Milstein Hall: Just Build the Damn Thing

16 07 2008

So, continuing with my ongoing fascination with proposed facilities for the university, it would be impossible to forget Milstein Hall. Wait…yes it would. The building has been through so many redesigns and so many hold-ups that if it takes any longer, I won’t be here to enjoy the finished product. And that makes me sad.

But anyways a brief review. Milstein Hall is the proposed addition to the neverending red tape architecture school, curently in its third rendition, a $40 million, 43,000 sq. ft box [1].

In Koolhaas’s own words, “It is a box that is contaminated by its neighbors and will contaminate its neighbors.” Um, I’m not exactly sure that’s the best way to put it. I’m no architecture student, but I get this vague uneasiness of another Uris Hall situation.

But this is the third rendition. And the other two weren’t exactly pretty either. The saga starts in 2000, when Paul Milstein, a prominent NYC developer, donated $10 million towards the construction of a new facility in February 2000 [6]. Milstein himself did not attend Cornell, but two of his kids did (a third sorta did, she transferred to Yale).

The first design was chosen in a four-way competition that concluded in April 2001. The winner was Steven Holl, for his proposal to build a seven-story cube on the location of Rand Hall, which would have been demolished. The project was set at $25 million, and to be completed in late 2004 [2] (fun tidbit: chair of the selection jury was James Polshek of Polshek Architects, the same firm responsbile for the design of Gates Hall).

Well, the demolition of Rand Hall didn’t sit too well with people, and a lot of people had some critiques for the design (more renderings at It was a box with cutouts on the west side. Once again, I’m not an architect, but it looks to me like taking a pair of scissors to a paper cube and calling it a design. This is cutting edge…?

So, the university dropped their deal with Holl in July 2002, and by November had selected Barkow Leibinger Architects as the firm to design the building. With a pegged completion date of fall 2006 [3]. Once again, the design was rather…interesting.

For a larger photo, go to, and go under competitions, 2003. There you can see that this cutting-edge building also planned to tear down Rand Hall. And once again, there were issues with the design. I can’t say I’m personally too fond of it either, though I like it more than Holl’s design. It says this was to be 6000 sqm, or about 65,000 sq. ft.

Well, that didn’t pan out either, so by September 2006, Rem Koolhaas, the designer of the much celebrated (and 15x more expensive) CCTV tower in Beijing, was announced as the lead architect of the Milstein Hall Project. The square footage had shrunk by a third, and the price tag was up 75%, but there was hope that the damn thing might be built by 2010 [4]. Well, until the City of Ithaca and Cornell decided to have a fight over who controls University Avenue [5].

Long story short (unless you like hearing about SEQR determinations and environmental reviews), the fact that Milstein is designed to stand on both sides of University Avenue 15 feet above the ground kinda posed some issues. Namely, who owns University Avenue, since the current design doesn’t fly with city guidelines. After much arguing, the city decided to sell Cornell the portion of University from Chi Psi up to the intersection with Thurston for the price of $2 million, provided that much needed repairs were completed. Also, Milstein would be cantilevered over the street, to avoid building on both sides. Hopefully, now all the obstacles have been cleared.

So here we are, eight years later and nothing done but a lot of hot air being blown around nevertheless. While I would hope that something is done eventually, I can’t say I’m holding out much hope (especially for a design that I like, but I guess I just don’t understand architecture).









5 responses

18 07 2008
Ban the Boxes

The Koolhaas quote says it all: it will destroy the Arts Quad. Why can Cornell build something more harmonious with Sibley, say, in the Sage Hall and Lincoln Hall tradition? Populating Cornell with a litany of white boxes is a pox upon the campus.

29 05 2009
John Randall

5/29/09: Response to “Ban the Boxes:” Cornell tends to build new buildings according to contemporary architerctural trends. I was an undergrad just after the 1950s. The new buildings were utilitarian in the 1950s style. They included U-Halls, most of the engineering buildings, and Olin Library. At least there was some architectural consistency within the U-Halls complex and the engineering quad, but Olin Library, dubbed the IBM card (for computer punch cards – don’t ask), just clashes with the Arts quad, as will Milsten Hall. The beat goes on.

27 01 2015
A New Home For Cornell’s Fine Arts Library | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] from alumni the first time Cornell tried to demolish Rand Hall, when early versions of Milstein called for the ca. 1911 building’s demolition. Rand Hall sits just outside the Arts Quad Historic District, so any exterior changes would not be […]

2 05 2015
News Tidbits 5/2/15: Oh, The Anticipation | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] Cornell had planned to demolish Rand in the early 2000s to make way for Milstein Hall (which went through three starchitects before shovels hit the ground), but alumni blowback caused them to renege on that plan. It’s […]

22 12 2018
Cornell Fine Arts Library (Rand Hall) Construction Update, 12/2018 | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] but for the past twenty years Cornell actively made one attempt or another to get rid of it – in their attempts to build Milstein, the university proposed to tear down Rand not once, but twice. However, there was significant pushback by alumni and historic preservation groups against the […]

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