May 3, 2017

GUEST ROOM | We’re #1, But For How Long?

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There is a mysticism that surrounds Cornell architecture, even to architecture students from other schools. You see it in the way people react: What is it like? Do you really never sleep? Do you really live in studio? Is it true that you guys sacrifice a freshmen every year? It is undoubtedly an elusive place unless you or someone you know has been through its program. I was no different. As a transfer student from Syracuse’s B.Arch program I only knew that, for some reason, Cornell is #1. I hope I can now help pull back this curtain from a student’s perspective.

Since 2008, Kent Kleinman, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning has made decisions that have been largely misguided. During his time so far, he has made large moves. He has: “significantly fortified” and moved AAP NYC to a new location, completed the over $55 million construction of OMA’s Milstein Hall and is beginning to realize the dreaded Fine Arts Library renovation. Take these gigantic decisions out of his resume though and his time at Cornell has been complacent. He has made no significant changes to any of the curriculum or faculty or overall intellectual infrastructure of the school, because in his defense, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This attitude, whether he is conscious of it or not, has resulted in a closed feedback loop.

By this I mean that it is not out of the ordinary for faculty here to be Cornell undergraduates and then Harvard Graduate School of Design alumni; in fact this seems to be favorable in the hiring of new architecture professors. Perhaps this has existed long before I have come to realize it, but if that is the case then Kleinman has done nothing to address this in a profession where diversity is becoming increasingly important. Many lecturers are alumni, many are white and most are male. There is a canon in architectural education from Vitruvius to Corbusier, but there also seems to be a Cornell canon that feeds back in on itself. This is dangerous for a school, because if you grow up in an environment where no one disputes your way of thinking or methodology of working, then you will grow up believing your way is the right way, the only way.

The even more dangerous edge on which Cornell’s architecture program is sitting on is the talent of its students. This is not good. It doesn’t take a degree to know that if your entire building is built on a shaky foundation then it will fall. Cornell is able to every year hand pick the 60 best students for their freshmen class because of the mysticism, the Ivy League prestige and their stranglehold on the number one ranking.. This is a luxury Cornell possesses that no other school does. Once you get that acceptance letter, it’s hard to find a reason why not to go to Ithaca, and it seems I was no different.

It takes working nearly every waking moment to stay afloat at the architecture school, never mind attempting to maintain a perfect GPA. My studio coordinator this semester provided our class with some great wisdom on the first day of studio that I will never forget — he said that we “better get all our laundry done now because there won’t be any time for that later.” This is a pretty accurate summation of the studio culture at Cornell. It is an abusive relationship with architecture.

You are expected to use “noble materials” in model making. Accessible materials such as paper, chipboard and foam core will be frowned upon by professors as if you did not put in the same effort if you had done the exact same thing with expensive wood, rockite (concrete) or metal. These materials are often inaccessible to students — the lack of sufficiently stocked supply stores within walking distance, coupled with the cost of working with ‘noble materials’ (often in the thousands of dollars), makes such expectations unnecessarily burdensome.  You can understand students’ frustration.

Professors outline expectations for three models and five drawings, assigned on Monday to be delivered on Wednesday. There are also structures problem sets and that essay you still need to write due Thursday before you get to your studio work. Or do you just not do the problem set? Plagiarize that essay? It might give you a few precious hours to finish those models and maybe get a nap in if you stay on task. Perhaps this lack of support is intentional to get the most out of the students by pushing them beyond their limits, but if that is the case then it is a severely outdated education methodology.

Looking at the most recent student survey done at AAP, several figures stand out: 70 percent of students are dissatisfied with the transparency of the administration’s decision-making process, 63 percent of students are dissatisfied with their role in that process, 72 percent of students are dissatisfied with cross-departmental interaction despite AAP being an Architecture, Art and Planning school, 76 percent of students dissatisfied with supplies affordability, 56 percent of students are dissatisfied with supplies availability, (“the supplies are wildly expensive and students are rewarded for work that costs more to produce.”) and 50 percent of students are dissatisfied with student mental health and wellbeing consideration. It is evident that despite the promise of a #1 ranked architecture program, Cornell does not deliver.


Andy Chen is a second year architecture student in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.