October 5, 2010

Old Masters and New Wonders

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I should start this off by offering a disclaimer: I have no real knowledge of what I’m about to write about. But that’s never stopped me before, and it isnt’t about to stop me now. I would like to thank President Skorton for his column in The Sun last week on buildings and Cornell (“Cornell’s Built Environment: Back to the Future”), which made me think about the my own interactions with architecture on this campus. I’ve realized that while I may not understand it, architecture has shaped my Cornell experience, influencing the way that I view this campus and the world around it.  When I think back to my first time visiting Cornell, what stands out to me is not the information session or even the campus tour. It is standing in the Arts Quad on a Saturday night in the middle of the summer, watching hundreds of Ithacans and Cornellians alike dancing to some sort of tribal music. Walking onto the Quad the next day, drenched in rain not unlike what we’re currently experiencing, I felt an immediate comfort, knowing that this image fit in with my pretentious view of the classic collegiate experience. Old buildings of stone, columns and, of course, ivy, arranged in a rectangular formation with rain stained statues of old academic looking men. Sign me up baby. When I was looking at other schools, because Cornell was obviously too big/cold/far/big/isolated/wet, I found myself comparing every other campus to the Arts Quad’s classic beauty. Even now, my favorite place on campus is the musical patio on top of Olin Library, with its panoramic view of Goldwin Smith through Morrill.  Architecture has also given me more insight into where we actually are, as my sense of geography is nonexistent. Looking out towards the end of last year past Ezra’s utilitarian legacy of Morrill, McGraw and White, all I could see was the sheer nothingness that surrounds this campus. It was then I realized how truly in the middle of nowhere we really are. Conversely, it was also architecture that made me realize how much Cornell is grounded in the city of Ithaca. Recently I was running errands miles away from campus, looked behind me, and immediate noticed McGraw tower standing triumphantly on a hill. My eyes continued to go over the landscape, tracing out our campus from the Johnson Museum down to what I think was the Engineering Quad, but that could just be because it looked nerdy. While we may be in the middle of nowhere, this is definitely our middle of nowhere.  My most recent architectural epiphany came last week, walking home late from the Music Library (Pretentious sidenote: My favorite place on campus that has nothing to do with anything this column is about? The stack in that library that has shelves of books on punk and alternative music history and criticism. To know that stack is to know me.). Walking out of the library, a glowing beacon caught my eye, perched at the top of the small slope on the west side of East Avenue. After a moment, I realized that this brightly lit wonder was none other than the new Physical Sciences building, which I had previously thought to be a modernist monstrosity that disrupted Baker and Rockefeller Halls.  Let’s be honest. I have no idea what kind of things are set to take place in this structure. Chances are high I will never step foot in it. But I can appreciate, as an outsider, how awesome and striking the newest building on our campus is going to be when opened. Walking around campus late again a few days ago, it shone bright in the dark (and wet) Ithaca night. The light inside highlighted the architectural marvel that this building is, a series of windows that at once invite you in, while promoting the work that goes on inside of it. The building itself stands large and sparkling white, proud of its place. My favorite part of the whole thing though is the wall that seamlessly connects Baker and our new crystal clear wonder, immediately bringing to my mind the atrium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that fuses the original building with its modern extension. More then that, it reflects an evolving university landscape that is looking forward while retaining a classic collegiate beauty.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs