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Cornell University Performing Arts Centre in Ithaca by Stirling and Wilford

A complex assemblage of bold forms acknowledges the various artifacts and icons of Ithaca’s campus infrastructure

First published in AR April 1984, this piece was republished online in August 2015

Most Americans have viewed the buildings of James Stirling only vicariously: through self-conscious lenses of journalists’ cameras, and idealistic lines of perspectives. The photographs and drawings showed how the buildings tantalised and titillated those who sought to represent them: the lean tower at Leicester would reflect the clouds toward which it seemed to aspire, while the window washers groomed its slick flanks; the line-drawn axonometric of the Cambridge History Faculty Building would be reduced to a delicate miniature on a field of black, the brawny, intricate teaching mechanism rendered as simple and chaste as a child’s toy.

Given such isolated views of Stirling’s buildings, Americans naturally tended to conclude that a Stirling building was marked by possessing either an egregiously monumental brutishness or an eccentric, if doddering, charm. Since it was the university buildings in particular which sponsored these apparently contradictory impressions, and since Stirling’s work has perhaps been most professed in America by those connected with universities, it is fortuitous that America will soon have enough of its own to allow for more comprehensive evaluations to be performed in the privacy of our own backyard.


Site plan

And the revised evaluations are already being made: the performances by James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates at Rice and Harvard already belie the ineffectiveness of interpreting these buildings as autonomous objects. The American university buildings demonstrate that the means for achieving contextual coherence are as varied as the contexts themselves, and that Stirling, Wilford, et al have no qualms about adjusting their modus operandi to fit the situation. The School at Rice, really an addition and remodelling, makes meticulous references to the substantive base of the university’s architecture, the work of Ralph Adams Cram. The building shows the freedom an architect can have, even when working within clearly mandated stylistic constraints; it succeeds without resorting to either slavish duplication or tiresome parody.

The Museum at Harvard, being an addition to the Fogg Museum only by virtue of its administrative connections and of the promise of a bridge connection, copes with the architectural museum that is Quincy Street by introducing yet another building paradigm. It is as if a slice of the extruded cascading stair which constitutes the museum’s northern neighbour, Gund Hall, were placed in the centre of an autonomous wrapper, which contains the building much as the wrapper to the south contains the Fogg. While specific elements of contextual compatibility are left to casual inferences, such as the street elevations’ oblique references to the polychromed roof of nearby Memorial Hall, the building makes itself ‘at home’ by being, in the end, a missing link (no pun intended) in an exercise which attempts to conceptually transform the Fogg into Gund Hall.


Sectional perspective through the foyer and that ‘lovely thing’ the loggia

The Performing Arts Center for Cornell University will be Stirling, Wilford & Associates’ next built opus in the United States. The complexities of the programme, the site, and the formal intricacies of the Cornell campus have combined to elicit what just might be that office’s most polemically-enriched academic building to date. Karl Baedeker, in his 1893 guide to ‘The United States with an Excursion into Mexico’, tells us that: ‘Ithaca … lies amid picturesque scenery at the head of Cayuga Lake and is best known as the seat of Cornell University, one of the leading colleges in America … The university is munificently endowed and its buildings, splendidly situated 400ft above the lake …, are handsome and capacious … The romantic gorges near Ithaca contain, perhaps, a greater number of pretty waterfalls and cascades than can be found in any equal area elsewhere.’

One can still see, as Baedeker saw, that the Cornell campus is not comprised of buildings which have individually achieved iconic status; instead, it is the balance of objects, spaces, and natural topography which co-operate in giving Cornell its unique aesthetic attraction. Two great parallel gorges do not just border the central campus, they firmly root the university into the entire Cayuga Valley. They provide the proper place for retreat, instilling a romantically picturesque counterpoint into the orthogonal, rational grid of the campus plan. And they provide a scale which can be reiterated in the campus’ primary space: the Arts Quadrangle, which is itself the university’s major spatial artifact.

Stirling & Wilford were given a site on the Cascadilla Gorge, just over the southern border of the main campus, to the east of the recently renovated Cascadilla dormitory, and at the beginning of the Collegetown commercial district. The programme, a centre for performing arts, is intended to provide quarters for those arts which can no longer be squeezed into Lincoln Hall, which is on the Arts Quadrangle. Beside the intrinsic organisational difficulties associated with such a programme, the architects were faced with the problem of reuniting the building with the rest of the campus - of making a conceptual leap over a rather formidable chasm.

And the solution succeeds. The Arts Quad (where music will continue to be housed) and the building site are connected by a slightly winding road, Central Avenue, which crosses the gorge to become College Avenue. While there is no official consistent stylistic vocabulary among the buildings which line this road - they do tend toward a loosely-ordered upstate New York Collegiate Gothic cum Romanesque - the buildings are all comprised of an assemblage of pieces. Each of the buildings faces at least one gabled roof end toward the road. All but two sport towers of some sort. Of the few buildings which do not conform to this formal paradigm, most are, interestingly enough, for the study of engineering. Stirling & Wilford, however, do recognise this phenomenon, and so are able to establish a conceptual bridge to the campus.


The assemblage of pieces used by Stirling & Wilford becomes the vehicle for resolving the Center’s formal and programmatic problems. The various pieces allow for the acknowledgment of the various artifacts and icons of the campus’ infrastructure: a loggia pays homage to the gorge; a kiosk addresses itself to the street while formalising a symmetry of sorts about a space in front of the Center; a gabled surface faces the street while another faces the gorge; and a ‘campanile’ sans bell rises from the midst of the masses. The individual elements of the assemblage appear to be determined by various reactions to the exigencies of the site, by typological responses intrinsic to the programmatic elements, and by shaping references to other projects by Stirling.

The ‘campanile’ is a case in point. It is one more in the campus’ collection of towers. It also marks the foyer at the building’s centre. Yet it is given a functional verisimilitude by being, for the most part, the elevator shaft. (The top of the tower, however, can only be interpreted for what it is: a pleasant flourish which may someday provide a roost for pigeons electrically and otherwise dissuaded from settling on other university buildings). But the tower also establishes the pedigree of the building: Stirling tends to monumentalise a building’s arcana, and the bevelled edges of the lantern are endemic to Stirling’s shaft /towers.

The element which is the most inspired in treatment is the loggia. It organises all the pieces while instituting an honorific front on the Cascadilla Gorge – a front which will entertain the first views of the building from the campus. The floor level of the loggia is held constant, reinforcing its conceptual autonomy while the ground plane drops away beneath it. The loggia is simultaneously a viewing platform for the gorge, a vestibule for the foyer, and a connection between the new plaza at College Avenue and Cascadilla Hall.

Yet, beyond the qualities endowed by placement, the genius of the loggia is in its details. Like the edges of the fair damsel’s smile, the ends of the loggia’s shed roof are lifted in demure acknowledgment of the profiles it presents to College Avenue and to Cascadilla Hall. These same end bays also serve to embrace the gorge: they initiate an interpretation of the loggia as the remaining fragment of a Roman court. The potency of the loggia more than compensates for the problems it causes by depriving the façade on the College Avenue plaza of its rightful function as entry. The loggia renders this façade largely a prop - not , perhaps, an inappropriate role to play in a performing arts centre (this is, after all , its function in the architects’ sectional perspective of the proscenium theatre). The loggia’s design strikes an ideal balance between an aloof allegiance to typology and a conscious responsiveness to context. Here one discovers how the typically abstract quality of a Stirling plan can be developed into an enriched architecture, uniting the context in which it is placed with the context it creates.


Final phase floor plans and section - click to expand

The other volumes of the assembled building – the proscenium theatre, the foyer, the theatrical support facilities, and the teaching block with the experimental theatre – are largely handicapped in achieving such a balance because of the programme requirement for an optional phasing proposal. With this proposal, the block between the plaza and the foyer is designated as Phase Two construction. Both phases will now be constructed together, but the unused phasing requirement has compromised the foyer block, which, although clearly an interstitial element in plan, is forced to present a façade in the direction of College Avenue. This compels the volumes to be autonomous entities, one manifestation of which is the peculiar roof resolution where the foyer block hits the scene shop. The proscenium theatre volume also displays little of the loggia’s balance between aloofness and consciousness: its elegant interior retains a typological purity fresh from the pages of Durand’s ‘Recueil et parallele’ or of Dumont’s ‘Parallele de plans des plus belles salles de spectacle.’ Yet, since a priority has been placed on the preservation of its formal virginity, the theatre volume is allowed little contamination in recognition of its context, resulting, for example, in an oddly constrained entry sequence.

The unity of the whole, however, is guaranteed by clever usage of materials on the building’s elevations. The horizontal courses of limestone and brick - the proportion of limestone to brick is a function of the various elevations’ amount of public display - belt together the Center’s disparate masses, refer to the materials of the neighbouring buildings (Sheldon Court and Cascadilla Hall), and reiterate the stratified rock of the gorge. The materials also associate the building with the architects’ museum in Stuttgart, which is in many ways a clear inversion of the Cornell Center: internalising its exterior spaces and public sequences, smoothing out its periphery while agitating its innards.

Performing Arts Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York State

Architects: James Sterling Michael Wilford & Assocaites

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