All Ivies Make (Architectural) Mistakes

28 11 2011

Somewhere during my crappiest Thanksgiving ever, I was reading through the online Daily Sun and came across some comment where the individual suggested that Cornell has the worst architecture in the Ivy League. I spent a little while mulling over that critique – sure, some of our halls are quite ugly, but the worst Ivy?

Curious, I decided to look at some  of other schools. I don’t have some chip on my shoulder over the lack of “pretty” buildings at Cornell, and certainly “ugly” is a subjective term. But Cornell is not the only school that has designed buildings that have earned harsh rebukes from certain audiences.

Harvard people have been criticizing themselves for years. One of the first things that came up in my search was a polite criticism of the modern architecture that took over Harvard’s campus starting the late 1950s (the Quincy and Leverett Towers). The article was published in the Crimson, the Harvard student newspaper, in the early 1990s. If you really want to go in depth, someone wrote an entire book dedicated to reviewing Harvard’s architecture. Today, Harvard is putting up modern buildings such as a science buildinga new graduate housing complex, and Tata Hall (I’m still wondering if Cornell plans on naming a building for Ratan Tata ’59) The take away could be that Harvard, like Cornell, builds in the style of the times; but it would be worth noting that Harvard has buildings 130 years older than Cornell.

Down in New Haven, Yale is no stranger to “ugly” architecture either, with such structures as the Art and Architecture Building and the Beinecke Library to its credit. Their newest set of dorms are designed in a Collegiate Gothic style that has mass appeal, but they decided to demolish several historic buildings to build it.

Going down the list, I didn’t see one campus that was “unscathed”. Princeton, U Penn, Brown, Columbia, even Dartmouth, which lacks your usual Science and Engineering building culprits. It seems most of them entered the 60s and threw cohesion out the window for daring departures that have, for the most part, not aged well. Even now, many of these schools are still trying some avant-garde edginess to further their names.

Would I venture support or denial of the “ugliest Ivy” claim? I am forced to stay neutral. I’ve only been to four of their campuses, not to mention it’s a matter of opinion. But, considering some of the college campuses out there, I know things could be much worse:

News Tidbits 11/16/2011: Cayuga Green II Gets a Revival (and a Revision)

16 11 2011

In terms of Ithaca-area development, I consider myself an optimist. But Cayuga Green’s second phase was one of those projects I had written off as left for dead. For a quick background, Cayuga Green is the formal name for the mixed-use project that has been underway on Green Street in downtown Ithaca for about ten years. The project, proposed for a piece of land that was then-used for a large parking ramp/lot, was aimed to revitalize that section of downtown, but was not without controversy due to its use of property tax abatements by developers Bloomfield & Schon. The first phase includes the new Cinemapolis (one of the results of the controversy was to switch from a new multiplex to a new space for Cinemapolis), the redone parking garage, a creekwalk, and the Cayuga Place Apartments, where the new TCAT stop is.  The first phase was completed a couple years ago.

By a fair account, the project has had mixed success. What has been built is doing quite well. Gimme! Coffee, Palmer Pharmacy and Urban Outfitters filled the new commercial space (all of which were new, not companies that moved space), and the apartments had a low vacancy rate. Cinemapolis has adjusted to its new space and the street is rejuvenated. The project spurred nearby development, including Gateway Commons and the Hotel Ithaca project. The caveat comes from the second phase, which was supposed to start in mid 2007. The financial market started to tank, and this phase had never gained financing, government or private. The space it was intended for, behind the city’s new parking garage, was left empty.

It would seem that is about to change. Thanks to a tip from from frequent visitor and favorite old fart “Ex-Ithacan”, the project is going in front of the Planning and Economic Development Board. The revision is for a six-month extension on the site (construction was supposed to start by 12/31/2011, even after a previous delay),  The amendment notes the project seeks no tax abatements, but must go to the Common Council at the end of the month for final approval.

Also notably, the project is revised. The original proposal looked like this (image from developer’s website):

Which was revised to this:

and now looks like…this (from the agenda):

The newest incarnation is 6 stories, 35 units of condos, and 8,500 square feet of office space, of which about 5,000 feet is reserved for the Park Foundation, a local non-profit. No new environmental review is required, which should save time in the approvals process, and that will be handy since final approval and building permit will have to be issued by June 30, 2012.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

10 11 2011

So, this is a question that I often wonder about when I play the role of armchair architecture critic. Cornell has pontificated that “each new building should reflect the spirit of Cornell as a pioneering institution and should represent an awareness of its time and place”. Back in the day, that was symbolized by A. D. White’s passionate desire to develop the campus into a New Yorker’s version of Oxford, hence his well-documented derision of red-brick buildings such as Morse Hall and Lincoln Hall, as these were very un-Oxford-esque. Lincoln Hall was built while White was overseas as the U.S. ambassador to Germany (effectively, they sneaked it in when he wasn’t looking), and it’s been said that White smiled when he first heard Morse Hall was destroyed by fire back in 1916. I’m guessing he never counted his own house, but maybe he considered that to be tucked away from the main campus, which it was back in the early days.

Cornell’s architectural preference has evolved with the times. By the 1920s, the fashion was Collegiate Gothic, as seen in buildings like Willard Straight. By the 1950s and 1960s, function was deemed more important than form, and we eneded up with buildings like Clark Hall, and Hollister et al. on the Engineering Quad. Today’s buzz is about “Starchitects” like Rem Koolhaas (Milstein Hall), Richard Meier (Weill Hall) and Thom Mayne (Gates Hall), who designed ultramodern structures that are meant to represent Cornell’s forward-thinking.

My question lies in what is interpreted as forward-thinking. It seems college campuses these days follow two rather discordant trains of thought – one of the modern or ultramodern designs as we have seen lately at Cornell (I was tempted to call them avant-garde, but I don’t think they’re radical enough to merit the term), and then a second line of thinking that delves into the Neoclassical and Gothic themes that conjure images of the romantic colleges of our grandparents’ youth.

Take for instance Princeton and their new Whitman Residential College, or Notre Dame’s new Eck law school building:

Image Property of Notre Dame University

Granted, comparing the new STEM buildings to Dorms and Social Science buildings is a bit like apples to oranges. But what are the pros and cons for the new Houses on West Campus? Were we better off with new and contemporary, or should we have revived the original 1920s era plan and constructed new Gothics?

The original West Campus Plan. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Any casual reader of this blog probably recognizes that I fall more into the traditionalist point of view. I guess my concern lies with the aesthetically pleasing value of a campus. Cornell has some tremendously wonderful natural spaces both in the confines of the main campus and surrounding it (the many gorges and waterfalls throughout the area assure that much). The built environment can either enhance that or detract from it, and I’d venture at Cornell it’s been hit-or-miss over the years.  I wonder though, if the increasing traditionalism of some of our peer institutions gives them a recruiting advantage for top students. I think the West Campus structures are quality constructions, but they don’t quite garner the same level of fondness as the arches and turrets Collegiate Gothic.

So I’m going to go out on a limb and throw the question out there for debate. What role does architectural style play in prospective students’ decision-making? Is Cornell being bold and progressive in its current architectural plans, or are we foregoing traditional architectural styles at a detriment to the physical appeal of the university? I’m really curious to hear others’ take on this, so please leave a comment if you’d like to contribute your opinion.

P.S. I don’t want to downplay the importance of interior design, which is important from a livability angle. But I am more interested to hear about opinions about building exteriors, since they often set the first impression.

The Keyword Bar XIV

5 11 2011

Honestly, I had not realized so much time had passed since my last entry, so I figured I’d cobble something together based off of my stalwart “Keyword Bar” entries.

1. “johnson boatyard ithaca zoning” (11-5-11)

Actually a fairly good question given the recent proposals for townhouses, and later additions, to the area in the the boatyard’s immediate vicinity. Conveniently, they city of Ithaca offers a zoning search tool based on address. The zoning in the 700 block of Willow Avenue is I-1 (light industrial), M-1 (a general clearing house for just about everything on a waterfront and up to 5 stories),  or P-1 (parks & rec) depending on the property.I am not aware if rezoning is required for the project, but it looks like that it will not be necessary if it falls into the marine zoning.

2. “gates hall expected date cornell” (11-5-11)

According to Cornell Facilities Services, tentative opening will be December 2013. When the official ceremony will be, probably sometime afterwards.

3. “cold stone creamery ithaca” (11-4-11)

Actually, this has come up no less than a dozen times in the past week or so. That actually worries me a little bit. I have fond memories of trips to Purity, even if I’d but ice cream for home, leave in my freezer six months, and then throw it out when it was badly freezer-burnt. But anyways, the new Cold Stone/Tim Horton’s  drive-thru is  in the southern part of the city near Buttermilk Falls (407 Elmira Road, to be specific). Not that I have a problem with Cold Stone itself, but I am a little cautious about the homogenization of Ithaca. I’d like to see the right combination between local flavor and well-known chains, but there’s not exactly a chart that says what the right combo is.

4. “cornell law school building renovations 50 million 2011” (11-4-11)

I’ve been lax about mentioning this one, but not without reason. Cornell is planning significant renovations to the Law School, with a gross addition of about 43,000 sq ft, which for comparison’s sake, is similar to the size of Milstein Hall. However, most of it appears to be in below-street-level additions, with the most notable changes being a new entrance onto College Avenue, and a pronounced addition in the courtyard. Also, construction won’t start until summer 2012, and will go through to December 2014, which is only a few months before my five-year reunion. So, it’s largely hidden and way down the line, but it is on the drawing board.

5. “ithaca november snow” (11-2-11)

It happens. Frequently. 5.9 inches worth, on average. The past ten years were, going back in time, 0.0″, 0.0″, 6.6″, 1.2″, 0.6″, 2.3″, 1.6″, 1.0″, 9.6″, and 0.0″.  So, it’s an average with a rather spread-out distribution.