April 18, 2010

Campus of Boxes

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“The box is the final form of architecture … It’s generic and copyright-free.” — Rem Koolhaas at a lecture in Call Auditorium last Wednesday.

Our story begins over 150 years ago, on the crest of East Hill, 400 vertical feet above the growing village of Ithaca, New York. In those days, many folks arrived in Ithaca via steamboat, after traveling up the Hudson and across the Erie Canal, through the endless hills and valleys of the Empire State. Upstate was full of ambition, as were the men standing atop that Hill one day, discussing plans for a new University, “reared against the arch of heaven,” as the song goes, bounded by twin gorges.

In those early days, Cornell had to earn a reputation for excellence. There was no Ivy League, no U.S. News and World Report and no reason why some of the greatest academics of the day should abandon civilization to teach at a godless University in a frontier town formerly known as “Sodom.” Perhaps that explains why A.D. White strove to endow our campus with such impressive architecture.

Cascadilla Hall in Collegetown predates the University and became its first official building. Its rustic carved stonework became a starting point for the design of the first buildings on the Arts Quad. Those buildings were Morrill Hall, White Hall (it’s twin) and McGraw Hall. They were simple but stately — one part Ezra Cornell’s Quaker roots, and two parts A.D. White’s classical sensibilities. A.D. White, our school’s first president, stipulated that every permanent building built on this new Quad be built of stone, and back then it was referred to as the “Stone Quadrangle.” Portions of Sibley Hall were erected for the school of Mechanical Engineering. A portion of Goldwin Smith was built for agriculture. Lincoln and Franklin Hall (now Tjaden) were built for Civil and Electrical Engineering (respectively). And in the southwest corner, perhaps the University’s most cherished structure, the University Library and its handsome clock tower stand proud over Libe Slope.

It’s hard to walk through the Arts Quad on a sunny spring day without admiring all these beautiful creations. A.D. White brought in Italian stone masons to craft the ornamentations that give the structures their blend of Romanesque forms and 19th Century American charm.

Other early areas of campus feature similar cohesion. Frederick Law Olmstead, the genius behind Central Park and other triumphs of urban planning, designed a natural area between Sage Hall and Sage Chapel.

In the early 20th century, things got even more ambitious, if perhaps a bit trite. Neo-gothic was all the rage here. New additions included the achingly beautiful West Campus dorms, and Barton Hall’s impressive blend of medieval grandeur and modern engineering. The period culminated in the new Law School, packed with towers, archways and ornate interiors like the Law Library reading room.

And then modernity arrived.

After World War Two, a perfect storm of rapid expansion, technological innovation and American ego led to roughly three decades of massive, bland, imposing, dehumanizing, un-ornamented and generally gag-inducing structures dubbed “modern,” epitomized by the international style of building.

Following the war, Cornell was faced with rapid expansion of student enrollment and tightening budgets. Plans for an all-Gothic West Campus were abandoned in favor of a collection of brick boxes dubbed the “U-Halls.” They were so incredibly ugly, many weren’t even named after people. These buildings didn’t make it to 2010, and the freshmen and sophomores among us didn’t even have to put up with their demolition.

Up on Central, the post-war decades brought all sorts of “gems” to campus. My personal “favorites” include the entire Engineering Quad (an homage to legos perhaps?), Olin Chemical Lab (that enormous, yellow factory tower visible from North Campus) and Bradfield Hall (the windowless brick keep at the back of the Ag Quad that’s taller than the McGraw Tower).

Most college campuses feature a degree of urban density that excuses their modern-architecture follies. But Cornell’s campus is defined by its vast open spaces and rolling hills. Buildings here invariably hold a commanding presence. For the masterpieces of the Arts Quad, this basically means more bang for the buck. For a building like Bradfield, it means one egotistical genius’ experiment is now everyone’s daily eyesore.

Fortunately, the historic core of campus has been spared from most of the carnage. Sure, I.M. Pei’s concrete sewing machine, the Johnson Museum, looms over historic Libe Slope and announces its presence to the entire sleepy city. But this brazen departure from tradition was pulled off with masterful skill, and I consider it Cornell’s version of the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre (also a Pei creation). Ballsy, yes. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But seriously, let’s not try that again.

The biggest folly on the Arts Quad is Olin Library, which barely counts as a stone building, since the unadorned limestone slabs could easily be mistaken for concrete. I see this building and one word comes to mind: Albany. Even worse, it replaced a beautiful building designed in the style of Uris Library.

All other modern Arts Quad experiments have been informed by prudent cowardice. Kroch Library and the Uris addition literally hide underground where they can’t do any damage. The discrete addition to Lincoln Hall respected numerous design elements from the original building, and the steeply pitched gabled roofs lined with the same slate shingles blends masterfully on the quad.

Today, architects have moved on to postmodern architecture … an attempt to restore originality while keeping all the new-fangled materials and construction techniques from the post-war period. This brave new age of architecture involves the University courting some big-name fellow responsible for designing entire new cities in China and the UAE. The genius then picks a famous design of his and scales it down to fit a college budget. Take a picture of a segment of Richard Meier’s Weill Hall and it could be mistaken for another building in Barcelona or Indiana. For these men, college campuses are like fire hydrants upon which to mark their territory. Next to fertilize East Hill is Rem Koolhaas.

As you read this, construction continues on Koolhaas’ new wonder-box: Milstein Hall. This generic slab of shiny corporatism hides cowardly between Rand and Sibley Halls, spilling out over University Avenue. It doesn’t really violate A.D. White’s stone quadrangle idea, since it really isn’t on the quad. When it came under criticism for not meeting LEED’s environmental certification, the AAP administration decided the appropriate response was to degrade those standards as rigid and arbitrary. This claim seems dubious, since Meier’s enormous new biology laboratory managed to pull off a gold rating.

The box might be the final form of architecture, but 100 years from now, Sibley Hall, and the rest of the Arts Quad, will still be standing. Does anyone wish to make a similar claim about Milstein?

Munier Salem is a former Sun Assistant Design Editor and founded the Science section. He is a senior in the College of Engineering. He may be reached at msalem@cornellsun.com. Critical Mass appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Munier Salem