February 29, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Architectural Legacy

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Cornell University has a proud tradition of bringing in world-renowned architects to design its signature buildings. This is evident in the fact that Cornell’s campus contains noteworthy works from numerous Pritzker Prize winners. The Pritzker Prize, I should note, is an annually-awarded honor that the world architecture community bestows upon an individual who has made an important contribution to the field of architecture. To put it simply, the Pritzker is to architecture what the Nobel is to peace. It’s a big deal.

Of 40 all-time Pritzker laureates, six have buildings on Cornell’s campus, one of the highest proportions of any school in the world. The six buildings are Uris Hall (1972), the Johnson Museum of Art (1973), the Schwartz Center (1989), Weill Hall (2008), Milstein Hall (2011) and Gates Hall (2013). Whether you like each of those buildings is up to you, but all of them are, at the very least, among the most talked about — and often controversial — structures on Cornell’s campus.

Yet, despite this tradition, today the University is building new structures around campus that are bland. They’re boring. They serve a function and that is all. I’m referring to Klarman Hall and the Gannett Health Center expansion. The former is a glass box that makes reference only to its neighbor glass box across the street, the Physical Sciences Building. The latter is a wholly unremarkable four-story expansion that maximizes its square footage by occupying every possible inch of its allotted space, curving with the street exactly. It seems to have been designed with the intention of never offending anyone. Come to think of it, “inoffensive” may be the perfect word for these two new buildings. While I like that Cornell selected a local architect for Gannett and a design firm run by Cornell alumni for Klarman, I suspect that the negatives of the finished products — which Cornell students far into the future will have to endure — will heavily outweigh the positives of keeping design contracts local. I’d rather a faceless stranger design an architecturally significant Klarman Hall than have a significant Cornell architecture grad put up a faceless glass box on our beloved campus.

There will be those in the Cornell community, as I’m sure there are on Cornell’s Board of Trustees, who would complain that hiring a world-renowned architect would be too expensive, that in these still-fiscally-conservative times, we ought to cut costs wherever possible. The two buildings in question will, after all, serve the purposes for which they are meant. Before we spend money on high-quality design, we have to be able to explain to Cornell’s donors and students that their money is being spent wisely.

I believe that that argument can be made quite easily: first, no matter how tough times are in the present, remember that the structures Cornell constructs today will stand for decades, maybe even centuries, and that their architectural integrity ought to last just as long. Second, one has only to look around campus at Cornell’s various building renovations to be reminded of what cheaping out on design can lead to: much of the engineering campus, for instance, was built on the cheap in the 1950s, prizing function over form and leaving Cornell with some of its ugliest, most utilitarian buildings around, including Hollister, Phillips and Upson halls. Today, just 60years later, Cornell is already doing a full renovation to Upson, reusing only the skeleton of the building in the new design and scrapping every other bit of it. Hollister and Phillips are next. Gannett, also built in the 1950s, is getting its aforementioned expansion and then it, too, will be blown out for renovations. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past and put up buildings in the present that won’t need similarly expensive renovations in the near future.

A final argument is that, as I see it, we need not hire out every building contract to a world-renowned, high-priced architect. Cornell also has a proud tradition of using the ingenuity of its students to create great works of art and science. I can think of few greater works of art and science than ice cream. In Food Science 1101, Cornell students have for years invented new ice cream flavors for the Dairy Bar. Why not do the same for architecture? Hold a design competition for new buildings to which student groups could submit project proposals. This would allow a competitive process to take shape, get students involved in forming the new Cornell design language, and save the University money — no more hiring pricey design firms, either local or world-renowned.

One thing I love about the college campus is that, in such a small area of land, one can find such a diverse set of architectural styles. Cornell’s campus has a little of everything: classical and brutalism, empire and modernism. I can experience the history of architecture simply by touring the grounds of my school. At Cornell, it’s easy to see the time period when designing a building meant designing a monument, when it meant making an architectural statement, and when it meant putting function above form. I love that I can walk down Tower Road and look around me and see a representative piece of architecture from every decade from the past 150 years. My worry is that this decade’s architecture, which started off so strong with the gorgeous forms of Gates and Milstein halls, will be diluted by the banality of architectural forms of the likes of Physical Sciences, Gannett and Klarman. Cornell has plenty of construction laid out in its master plan for the coming years: new buildings, new additions, new quads. Who knows, maybe someday it will be Cornell undergrads — architects, engineers, arts majors — who win the Pritzker Prize for their design of some addition to our campus. However Cornell’s design process eventually evolves, one thing is clear: it’s got to change.

Timothy Vhay is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached tmv47@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

4 thoughts on “GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Architectural Legacy

  1. I was thinking about this the other day. In my hometown, the University of Arizona is churning out these amazing buildings like the Meinel Optical Building and the Environmental and Natural Resources building while we get… Klarman Hall. It looks nice, but it’s nothing special.

      • I don’t hate Uris Hall the way a lot of Cornell students do. It stands out from its neighbors. It is a signature architectural style. It’s too bad the steel– which was originally designed to turn blue with age– has gotten so brown, but that’s not such a big problem. If I could make one improvement to Uris, it would be to redo the ground floor and how it interacts with the street.

  2. Pingback: Cornell University History Of Architecture | Easy Architecture Fan

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