September 26, 2010

Cornell’s Built Environment: Back to the Future

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For my column this month, The Cornell Daily Sun editorial board suggested I write about campus buildings — my favorite and least favorite. Before talking about my choices, let’s spend a few minutes chewing on some more basic questions.Campus architecture has always been a matter of intense interest and divergent opinion in the Cornell community. This has never been more true than in recent years, during which desires for growth, development and differentiation of the built environment at times have clashed with environmental concerns and a desire to maintain a more traditional “collegiate” architectural style.  Several projects are now under construction or nearing completion, including Paul Milstein Hall for our program in architecture, the Physical Sciences Building, the expansion of the Johnson Museum of Art, Stocking Hall, Martha van Rensselaer, the Plantations Welcome Center, the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the large, new Medical Research Building on East 69th Street in Manhattan.  The pace of planning for further campus construction has slowed and will continue at a more moderate rate in the near-term due to financial constraints. However, over time we will further develop the Ithaca campus to support our academic mission, student health and wellbeing and an appropriate work environment for our staff and faculty.  What philosophy will guide this development? Will we maintain the feel of the traditional campus? Or will the bold, eclectic sensibility of modern architecture guide a campus on which resides the top undergraduate architecture program in the country? Most important, how will the overall environment of Cornell be affected?Campus building will be guided, in general, by the Cornell Master Plan for the Ithaca Campus, approved by the Board of Trustees in March 2008. The plan provides an integrated framework for long-term development while preserving “the unique character, beauty and defining elements of the Cornell campus.” As Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art and Planning, has said, “Cornell’s most impressive construction is that which is too often mistaken for untouched nature: the landscape — the open space that we experience as such only because it is framed by carefully sited buildings…”Reflecting the university’s commitment to sustainability, our Board of Trustees has stipulated that all new buildings and major renovations meet or exceed the “silver level” standards in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Many of our newest buildings already meet “silver” LEED standards and some are at or near “gold” level.Let me now look back at some of our past adventures with the built environment and then I’ll reveal my picks and pans. In his history of Cornell, Morris Bishop notes, “Andrew D. White exhorted Ezra Cornell to achieve beauty.” Of course, the judgment of what is beautiful is among the most subjective of human perceptions and this subjectivity expressed itself in our past. “Some few thought the original buildings, Cascadilla, Morrill, McGraw, White, Sibley, beautiful … But Goldwin Smith said frankly: ‘Nothing can redeem them but dynamite.’”In 1902-03, Cornell hired Carrèrre and Hastings to prepare a plan for the development of the campus. Woodford Patterson, the secretary of the University at the time, observed that campus architecture “passed through Mansard, Antique-Romantic, Romanesque and Palladian, to arrive at English Collegiate.”In the great building boom on campus between 1937 and 1966, when Cornell’s physical plant more than doubled in size, functional and economic concerns took precedence over aesthetic ones — leading one commentator to describe Cornell’s architectural scope as ranging from “Collegiate Gothic to Modern Sing-Sing.”  More recently, the university’s comprehensive plan, as modified in 1989, notes, “… each new building should reflect the spirit of Cornell as a pioneering institution and should represent an awareness of its time and place.”Whatever your view of the present as well as recent and distant past decisions on our buildings, ours is a beautiful campus with many soulful places, in and outside. My favorites? The alcoves in Duffield (equipped with white boards and comfortable chairs) create spaces that encourage informal discussions and collaborative study. Other examples are the new Mann Library, especially the 3rd floor “tree house,” complete with a bird-watching station, and the West Campus Residential Houses, which are designed to create a sense of community among house residents. I greatly enjoy Uris Library and the Music Library because, for me, their designs are conducive to study and reflection. I like Weill Hall’s stark statement of a bold future and the futuristic buildings of the Weill Cornell Medical College’s campus in Doha, Qatar. I also find inspiration in Barnes Hall with its whispers of a classical past. And the view of students sitting at the tables on display at the north face of Duffield is a welcome sight as I leave Day Hall in the evening.  Speaking of Day Hall, where I spend a lot of time … well, it’s “home” but not, to my eye, the most interesting building on campus, unless you enjoy the adventure of certain corridors that don’t allow public access all the way around and certain floors that can only be accessed from certain sides of the building.  Somehow, though, people do find their way to my office!As we consider the future of our campus, we need to ensure that the most static dimension of our campus is always evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing community of people, and that it continues to provide places for renewal and reflection, while recognizing the importance of the “built environment” to the character of Cornell and the memories we have of life on the Hill.David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton