Photo © Brad Feinknopf

Milstein Hall, Cornell University

Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Ithaca, New York

After a string of unrealized designs by other architects, a firm expands an architecture school with a sprawling box that connects old and new.

By Clifford A. Pearson

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In an exhibition he organized at the New Museum in New York City last year, Rem Koolhaas took the preservation movement to task, arguing that it had become an “empire” all too successful at tying the hands of architects and suffocating daring thinking. Entitled Cronocaos and co-curated by Shohei Shigematsu, his partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the exhibition displayed projects from the past 35 years, in which the firm has wrestled with issues of preservation, particularly with its unbuilt addition to the Whitney Museum in New York and its ongoing plan for the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. If you saw the show (or its earlier incarnation at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010), you might expect to find OMA's ideas put into action at Milstein Hall, the firm's addition to Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP). But the building lacks the intellectual heat of the exhibition, and turns out to be more polite and less polemical than you would think.

Asked to add 47,000 square feet to the architecture school—which already sprawled among an iconic 19th-century pile (Sibley Hall), an early-20th-century industrial building (Rand Hall), and the simple Foundry—OMA had to decide what to keep and what to erase. In typical OMA fashion, the firm did the opposite of what other architects had proposed. Instead of razing Rand, the school's ugly duckling, and creating a glowing Modernist cube for design studios in its place, as Steven Holl envisioned in his competition-winning scheme from 2001, OMA kept both old and new. The Berlin-based firm Barkow Leibinger, hired by Cornell in 2002 after the school split ways with Holl, also called for tearing down Rand while slipping in a long, bar-shaped building behind Sibley. That plan didn't go forward, either, and the school's dean at the time, Mohsen Mostafavi, helped bring in Koolhaas in 2006.

Instead of imagining a freestanding structure, OMA saw its addition as a horizontal box connecting Sibley and Rand and reaching out toward (but not quite touching) the Foundry. “Architects have become obsessed with iconic buildings,” states Koolhaas. “But we wanted to create something mysterious.” Although his building mostly hides behind its older siblings, flashing just a modest glass corner to the Arts Quad, the university's historic heart, it is hardly a shy piece of design. An enormous steel-truss structure that stretches 195 feet by 170 feet on its second floor and cantilevers 50 feet over University Avenue to the north, it creates a new gateway to this part of campus and orients the architecture school to views of Fall Creek Gorge. So Koolhaas may talk big about playing quietly, but his building certainly makes itself heard.

Inside their big steel box, Koolhaas, Shigematsu, and associate-in-charge Ziad Shehab sculpted a poured-concrete dome to enclose a two-story-high crit room. A concrete bridge slices through the 5,200-square-foot space, leading to an auditorium where many of the seats cling to the outer surface of the dome, and a large curtain by Petra Blaisse wraps around a glazed upper level to block daylight when needed. “We talked a lot about the permanent warfare between the box and the blob,” says Shigematsu, “so we decided to bring them together in this building.”

Visitors enter Milstein on the middle floor and can look into the crit space one level down or go up one flight to the 25,000-square-foot “plate” that provides one uninterrupted space for graduate and undergraduate studios. A covered passage between the new building and Sibley offers students an outdoor place to congregate, park their bikes, and peek into the auditorium, which, like the crit space, is sunk one level below grade. Oversize coffers made of pressed white aluminum adorn the underside of the great studio box that covers the passage, adding a sly Postmodern touch to go along with the new internal dome, which echoes Sibley's exterior one, and Blaisse's curtain, referencing 17th-century architectural prints.

Figuring that more is never a bore, OMA employs three different vocabularies: the Miesian box, the organic blob, and the Postmodern aside. The firm generates some lively conversation among the three, but it never resolves them into a properly integrated building. This failing is most clear just inside the entry, where a steel column from the big box stands smack in the middle of the curving concrete bridge. Koolhaas and his gang clearly enjoy such messy collisions, but these moments reveal a lack of intellectual rigor.

Although it doesn't hold together as a truly cohesive piece of architecture, Milstein offers a number of wonderful spaces—from the crit room that “occupies the dome” to the auditorium that climbs the outside of it. The enormous studio plate works beautifully in bringing together the school's 16 different studios and opening them up to the views of the gorge. The floor-to-ceiling glazing around the box also opens the architecture school to the rest of the university, providing a degree of transparency that didn't exist before, says Dean Kent Kleinman.

Earlier plans for Milstein juxtaposed old and new buildings, but OMA's design fuses them together with a giant plate that flows from one structure to another to another. This inclusive approach seems to work well for the students learning here, but hardly represents the radical critique of historic preservation that one might expect from Koolhaas and his associates.

Office for Metropolitan Architecture
180 Varick Street, Suite 1328
New York, NY 10014, USA
T +1 212 337 0770
F +1 212 337 0771

Location: Ithaca, NY

Completion Date: October 2011

Gross square footage: 47,000 sq. ft.

Total construction cost: The university trustees approved a $55.5 million life-of-project budget for Milstein Hall which began in 2001. In addition to the actual construction of Milstein Hall, this budget includes work on Rand Hall (foundation, elevator, washrooms), Sibley Hall (foundation, air handling), the Foundry (roof), University Avenue, surface parking and area utilities, and support costs. The stand-alone new construction cost for Milstein Hall was approximately $37.6M.

Owner: Cornell University, College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP)

February 2012
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