February 19, 2009

A brief rant about Cornell architecture

[This isn't quite Dryden, but I suspect it's something a lot of people in Dryden have an opinion about.]

It was very strange today to see the collapse of the Cornell hydraulics laboratory on the front page of the Ithaca Journal and letters defending Cornell's proposed Milstein Hall (1 2) on the opinion page. There's been a steady stream of these letters - apparently someone hit the panic button and is asking every supporter of the project to write in.

The sad thing, though, is that the now vanished laboratory, as strange a barnacle as it may have been on the gorge walls, actually fit far better with both its surroundings and Cornell's existing architecture than Milstein Hall ever will. It was a strange addition to a creek, but was far less strange a barnacle than the drawings for Milstein propose.

Every day I watch fleets of concrete and gravel trucks head into campus (and also downtown), feeding an urge to build that seems part of Cornell University's recent personality. Unfortunately, they long since lost any sense of their own architectural DNA, lurching instead from supposed triumph to triumph while turning their campus into a freakshow of bad design.

I know, I know - Cornell is hardly unique in this. Neither Ithaca College nor TC3 is exactly a paragon of great architecture, though at least they're spared the contrast with older buildings that shows off the ugliness of the modern. And it could be worse. At least they remodeled Sage Hall instead of demolishing it for another boxy temple to architectural lunacy.

Walk around the campus, and take in the beauty of the surroundings, the quality of even the uglier pre-1950s buildings, and then look around at the newer additions. Better still, for the quickest headache possible, pick up a copy of Cornell Then & Now, which does an amazing job of cataloging the damage that Cornell has done to itself over the past few decades and congratulating Cornell when the older stuff survived. (It's too polite to say it quite that way, of course.)

Just a few of its highlights:

  • The demolition of Boardman Hall to make way for the giant ugly box of Olin Library.

  • Replacing the Armory with Hollister Hall, a dire 1950s contraption looming over the College Avenue entrance.

  • The replacement of Morse Hall with the "Is that really a sewing machine?" Johnson Museum of Art.

  • Farewell Stone, Roberts, and East Roberts, hello to a boxy new Roberts and Kennedy Hall.

  • The book can barely stand to look at Bradfield Hall ("the Dark Tower"), most things around the Vet School, or Boyce-Thompson Institute, all sad monuments to 1970s ugliness.

The only good thing I can say about the proposed Milstein Hall is that the main victim of its construction seems to be a parking lot. It also avoids the mistake of Bradfield Hall, and includes windows, though perhaps it goes too far the other direction.

I can sympathize with concerns that the architecture department faces the loss of its accreditation if they don't have a new building soon. On the other hand, I really have to wonder if Cornell as a whole has long since lost its architectural credibility, and seems intent on making what could have been a beautiful campus into an ever-uglier disaster. Architecture has fallen far for these buildings to be considered appealing.

Okay, that's all. Let Dryden's gravel trucks roll - the disease has probably gone too deep to cure. It'd be nice to think that there are other alternatives, but it's unlikely that Cornell's fondness for bizarre ugly statements will go away soon.

Posted by simon at February 19, 2009 7:54 PM in
Note on photos


Mike Lane said:

Here, here!

Kevin S said:

Cornell's number one mission is Education, not building preservation. That said, I am unhappy still over the demolition of Stone, Roberts, and East Roberts Halls and even more unhappy about their replacement which is very plain on the outside and full of wasted and useless space on the inside.

Keep in mind that the State of New York (SUNY Construction Fund and/or Dormitory Authority, etc) wields a lot of control over costs for the state-owned buildings. Thus, architectural elegance is always one of the LAST considerations. Bradfield Hall may be unattractive, but the building serves it's purpose well, as do the buildings at the Vet College.

What concerns me are plans in the new master plan to demolish even more of the state-owned buildings like Riley-Robb, Morrison, and Stocking Hall, among others. We can only hope that their replacements will not be plain-brick monstrosities.

Thankfully, the facade of Mann Library has been preserved rather than destroyed. But if I ever hear of a plan to knock down Barton Hall, I will be forever sad. While somewhat ugly, it has it's own kind of charm and elegance like the original Roberts Hall complex.

The loss of elegant old structures in exchange for unattractive concrete, glass, and steel structures is cause for sadness. But, as I said, Cornell's primary mission is education not building preservation.

In regards to Millstein Hall, I am not personally too happy about it. I actually would favor the removal of Rand Hall since I always considered that structure to be quite ugly inside and out. So long as Sibley Hall is not unduly harmed, however, I can live with Millstein Hall. The Architecture College needs the space, so I say let them build the ugly thing already.