October 20, 2011

Milstein Architect Rem Koolhaas Talks Inspiration Behind Building

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Rem Koolhaas, founder of the Office for Metropolitian Architecture and one of the architects behind the new Milstein Hall, visited campus Thursday to introduce the building to a group of students, critics and trustees. In a lecture titled “Progress,” Koolhaas discussed the inspiration that gave rise to the Milstein design and the ideas in vogue at OMA.

Koolhaas described architecture in a “perpetual state of adjustment and response to emerging situations.”

The lecture followed a press tour by Koolhaas, AAP Dean Kent Kleinman, OMA associate Ziad Shehab and OMA partner, and Milstein’s partner-in-charge, Shohei Shigematsu.

Shigematsu said the various points of visibility throughout the building will enhance the learning process for architecture students.

“We have very high hopes for how architects will learn from and use the building,” he said.

Shigematsu also said Milstein will allow for interaction between many groups of people. For example, a large dome covers a critique space and its glass windows allow for pedestrians outside to look into the critique space.

Echoing Shigematsu, Shehab called Milstein “an environment of revealing.” He pointed to the building’s exposed infrastructure on the ceiling above the large studio as a feature architecture students can learn from.

Kleinman expressed AAP’s pleasure with Milstein as an academic space. “We’ve never enjoyed such a large landscape of studios like this before in one space. They are no longer segmented and divided on different floors. The students can now see each other and learn by osmosis,” Kleinman said, referring to Milstein’s expansive top floor.

Koolhaas and Shigematsu acknowledged logistical problems the architects overcame. Koolhaas thanked the City of Ithaca for allowing OMA to build its proposed cantilever — the large beam that protrudes over University Avenue. The cantilever, according to Koolhaas, creates an “urban condition” at Milstein’s entrance, whereby Ithaca city residents can engage with the building while they wait for the bus.

Kleinman similarly spoke to financial hurdles AAP encountered in fulfilling the Milstein project. The financial crisis of 2008 brought the $55 million construction of Milstein into question.

“It took a very brave board to look at the cost of the project and go forward with it during that time period,” Kleinman said.

For Shigematsu and Koolhaas, however, the crisis had less of an influence on their conception of Milstein. “Even in 2006, when we undertook the project, the decisions were in the context of not wasting money.” For this reason, he explained, “Everything can be used in more than one way.”

The dome — still without an official name, according to Kleinman — exemplifies how one element can be used in multiple ways: it simultaneously opens up a 23 foot high atrium, forms the slope that leads down to the auditorium and helps balance the large cantilever.

In theoretical terms, the dome represents the response of Koolhaas and Shigematsu to iconic architecture, an idea that Koolhaas discussed in his lecture. “Architecture [today] is dominated by iconic buildings,” Koolhaas said to the press, as he looked towards Milstein from the corner of University Avenue and Thurston Bridge. “We felt the expectation to produce an iconic building, and the dome is a response to that. It brings out the permanent warfare between the box and blob.”

The move away from the iconic and towards a more mysterious, subtle building, influenced OMA’s approach to Milstein. When one enters campus from the north, they now see Milstein protruding out from either side of Rand. “Previous schemes [for Milstein] envisioned demolishing Rand.” Rather than making a statement at the entrance to campus, Koolhaas preferred “something more mysterious and interesting, not blatant.”

In yesterday’s lecture, Koolhaas echoed this sentiment, but explained Milstein’s emergence in much broader terms. He argued that architecture is experiencing a “wave of eccentricity.” To illustrate what he meant by “eccentricities,” Koolhaas pulled up a photo-shopped slide of several of the most famous sky-scrapers in the world, all standing next to each other on a desert, totally eccentric in their respective, noisy designs. In the face of this dominant trend, OMA has moved towards buildings whose design emphasizes their function, and away from the iconic. “Architecture is less about form, more about the performance… Milstein is part of a generation that emphasizes performance over form.”

Tucked behind Rand and Sibley, Milstein supports Koolhaas’s move towards the subtle. Still, concerns linger over whether it is a totally genuine turn away from the iconic.

“In terms of studio space, Milstein is successful at making the program more important than the form,” said architecture student Aura Maria Jaramillo ’13, “but the form that the Dome takes is not the right geometry for the type of activity that it is intended for.” One concern raised about the building has been the acoustic quality of its cavernous spaces. “As multiple reviews occur below the Dome, there is interference, and one cannot hear themselves talk as the group next to them presents simultaneously,” said Jaramillo.

One cannot deny the extravagance of Milstein’s ground floor: the dome, the bridge and even the bathroom, which has itself become a destination for students, stand out as landmarks on campus. Nor can one deny that the building will perform well, with all of the spaces for learning and collaboration that it offers. No one knows how the tension between form and performance will play out, nor whether or not Milstein will integrate AAP as its architects envisioned. Koolhaas could not yet propose anything that he would do differently, if given the chance. “It’s too early to tell, we need some distance from the building. In two years we will return to that question.”

Original Author: Joey Anderson