A Critique of Cornell’s Constructions

20 04 2010

For an architecture junkie like myself, Munier Salem’s column in the Sun today was a must-read. The article briefly went over the previous eras of architecture of Cornell’s campus, and then zeroes in on the Arts Quad and the perceived blight that Milstein Hall will bring to this part of campus.

Not that I disagree. Well before I started this blog I can remember a long discussion about campus architecture Munier and I had in Cascadilla Hall. Munier has never hidden an opinion that almost anything built after 1955 has been either par for the  course or an eyesore. That being said, the architecture of Cornell buildings could be said to be distinctly to the taste of the time period. As Munier pointed out, Romanesque and Collegiate Gothic dominated Cornell’s first 75 or so years, followed by the rapid rise of modernism, in part because it was now en vogue, in part because it was cheap. The U-Halls were the  sign of things to come (inversely, Teagle Hall could probably be considered the last of the Collegiate Gothic era, as both the U-Halls and Teagle were constructed in the early 1950s). They certainly weren’t attractive, but they weren’t ugly. They were  utilitarian, like the Old Stone Row, but with ninety years of technological advancement, design trends and expectations of medicority to fall back on.

Don’t get me wrong, Old Noyes, seen on the left of this photo, was a brutalist piece of crap. But it wasn’t built until 1967. Olin Lab was famed for mediocrity (found elsewhere on this blog). Bradfield grows on you at best, and gives you cataracts at its worst. They were built to the style of the times and on tight budgets, ornamentation and “fine” taste be damned. Much of it has aged terribly, as dated as vinyl clothes.

Today, as Munier also pointed out, we live in the era of postmodernism, which at least attempts to blend the taste of older structures with newer engineering and materials.  Done right, this turns out to be typical “cake” architecture that, while not anything to write home about, also avoids being offensive. If done really well, such as Princeton’s new Whitman College, it can look as good as the old Gothic (although one could argue about craftsmanship).

However, that being said, we live in an era of “Starchitects”. where a name carries more weight than a building. I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Robert A. M. Stern, Sir Norman Foster, Kenzo Tange, the A-list has at least a few dozen architects who could churn out steaming piles and yet because their name is attached to it, it wins renown. Here’s where Rem Koolhaas come into the picture. Designing a building for an architecture school carries with it the expectation of being edgy, avant-garde. So of course, to varying degrees of distaste we have had three edgy designs for Milstein Hall by Steven Holl, Barkow Leibinger and Associates, and Koolhaas. Koolhaas only wins in my book for being boring and unimpressive, versus downright ugly for the other two.

Is it a good practice to let Starchitects have free reign? Probably not. The name has power now, but who now remembers Gordon Bunshaft or Minoru Yamasaki? One designed Lever House in New York City, which hearalded the rise of glass boxes; the other designed the old World Trade Center in New York. It would seem the weight of a name decreases with time. Some people feel that the power of Gothic structures can do wonders for a school’s reputation.

I dunno if there’s any truth in that. But if it is, can we please hire this firm?


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