September 20, 2007

Mohsen Mostavi Gives Views on AAP Future

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Yesterday afternoon, Ithaca City Attorney Dan Hoffman read a draft of a letter to the Board of Public Works setting forth his position that the College of Architecture, Art and Planning could build its new Milstein Hall over University Avenue. While the final decision has yet to be made about Milstein, the new design, which uses a cantilever to hoist the building up over the street rather than columns fulfills the letter of the law, according to Hoffman.
Ray Schlather, a member of the board, objected to the letter, claiming that a 1903 case from the Appellate Court in Upstate New York forbid any building to go over a road. The argument was pushed to the next Public Works meeting two weeks from now, but it highlights further city disputes that threaten to delay Milstein Hall from construction.
Some claim that with recent news surrounding the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Cornell’s premier design institution is crumbling. We caught up with Mohsen Mostafavi, outgoing dean of AAP to find out his views on the school’s soon to be constructed building, the politics of change, and the future of the college.
The Sun: It seems as though the building has been running into construction issues for a while. What is causing the delay and how is AAP dealing with it?
Mohsen Mostafavi: At the moment if things go according to plan we will still be on course. I think that in the last few months, we have lost a little bit of time because of the discussions and the negotiations going on specifically related to the building going over the road. I think that obviously the city needs to do its due diligence. For us we are at a point where we need to progress with the project. I think sometimes it’s just disappointing when things take longer. Of course I wish that some of these decisions would have been made earlier.
Sun: Cornell has been struggling with the city over use of University Avenue for a while now. Why does Milstein need to be built across University Avenue, even though it has created problems with the city and caused delays?
Mostafavi: I think that in terms of our needs, in terms of the floor plate that it creates, in terms of the way it connects to both Rand and Sibley Halls, in terms of its internal organization structure, there are many reasons. And at the same time if you look at the relationship of the project to the site from the Thurston Avenue Bridge and East Avenue, there is logic to how the building fits into the site.
Sun: Anticipation for Milstein Hall has been gathering since Cornell announced that it would build it in the 1990s. Will the new building be worth the wait?
Mostafavi: We are discussing a world ranking building here. Koolhaus has won the Pritzker prize, which is like a Nobel laureate in architecture. With the building that Richard Meier is doing [the new Life Sciences Technology building] and this one, the idea is to be involved with some world-ranking buildings in the same way the Johnson Museum when it was built was an unusual and daring building for its time. At the same time I think that it is important for Cornell as a world-class research university and AAP as one of the leading design institutions, to have a significant world-class building.
Sun: When the last dean left AAP, so did the architects in charge of Milstein Hall. What is AAP’s relationship with the Office of Metropolitan Architecture and Rem Koolhaus, the current architect?
Mostafavi: Wonderful. We actually had the architects here on Monday and they made a fantastic presentation to our advisory council on the latest plans. They have been extremely cooperative with hearing our feedback. We have two committees in the college which are reviewing the work.
Sun: Next semester you will begin a new job at Harvard Graduate School of Design. How do you feel about leaving AAP in the middle of the Milstein project?
Mostafavi: I am going with a certain tinge of sadness because we have started and we have achieved so many initiatives. I feel that our school is on a roll right now, and we are doing so many exciting things, not only with new faculty but with visitors and the way faculty are collaborating with the visitors. I certainly feel like I want to be part of it. I think that the opportunity to be at Harvard is very exciting, though, and doesn’t happen every five minutes.
I want to be here for the building being finished but that will be a few years away. I have said I would be very happy to come back any time the college or the University needs me over the next few months. I want people to know that I am very committed to this project.
Sun: Some claim that AAP is at a low point right now. How do you respond this?
Mostafavi: If you look at the list of faculty, if you look at the people who have been hired, if you look at the list of visitors who are here compared to three years ago, the school has never ever ever been so strong. The school has gone through an incredible three years, it has achieved an enormous amount and it’s important to build on these achievements.
It is easier on the outside to say there is a new building in process and the dean is going to Harvard, everything is collapsing. This happens at every institution from top down at every level. The more critical thing is whether there is a plan and we know where we are going. I feel at Cornell generally and within AAP specifically, there is a strong sense of where the school and college is going.
Sun: Would you say that AAP is in a state of transition at the moment?
Mostafavi: I think that we are always in a state of transition. Why would you want a school that’s stagnant? When people think about transition, they think that it is a moment of uncertainty. The best schools should never be sitting on their laurels. There is a difference between the outside world’s perception and what you are doing as a member of the faculty or as the dean. You should always think that the school is not good enough and there should always be more that you want to do, and you should always have plans.
Sun: What is important for AAP as it moves forward?
Mostafavi: I think the school should have a clear sense of its mission, and what is very positive about AAP at the moment is that there is an enormous amount of unity. There is a lot of agreement about what issues we need to focus on. The topics and direction of CRP are so much different than Architecture which are so much different than art, but clearly there is a lot of stuff that is shared between them. I meet with the chairs of each department on a regular basis. The question is how do you preserve the focus and autonomy of the departments and at the same time build a college that is based on collaboration and interdisciplinary work. You want both independence and autonomy and at the same time you want cohesion and unity. It is remarkable how united they are in this mission.