NEW YORK — In 2011, Cornell President David Skorton stood beside New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he announced a new vision for Roosevelt Island.
“I think it’s fair to say that today will be remembered as a defining moment,” Bloomberg said on Dec. 18, 2011. “In a word, this project is going to be transformative.”
Now, six years and hundreds of millions of dollars after Cornell won the applied sciences competition, that vision has come to fruition with the official opening of Cornell Tech.
The project is not even halfway complete — the final buildout of the campus is not expected to be finished until 2043. But for the first time, students are taking classes on the island, and the campus was officially dedicated on Wednesday.
Cornell Tech Founding Dean Daniel Huttenlocher, a board member of Amazon with experience in both academia and private industry, recently gave The Sun and several media members a tour of the new campus, along with Cornell Tech’s Director of Capital Projects Andrew Winter.
After working out of the Google Building in Chelsea for the past four years, the administrators showcased the modern buildings, sustainability efforts and real world impacts that exemplify Cornell Tech.
Cultivating Digital Technology On and Off the Island
Currently about 80 percent of Cornell Tech students are earning masters degrees while the other 20 percent are working toward a Ph.D. The masters programs include not only STEM subjects — such as computer science and electrical and computer engineering — but also an MBA program and a law program.
There are also currently two programs in connective media and health tech offered through the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute — Cornell’s joint program with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, which partnered with Cornell on the Tech campus. Cornell officials have highlighted the Technion’s role in commercializing new technologies and supporting Israel’s startup economy.
The programs on campus emphasize their interdisciplinary character, with buildings designed to foster collaboration.
“When you think about the impact that digital technology has had, is having and will have, societally and economically, these are not purely technological questions, they’re not purely business questions, they’re not purely legal questions, they’re not purely ethical and societal questions, they’re a mix of all of those,” Huttenlocher said.
Cornell Tech’s curriculum also aims to reach beyond its new front doors.
Through students volunteering their time, developing curriculum and staffing conferences, Cornell Tech helps prepare students in New York City public schools to work in the digital economy.
In addition, Cornell Tech has partnered with City University of New York to develop the Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York program, which teaches computer science and coding to women at over a dozen CUNY campuses.
And the campus’ intended influence extends beyond work with outside organizations. Several startups have been born out of Cornell Tech, and several parts of the campus are designed to help young companies grow.
Bridging Industry and Academia
The Bridge — which is owned by Forest City Ratner — is a place where established companies, growth-stage companies and startups come together with students and faculty to accelerate the commercialization of new technologies.
So far, Two Sigma Investments, Citigroup and Ferrero International have all leased space in The Bridge. Those companies will occupy the upper floors, while Cornell uses the lower floors for its studio curriculum, as well as research lab space and master student space. Forest City anticipates that there will also be retail space on the first floor.
All those parts of the building stem from the lobby, which Huttenlocher said is intended to bring them all together.
But the Bridge is not the only collaborative innovation hub on Roosevelt Island.
The Bloomberg Center
The Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, named after Michael Bloomberg’s daughters, is the main academic building on the campus.
The ground floor has a cafe and is open to the public during business hours. The layout of the floor is open, and the ceiling is covered in artwork from German artist Michael Riedel, who uses text in many of his pieces. The ceiling is adorned with zeros and ones, which are the basis of binary code.
While the classrooms are on the ground floor and lower level, the upper floors include open layout workspaces. There are no private offices, but there are many places for people to meet and collaborate with each other.
Huttenlocher highlighted an internal staircase that links the second, third and fourth floor. He said that the space was designed in an attempt to prevent students and faculty from splitting apart based on their specific subject of study.
One of the private areas that Huttenlocher pointed out was a phone booth on the second floor. But unlike phone booths of the past, there are no actual phones.
“It’s a Skype booth as much as a phone booth,” Huttenlocher said.
The phone booths, as well as the over 100 private spaces designed for quick, unscheduled meetings, are intended to foster innovation and collaboration on campus.
But at the end of the day, students will also have private space that is just for them.
Home Sweet House
The House is the high rise residential building on campus. With 26 stories, the building will house up to 500 students, as well as a limited number of researchers on the upper floors.
While the apartments are rather small — a studio is a little more than 400 square feet — the amenities on the top floor may be ample compensation.
The top floor of the building is public to all residents, and features unobstructed views of the New York City skyline. Winters stressed that the decision to have small rooms but plenty of open space was not an accident.
“The units themselves are a little bit smaller than a standard apartment might be, and so in order to compensate for that you have these wonderful public spaces in the building,” he said.
And the small apartments have a big effect. Winters pointed out that the smaller units allow the building to use less energy. Decreased energy consumption and increased energy production is a theme of the entire campus.
The House was built to passive-house standards, the most rigorous energy-efficiency standards in the world. The building is projected to save 882 tons of carbon dioxide per year compared to code buildings, according to The House website.
A Push For Sustainability
In fact, the entire campus has taken and will take steps to be energy efficient. The Bloomberg Center and The Bridge are both topped with photovoltaic arrays. The Bloomberg Center aims to be a net-zero building, meaning that over a 12-month cycle it would generate as much energy as it uses.
The “Great Lawn,” as Huttenlocher referred to it, hides about 80 geothermal wells that are set to handle all the heating and cooling needs of The Center.
Winters and Huttenlocher both pointed out that although building all of the sustainability infrastructure may be expensive, the decreased energy costs will make the increased price “a surprisingly small amount,” Huttenlocher said.
Cornell Tech has already led the way in its sustainability initiatives: the House is the largest passive house in the world, and Winters said that given the unprecedented size of the building, the designers faced issues that are now solved for future large passive houses.
As the approximately 300 students and 30 faculty members make their way around campus for the first time this fall semester, many expressed hope that Cornell Tech marks a new beginning for education not just for those on Roosevelt Island, but for universities around the world.