OMA’s cantilever at Cornell University elegantly connects the historic Rand and Sibley halls
The university campus often acts as a magnet for starchitects ready to partake in a faintly ridiculous orgy of icon-making revelry. Cornell University, however - in particular its arts facilities - has adopted a more considered approach. The story of the campus is less one of individual icons but rather a holistic balance of objects and spaces dramatically positioned between two gorges. As well as its 19th-century gems, IM Pei’s 1973 Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art stands resolutely Goldfinger-esque just off the Arts Quad, and Stirling and Wilford’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts across Cascadilla Creek is a joyful conglomerate of bold forms.
OMA’s 2011 Milstein Hall is even closer to Cornell’s heritage, sitting behind the Neoclassical Sibley Hall - with its distinctive meringue dome - on the north side of the Arts Quad, a short distance from the original ‘stone row’, a series of Second Empire siltstone buildings along its western edge. Early Cornell professor Goldwin Smith claimed of the stone row set that ‘nothing can redeem them but dynamite’: OMA’s response is far less dramatic, but preferable - peek around the corner of Sibley’s eastern wing and the glass box Milstein Hall can be seen abutting its side.
‘A series of dramatic “urban rooms” articulate the relationship between the original halls and their new mediator’
Rem Koolhaas led the Milstein project with partner Shohei Shigematsu, who cut his teeth on the cancelled Whitney Museum extension project - the antithesis to Renzo Piano’s recent ‘anti-icon’ (AR September 2015) - as well as the CCTV ‘big underpants’ headquarters. You’d be forgiven for being slightly apprehensive upon hearing he was to grapple with Cornell University’s heritage, but Milstein Hall stands as a lesson in characteristic OMA pragmatism: a simple, elevated box with a more expressive, undulating beneath devoted to the connection of two existing halls.
Occupying what was previously a car park, Milstein Hall hugs Sibley and touches Rand Hall at first-floor level, simultaneously forging a connection between the two while in between providing 25,000 square feet of open studio space above a 250-seat auditorium. A trademark OMA cantilever stretches out across University Avenue towards the Foundry, creating a gateway into what OMA propose could become a larger masterplan sweeping along the north side of the quad.
Underneath this drive-through gateway, a series of dramatic ‘urban rooms’ articulate the relationship between the original halls and their new mediator. The concrete ‘hump’, alluding to Sibley’s dome, houses a large crit space while serving the dual purpose of housing stairs up onto the studio plate and the raked seating of the auditorium above. Inside the studio space, Milstein’s truss structure gives as much open space as possible for the students to fill with the accoutrements of an architecture school - they have also proven useful for the hanging of hammocks, although the 12-foot high glass band facade makes all of those long nights visible to the public.
Refreshingly, Milstein Hall makes no attempt to emulate its surroundings, nor bombastically subvert them or redress their shortcomings. It is a modern insertion, certainly, but one that devotes itself to and in many ways defers to its older surroundings, preserving not only their physical structure but the daily life that moves through them.
Milstein Hall, University Ithaca
Architect: OMA (Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas in collaboration with associate Ziad Shehab) Architect of record KHA Architects, LLC
Structural engineer: Robert Silman Associates
Photographs: Philippe Ruault, Iwan Baan