says Kent Kleinman, dean of AAP. “Nobody would have blinked.”

But Cornell’s 138-year-old architecture school, whose undergraduate program is consistently rated among the top in the nation, might have lost its accreditation. The NAAB is scheduled to conduct its next on-site review in the spring of 2010, and if construction continues as planned, it should see the shell of a new studio building in place. “The [architecture] program is a gem in Cornell’s crown,” Kleinman says. “It has fabulous teachers and fabulous students. You can overcome bad facilities with that, but you can’t overcome them indefinitely.”

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