May 30, 2009

Trustees Vote "Yes" on Milstein, But Faculty Concerns Linger

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Cornell’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously on May 24 to support President David Skorton’s recommendation to proceed with the construction of Milstein Hall. This green-light for the project comes after several months of contentious campus debate over whether the University should continue with Milstein Hall in the wake of its financial troubles.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Meinig ’62 said. “Every now and then, we need to make such tough decisions … You can’t shut down a university where there are programmatic imperatives.”

While the $55.5 million capital project will force Cornell to assume $12 million of the cost of the project, of which $7.6 million is debt, Meinig, along with the other members of the board agreed with Skorton’s belief that, “we can no longer dismiss the jeopardy in which the accreditation of the college’s two architecture programs has been placed by 10 years of lack of resolution,” which [Skorton] stated in a press release.

“Architecture students need to go all [the way] across Ithaca to Esty Street to work in a studio,” said Mike Walsh grad, student trustee. “As a scientist, I need a lab to do my work. These students need their studios. While Milstein is a little pricey, we need to establish an inspirational workspace in which Cornell students can excel.”

The board, however, did not approve construction of a parking garage, which was to be completed next to Milstein Hall in the original plan.

Not only did the board see the pressing need for the architecture students’ workspace, but the board also supported the 47,000-square-foot facility to ensure architecture student’s ability to find work upon graduating. Without the proper facilities, Meineg reiterated, Cornell administrators fear that the AAP program will lose its accreditation.

“We were under the gun because of our inadequate facilities,” Meinig said. “If a program had not been accredited, that would affect [the ability of] students [who have] graduated to find employment as licensed architects.”

While the family of New York City developer and philanthropist Paul Milstein donated the multimillion-dollar gift in 2000, controversies arising from competing designs as well as the ownership of University Ave. have postponed construction. However, in light of the recent announcement, Milstein is expected to be completed by the fall of 2011.

“Here’s the promise — it will take 22 to 24 months. So in the fall of 2011, we’re going to have a hell of a party, so you’re invited,” Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning, said at the conclusion of the May 24 commencement ceremonies on the Arts Quad.

While members of the Board of Trustees were unanimous in their decision to move forward on Milstein Hall, the green light for construction has not been as settling for others in the Cornell community.

In the Jan. 30 edition of The Sun, a group of 21 current non-architecture faculty and emeritus faculty, along with three alumni made their opposition public in a letter to the editor. The statement was followed by letters of support for the AAP construction project from numerous alumni, faculty and administrators.

Many of the faculty in opposition to Rem Koolhas’s design of Milstein Hall before the board’s approval remain steadfast in their views.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, regrets the decision to build a new AAP building with the current Rem Koolhaas design.

“There were other ways to accommodate the concerns of the accreditation board,” Sanders stated in an e-mail. “Its main issue was access for the disabled, which could have been solved (and will still need to be solved) with an elevator in Rand. Elevators have already been installed in Sibley.”

Sanders and her colleagues in opposition to Milstein believe that Koolhaas’s design stands in direct opposition to the University’s core ideals, like sustainability and academic excellence.

“This $55-60 million building project comes at a time of deep cuts to core academic programs in many other departments,” Sanders stated in an e-mail. “It is not fancy buildings that attract people to a university. It is faculty, research funding, graduate stipends, library collections. And ideals … like a genuine commitment to sustainability.”[img_assist|nid=37454|title=Building blocks|desc=On May 24, Cornell’s Board of Trustees unanimously decided to construct Rem Koolhaas’s design of Milstein Hall, which features a cantilever over University Avenue.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

In discussing the environmental responsibility of the design, Walsh said that he thinks “we are doing the best we can on that front,” with the building earning LEED Silver certification. With this rating system put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council in mind, Milstein Hall plans to “reduce energy usage for building heating and cooling, transportation, building lighting, material production,” according to the Milstein Hall website.

Sanders does not see the design of Milstein Hall as a affirmation of the University’s commitment to sustainable initiatives, but rather rather a relaxation in their dedication to the environment.

“The architect Rem Koolhaas has made no secret of his contempt for sustainability,” Sanders stated in an e-mail. “He belongs to that old fraternity of starchitects who brook no human or natural interference with their artistic ‘vision.’ So we will get an absurd set of glass boxes projecting forward and backward (because the projecting glass box is this architect’s signature), instead of a future-oriented building of the sort other Ivy universities are building, at LEED platinum standards, beautiful to look at and work in, and concordant with the movement to fight climate change.”

Sanders drew on the example of a Yale University’s new fine arts building, which is LEED platinum-certified.

Moving forward, Sanders continues to advocate for a change in the Board of Trustees’ decision, still hoping to change the mind of University adminstrators.

“Some of us still hold out hope that the powers that be will change their minds. The reasons they give for going ahead with Milstein just don’t hold up to scrutiny,” Sanders stated in an e-mail.