November 20, 2003

Deconstructing West Campus

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Progressing from a huge pile of rocks last spring to several large structures in recent weeks, the Residential Initiative’s West Campus structures have come a long way.

Currently, the walls of Alice Cook Hall are visible as well as the walls of one block of “Building Two.” Along with this progression in the project comes the inevitable commentary from all members of the community regarding the aesthetics of the new buildings. Students currently living on West Campus in dorms, co-ops and Greek houses see the structures every day on their commute up the hill. Local residents mostly see the structures from the street, since they are located on a major intersection.

“I’m disappointed in the aesthetics of the building; it is very large and imposing as one comes around that corner,” said Susan Blumenthal M.S. ’78 (D-3rd Ward).

While many students feel that it is too early to tell whether they like the project or not, some have quite strong opinions on the project.

Daniel Whittington ’05, a resident in a University-owned co-op located at 660 Stewart Avenue, directly across the street from the new buildings, said, “You can’t really judge yet.”

Indeed Andrew Magre B.Arch. ’91, project manager of Design and Construction says that there are many more things coming to the exterior of the building. These include a lead-coated copper roof, the slate at the tips of the building and the new dining hall affiliated with the Cook House. The roof of the dining hall will be a “vegetative roof” where prairie grass and other perennials will be grown. The intention of this, according to Magre, is so people looking down on West Campus will not see a flat roof but vegetation instead.

Magre also pointed out that the dining halls will be very environmentally sound, addressing a particular concern that the community felt for the project. One of the main issues in the approval of the project had been the parking lot placement and environmental issues surrounding that.

Ellen McCollister ’78 a member of the City Planning and Development Board, which was responsible for approving the project, said that the parking lot issue was the main focus of most of the hearings. “To tell you the truth we got so consumed with the parking lot aspect that the aesthetics got secondary status.”

In retrospect McCollister wishes that the board had spent more time discussing the aesthetics of the design. However, she said that the board only has limited authority in that respect. It can dictate to Cornell the height, roof tone and several other aspects.

McCollister did not expect the massiveness of the project but understood the need for the large size. According to McCollister, Cornell needs to compete with peer institutions in the quality of residential facilities. This competition results in the need for amenities such as large rooms, living rooms and climbing walls which take up a lot of space and result in buildings leaving large footprints.

“When I see a giant vertical mass, it’s kind of objectionable,” said Whittington, describing the view he sees every day from the vantage point of his co-op right across the street from the project.

Also of concern to the residents of 660 Stewart Ave. are the lights coming from the building, which are visible now even though the building is vacant.

Emily Rothman ’06, also a member of the co-op on 660 Stewart Ave., raised concerns that her friends had brought up living in Court Hall last year. She said that her friends had felt that the quality of construction for Court Hall, a product of the North Campus residential initiative, had been significantly poorer than some of the other residence halls on North Campus.

The other design concern for the new buildings on West Campus is whether they will match with the gothic dorms right above the project site. Kieran Timberlake Associates, based in Philadelphia and the Cornell project team collaborated in an effort to incorporate the new buildings in the existing environment.

“I originally had some concerns about the color of the bricks and if they were going to match with the gothics,” said Jean Reese, the project leader of the residential initiative. However now that the structure is more developed she added that her concern has dissipated.

In the design, according to Magre, the brick walls were quite unique and interesting to look at. The brick detailing is designed to match the gothics as well as the window detailing.

In the consultation period with the Kieran Timberlake Associates, Cornell invited comments from Historic Ithaca and the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission. A historic preservation firm was hired by the University team to examine the gothic structures and ensure that the new buildings fit in.

In describing the design, Magre said an effort was made to not only double the square footage of the existing buildings on West Campus but also have the structures match the size of the gothics. He also described idiosyncrasies in the twists and turns of the walls to create oblique views, along with the green spaces incorporated between the different blocks of the buildings in the design.

Some students were skeptical of the attempt to match the new buildings with Baker Hall and Boldt Tower. “I think it should blend more with the gothics,” Rothman said.

McCollister commented that since the West Campus gothics are not registered historic landmarks, the City Planning and Development board does not have as much oversight over the aesthetics of the project. When Cornell decided to renovate Sage Hall for the Johnson School of Business, the oversight of the design was much greater.

Until all the elements, such as the leaded copper roof and the slate walls at the tops of the structures, are completed, a full assessment can’t be made of the compatibility with the rest of west campus.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan