October 17, 2003

Three Inaugural Lectures Celebrate President Lehman

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The inaugural celebration for President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 kicked off at 10 a.m. yesterday, with a series of three Distinguished Inaugural Lectures held simultaneously across campus. Renowned architect Richard Meier ’56 spoke to a crowd at the Statler Auditorium while N. R. Narayana Murthy, who has been called the “Bill Gates of India,” spoke of societal values at the Biotechnology Building. Meanwhile, Cornell poets Prof. Alice Fulton MFA ’83, English, and Kenneth A. McClane ’73, the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, paired up for a reading at Sage Chapel.

Richard Meier ’56

“The New Architecture of Optimism” wowed a packed Statler as Meier gave a whirlwind overview of his work and notable designs by Cornell architects. Meier, the youngest-ever recipient of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, spoke excitedly about the ideas behind his design for the Getty Center and Museum, the Jubilee Church in Rome and his firm’s collaborative design for the World Trade Center site.

Meier amused the crowd with his description of the hilltop site that became the home of the Getty Center. Its previous owner, Meier recounted, used the space to hit golf balls toward the freeway below and to drive a bulldozer over the many ridges.

Meier oriented the Getty’s public buildings on one axis, looking down upon the adjacent freeway and the private areas facing the other relevant axis, the ocean. Between the two, Meier placed the central focus of his design, an outdoor public garden. Among the 110 restrictions for the site was the stipulation that no building stand taller than three stories, so Meier used skylights to illuminate the underground floors.

To this day, “there are still long lines for the Getty Museum,” Meier said, “so go and say you’re a friend of mine.”

For the Jubilee Church, a series of curving pre-cast concrete shells, rising from the ground, create the “otherworldliness” central to designing spiritual buildings, Meier said.

“The light accentuates the curved forms and makes everything sing,” Meier added.

Meier collaborated with Steven Holl, Peter Eisenman ’55 and Gwathmey Siegel on a design for the World Trade Center that ultimately was not selected. Their design for a Memorial Square, both contained by its site and extended through gateways from surrounding streets, was notable for multiple ways of remembering the tragedy of Sept. 11, Meier said: “There are so many ways to think of what happened there that [only] one way is not appropriate.”

Featuring 12 acres of open space, various cultural institutions and parks in the space cast by the last shadows of the World Trade Center towers, the collaborative design also included two innovative hybrid buildings shaped like multiple towers linked by horizontal connections throughout the structures’ height.

Meier responded to audience questions about his schematic design for Cornell’s new Life Science Technology Building, briefly noting the “wonderful site” at the west end of Alumni Fields, and disappointing some audience members by ruling out soaring curves like those found in the Jubilee Church.

Buzz Spector, chair of the art department, came to the lecture out of appreciation for the elegant spaces in Meier’s designs.

Spector characterized the “architecture of optimism” as one attentive to “civic responsibility and social identity.”

“Just as architecture is [increasingly] involved with other disciplines, it’s become much more sensitive to setting than in the past,” Spector said.

At the beginning of the lecture, Meier overcame a wayward slide projector to talk about the buildings of Enrique Norton M.Arch. ’80 and the design of Gisue Hariri ’80 and Mojgan Hariri ’81 for the Museum of the 21st Century in New York City. Meier also spoke about the pioneering work of the Program of Computer Graphics, led by Donald Greenberg, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics, and Eisenman’s sketches for a transit station.

In an interview with The Sun as he walked to ceremonies at the Andrew Dickson White House, Meier said, “I don’t think architecture competes with art; the two should be intertwined.”

Asked for his thoughts on the Barkow Leibinger design for the new architecture department building, Milstein Hall, Meier commented that “it’s a very difficult site, but I think they’re doing a good job.”

Asked how he chooses a limited set of photos to represent a long legacy of work, Meier’s answer could well have answered a question faced by the inauguration’s planners: How does the University represent 138 years of Cornell history in a few days’ worth of ceremonies?

“It’s tough, really tough,” Meier said. “There should be some variety … something old, something new and something in between.”

N. R. Narayana Murthy

Murthy, chair and chief mentor of Infosys Technologies Ltd., spoke to a full audience about “Cornell — The Unfinished Agenda: The Musings of a Corporate Person.”

Murthy was introduced by Robert L. Constable, dean of computing and information science, who cited several of Murthy’s titles and accomplishments. Murthy has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the top 25 business leaders and was named “World Entrepreneur of the Year 2003” by Ernst & Young. Murthy is also chair of the governing board of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bangalore and a member of Cornell’s Board of Trustees.

Murthy drew on his own business experience as co-founder of the Infosys software company to compare the corporate world to the entire world.

“We have used science and technology to create more economic capital. … However, we have not made enough progress on social capital,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of strong morals, high aspirations and hard work in establishing “trust, honesty and fairness.”

As a result of the increasing disparity between rich and poor, “aspirations, values and confidence are being depleted,” Murthy added.

He praised the past accomplishments of both Lehman and Cornell. The University’s advances have ranged “from [the] microscope to telescope, from Asia to Latin America, from Sanskrit to Swahili,” he quipped. Murthy further suggested that the resources and potential of Cornell can impact social conditions. With the leadership of a “worthy successor,” namely Lehman, “we can solve [the societal] problem by creating Cornellians who dream big … and abide by the value system of the community,” Murthy said.

He stressed how strong leadership can distinguish between both good and bad companies and countries.

“The agenda will not be finished until we can improve leadership across the globe,” Murthy added.

Fulton and McClane

Finally, as Murthy spoke at the Biotechnology Building, a crowd of literary-minded celebrants gathered on the other side of campus for a poetry reading by two of Cornell’s most accomplished poets, Fulton and McClane. The lecture, entitled “Subversive Pleasures,” was hosted ironically, as Fulton noted, in Sage Chapel.

During the hour-long gathering, the award-winning poets recited a handful of selections from their respective work while briefly commenting on the lecture’s theme between readings.

“Surely a poem’s language is a good part of its pleasure,” Fulton said. The subversive portion of the title comes from the hidden meaning of “a poetry of mindfulness. … A poetry that is culturally incorrect.”

While the poetry’s subversive element may have lurked below the surface, the pleasure of language was amply evident.
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“If this doesn’t make sense, at least enjoy the language. That’s what it’s all about,” McClane said before beginning a reading of his poem “1619-1979 Is a Large Time.”

McClane and Fulton have both been award recipients in recent years: Fulton won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry last March for her book Felt, while McClane accepted the Antioch Review’s Award for Distinguished Prose in 2002.

On a day steeped in tradition, both poets took the time to look back in appreciation at a legendary figure from Cornell’s past, the former Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry, A. R. Ammons. Fulton borrowed a line from his work to describe the newly inaugurated President Lehman, saying that “he holds radical light as music in his skull.”

After the close of the lecture, the poets shared their thoughts on the incoming president and his impact on Cornell’s future, especially regarding the affirmative action controversy he was involved in while dean of the University of Michigan Law School.

“[Lehman] is exactly the sort of leader that we need here at a large and privileged university,” Fulton said. “[He] is a distinguished judicial activist, and his issues are very important for Cornell. Issues of poverty and affirmative action — these are things we really need to think about.”

McClane, who was raised in Harlem and is a proponent of affirmative action, also praised Lehman for his work at Michigan.

“I came here in ’69 because I felt that this was a university which was truly addressing the American racial divide, with all that it entailed. [Lehman] understands [these issues] at a gut level; it isn’t just intellectual. I think that his heart and his mind are in the right place.”

Following the lecture, McClane and Fulton arrived at the A. D. White House, where they joined Meier and Murthy for a brief medallion presentation ceremony with Lehman.

Archived article by Jeff Sickelco