November 28, 2011

Building a Better Campus

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As a few of those who have the great misfortune of knowing me can attest, I have long been fascinated with Cornell’s history — the traditions, the lore, the alumni and perhaps most of all, the buildings.

I like to think that I should have applied to be a tour guide. Walk with me through campus and you’re liable to hear more than you’ve ever cared to know about Cornell’s architecture: who designed the buildings, when they were built, the style, and so on. Which is why I’d like to dedicate my last column of the semester to a topic rather different from my usual brand of political observations: Cornell’s Master Plan.

Or, more specifically, why I hate it.

Cornell’s campus today is something of an architectural hodgepodge; unlike other prestigious universities such as Duke, Princeton or Yale, no consistent theme or style emerges from its many buildings. If anything, some similarities can be found within certain boundaries — the Arts Quad, the Ag Quad, the Engineering Quad and so forth — but between these areas, the dominant forms and structures differ wildly.

This variance has been present from the early days of Cornell’s development. Charles Babcock, the first professor of Cornell’s architecture school, broke from the Second Empire styles of Morrill, McGraw and White Hall and instead drew from the Victorian Gothic tradition when designing Sage Hall, Sage Chapel, Lincoln Hall and Franklin (now Tjaden) Hall. William Henry Miller, the first graduate of Cornell’s architecture school, designed Uris Library in the Romanesque style. Collegiate Gothic dominated Cornell’s expansion to the South and West in the early 20th century.

The buildings that dotted Cornell’s campus in its early years were largely different in their designs, but they had at least one thing in common: They were (and still are) timeless and beautiful. And more importantly, each building stood as its own entity, allowing space for the surrounding buildings and preserving the integrity of those that came before it.

This trend continued up until the early 1950s, when, as former Sun columnist Munier Salem ’10 put it, “modernity arrived.” For the reminder of the 20th century, the more ornate, elaborate themes that had guided development were rejected as the University constructed a number of giant, boxy masses of brick and concrete.

Our campus suffered as a consequence. It was during this period that Olin Hall, much of the Engineering Quad, Donlon Hall and eventually Uris Hall were constructed. Historic buildings were razed to make way for new development. In Olin Library’s footprint once stood Boardman Hall, a lovely Romanesque building designed by William Henry Miller. The western edge of the Engineering Quad was previously home to the Old Armory, a Babcock building in the Victorian style. Most recently — and notoriously — Cornell demolished East Hall, Roberts Hall and Stone Hall to make space for Kennedy and (the new) Roberts Hall, even as members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities scrambled to place the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Even when historic buildings were spared from demolition, the University’s planners often insisted on violating their integrity with ghastly modern additions. The Olin Lab tower was attached to the Baker chemistry building. Clark Hall was attached to Baker and Rockefeller. And the worst offender — the hideous, monolithic Bradfield Hall — was wedged between Plant Science and Fernow Hall.

In the early 2005, when Cornell decided to redevelop its Master Plan, it had the opportunity to forgo these heinous practices and return to sensible, elegant expansion. Unfortunately, the current plan does nothing of the sort, instead continuing the tradition of tacking on contemporary structures to historic buildings with little consideration for continuity.

Recent construction projects on campus are a testament to this approach. The Physical Sciences building and Milstein Hall both connect to buildings more than 100 years older than they are, yet make little attempt to transition smoothly from one design to the next. The recently announced New Humanities Building, a glassy atrium that will fill in the back of Goldwin Smith Hall, stands to continue this trend.

If you found the placement of these buildings offensive to your sensibilities, be warned — according the Master Plan, little is sacred. Similarly styled additions are being considered for Tjaden Hall, Caldwell Hall, Warren Hall, Plant Science, Willard Straight Hall and the Law School.

The Cornell University campus has long been considered one of the most beautiful in the nation. And while our architecture has never been the principle justification for that recognition, haphazardly squeezing modern structures into every available space threatens to shed us of that distinction. Further development as outlined by the Master Plan would diminish the beauty of buildings on Ho Plaza, the Arts Quad and the Ag Quad, taking away from the northeastern college feel that so contributes to our campus’ appeal.

Smarter development is possible. Cornell has even proven its capability of doing so, as evidenced by the additions to Lincoln Hall and Stocking Hall and the decision to leave the forthcoming Gates Hall as a standalone building. Moving forward, however, I suggest that the University follow these guidelines to ensure our campus maintains its beauty in the face of expansion:

First, historically significant (i.e. pre-modern) buildings should be preserved in their current form, unless proposed additions are architecturally consistent with the main structure.

Second, Cornell should adopt a more stringent compatibility standard for new buildings within certain precincts, so that historic regions of the campus can maintain a relatively cohesive, unified aesthetic.

Finally, Cornell should resist clustering and connecting buildings, instead leaving open green space between them so as to maintain a less claustrophobic feel.

Cornell is a growing university, and state of the art capital investments are required to remain on the cutting edge. Just because development is necessary, however, doesn’t mean it should be thoughtless. Cornell’s campus is an excellent asset; it deserves to be treated as such.

David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter