May 3, 2017

GUEST ROOM | We’re #1, But For How Long?

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There is a mysticism that surrounds Cornell architecture, even to architecture students from other schools. You see it in the way people react: What is it like? Do you really never sleep? Do you really live in studio? Is it true that you guys sacrifice a freshmen every year? It is undoubtedly an elusive place unless you or someone you know has been through its program. I was no different. As a transfer student from Syracuse’s B.Arch program I only knew that, for some reason, Cornell is #1. I hope I can now help pull back this curtain from a student’s perspective.

Since 2008, Kent Kleinman, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning has made decisions that have been largely misguided. During his time so far, he has made large moves. He has: “significantly fortified” and moved AAP NYC to a new location, completed the over $55 million construction of OMA’s Milstein Hall and is beginning to realize the dreaded Fine Arts Library renovation. Take these gigantic decisions out of his resume though and his time at Cornell has been complacent. He has made no significant changes to any of the curriculum or faculty or overall intellectual infrastructure of the school, because in his defense, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This attitude, whether he is conscious of it or not, has resulted in a closed feedback loop.

By this I mean that it is not out of the ordinary for faculty here to be Cornell undergraduates and then Harvard Graduate School of Design alumni; in fact this seems to be favorable in the hiring of new architecture professors. Perhaps this has existed long before I have come to realize it, but if that is the case then Kleinman has done nothing to address this in a profession where diversity is becoming increasingly important. Many lecturers are alumni, many are white and most are male. There is a canon in architectural education from Vitruvius to Corbusier, but there also seems to be a Cornell canon that feeds back in on itself. This is dangerous for a school, because if you grow up in an environment where no one disputes your way of thinking or methodology of working, then you will grow up believing your way is the right way, the only way.

The even more dangerous edge on which Cornell’s architecture program is sitting on is the talent of its students. This is not good. It doesn’t take a degree to know that if your entire building is built on a shaky foundation then it will fall. Cornell is able to every year hand pick the 60 best students for their freshmen class because of the mysticism, the Ivy League prestige and their stranglehold on the number one ranking.. This is a luxury Cornell possesses that no other school does. Once you get that acceptance letter, it’s hard to find a reason why not to go to Ithaca, and it seems I was no different.

It takes working nearly every waking moment to stay afloat at the architecture school, never mind attempting to maintain a perfect GPA. My studio coordinator this semester provided our class with some great wisdom on the first day of studio that I will never forget — he said that we “better get all our laundry done now because there won’t be any time for that later.” This is a pretty accurate summation of the studio culture at Cornell. It is an abusive relationship with architecture.

You are expected to use “noble materials” in model making. Accessible materials such as paper, chipboard and foam core will be frowned upon by professors as if you did not put in the same effort if you had done the exact same thing with expensive wood, rockite (concrete) or metal. These materials are often inaccessible to students — the lack of sufficiently stocked supply stores within walking distance, coupled with the cost of working with ‘noble materials’ (often in the thousands of dollars), makes such expectations unnecessarily burdensome.  You can understand students’ frustration.

Professors outline expectations for three models and five drawings, assigned on Monday to be delivered on Wednesday. There are also structures problem sets and that essay you still need to write due Thursday before you get to your studio work. Or do you just not do the problem set? Plagiarize that essay? It might give you a few precious hours to finish those models and maybe get a nap in if you stay on task. Perhaps this lack of support is intentional to get the most out of the students by pushing them beyond their limits, but if that is the case then it is a severely outdated education methodology.

Looking at the most recent student survey done at AAP, several figures stand out: 70 percent of students are dissatisfied with the transparency of the administration’s decision-making process, 63 percent of students are dissatisfied with their role in that process, 72 percent of students are dissatisfied with cross-departmental interaction despite AAP being an Architecture, Art and Planning school, 76 percent of students dissatisfied with supplies affordability, 56 percent of students are dissatisfied with supplies availability, (“the supplies are wildly expensive and students are rewarded for work that costs more to produce.”) and 50 percent of students are dissatisfied with student mental health and wellbeing consideration. It is evident that despite the promise of a #1 ranked architecture program, Cornell does not deliver.


Andy Chen is a second year architecture student in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.

6 thoughts on “GUEST ROOM | We’re #1, But For How Long?

  1. There are some points in here (and in the longer post on your website you also posted ) that I find valid–namely, the leadership focus on new libraries rather than better faculty. I’m unclear whether this is the main crux of your argument, but I take severe issue with several of your other points about the Architecture program. It’s a shame you find the work of your first year classmates to be superficial and that you “question what they learned from” their first year. It’s also a shame that you find the intensive, one-project-per-semester format so uninspiring (“I would not have found the same interest in the field if my first year program thrown me into the middle of a busy highway and demanded I learn to run or die.”) All I can say is that there are those who are cut out for it, and those who are not. Like most programs at an intense school such as Cornell, the first year is the hardest. This is not exclusive to architecture, although our program breeds a different kind of work ethic, as you acknowledged. (I hear of first-year pre-med students who feel similarly overwhelmed at their intense, difficult intro classes, often leading them to change majors, for example.) I am astounded that you claim the fact that Cornell architecture rests in large part on the talent of its students is such a negative aspect–the opportunity to work with the best in your class is one of the best assets that any school can offer, never mind just in architecture. You have the privilege of working with the future leaders in design, and maybe it would pay to take inspiration from that instead of feeling overwhelmed. First year, the work is hard. The work is a lot. To come into the program with any other preconceived notion is doing yourself a disservice, and it’s a shame you were not warned before you transferred. The work shapes you into becoming a time-efficient (hopefully) designer who is not afraid to break boundaries of strict, three-exercise practices to methodically pace you through life. Life doesn’t always break down into methodical exercises, especially not in the working world. In life, they might expect you to churn out design after design after design and pick just one from all your hard work, and not just in architecture. Yes, having three models and five drawings due in two days is an outrageous demand. But studio grading is not like an elective class; you are not given a grade based on each model you do or don’t do. Grading is often, in my experience, based on the holistic effort and quality of end work of the semester. I would argue it’s better training to have a lot expected of you than to be required only to put in a “minimum” amount of effort, such as you described at Syracuse. Different learning methods for different students, of course, and you are perhaps better suited to a different learning environment. In my first year, we DID have a three-exercise based mode of learning, as you are such a fan of, but that did not mean less was expected in any of the exercises. You may not know this as a first year yourself, but in your following years, the work and the workload changes. The workload is less, but you have already been trained to put in a behemoth maximum effort–in later years, your minimum effort is what other people would consider their maximum effort. You may not view it as such (because many people in real life don’t) but this will be an asset if you are a hard worker. You are right that Cornell architecture students are the hardest workers you know. Why is this a bad thing? My first year I had an on-campus job, was involved in a few extracurriculars, and maintained 20 credits each semester. Ultimately, you decide what has to give based on your priorities, but I question your previous education if one of your “gives” include plagiarizing an essay (??????) First year might not be the most convenient time to pile on outside obligations (fortunately for you, there isn’t an obligation to pile on a bunch of extracurriculars unless you put that on yourself), but it pushed me to learn how to manage everything. I maintain about that schedule to this day, and it gets easier year by year. First year is not reflective of the workload of the other four years of this program, which you might have learned if you looked a little harder. Instituting silly policies like a midnight deadline in studio may be a reason that SciArc’s work is so drastically different and less ambitious than Cornell’s, as you claim. If you want to go home at midnight, by all means do. I know some that do. It is possible. But it is your choice. In general, I find your opinions, while, of course, valid, to be largely underexperienced in the Cornell program. Your negative experience generalizes Cornell architecture in a light I find somewhat uninformed, and while freshman year is incredibly stressful, life is incredibly stressful. Not everyone is cut out for the program, or learns in the same way that the program pushes and I would only say that, like most everything, it is not for everyone. I believe the program gives students unprecedented opportunities and education, and for that, most of us are thankful. Would some people personally succeed in a more relaxed, less demanding environment? Of course. You seem to be one of them. All I can say is that the program, in my opinion, educates ambitious designers in an equally ambitious manner and I would say they are successful at this. Obviously, there is not a 100% success rate, as proven by you. The program is not perfect, and I find many faults with it as you do. The recent AAP survey highlighted some very important things. I take issue with your presumption that you are “revealing what is behind the curtain” of the architecture program as only a first year who seemingly could not handle the stress (a situation hardly exclusive to architecture), as a transfer student who is clearly in shock that not everything can be like their old school and perhaps bitter that they made a decision they regret, and as one who stoops to generalize an experience that they were clearly not suited for to make a broad statement about the merits and the quality of the architecture program. It’s a shame you are now stuck here, as you lament: “I personally would prefer if [Cornell’s ranking drops below #1] happened after 2020, when I graduate, but I believe it may happen as early as 2019 which irritates me to no end.” It’s a shame you left a school you are now eagerly awaiting to ‘dethrone’ Cornell, but you hope it happens after you graduate to save yourself the job prospects. It’s a shame you are putting tuition money in something you don’t like and don’t believe you can succeed in. It’s a shame you came to Cornell for the prestige of our ranking but are unable to live up to its expectations (which I think may be the real issue).

    But chin up, it’s only another few years. You can always transfer to the Hotel school.

    • Are we really talking about work ethic here? Really?!

      I don’t think Andy is commenting on the work ethic rather he is speaking out about the expectations of being number 1 and what that means to our school and other schools. Imagine this. He transferred here for a better program. Wow surprise!

      Students are unhappy because only a minority can afford the student budget beyond cost of tuition and living. Yeah we are spoiled with what we have already but we also understand we do not need a five star modern space to produce great inspiring works. We also see that we need better resources such as faculty. People are on the brink of retirement. No one wants to spend their time in Ithaca, especially renowned scholars and we need funds for that. We also see that we are really successfully in reaching out to alumni for donations yet we are in this curriculum that drains our money.

      Also our dean do not understand the extent of what number 1 means for the students. Kent can brings the funds for a building that will need renovations as soon as it opens. We are architects, designers, thinkers, and doers and we know when a system doesn’t work. Do we need another money consumer or should we reconsider what made us number 1 today and the past?

      Also, I am so sick of these studios that show us we learn through extensive hours on the computer and model making when we cannot even address the issues at hand. Are we learning really? Look around you and see who are filling in the freshmen class. Only people who can afford the most expensive degree goes here.

      Wake up and hope you have some common sense when you get to thesis.

  2. “…it is not out of the ordinary for faculty here to be Cornell undergraduates and then Harvard Graduate School of Design alumni; in fact this seems to be favorable in the hiring of new architecture professors.” LOL! I know several of those people, and am related to one. The one I am related to isn’t on the faculty per se, but comes to Ithaca frequently to sit on juries for crits. From what I’ve heard, the Dragon has met its match in my relative. I witnessed a final crit for grad school class that my relative taught in Cambridge, Mass., and it was brutal, and most, if not all of the jury were Cornell Arch.-to-Harvard G.S.D. products. Good luck to you, Andy, you’re going to need it! 😉
    P.S. Get some sleep! (as if you didn’t already figure that out)

    Artsie History Major

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