There followed an unbuilt and unlovable 2002 design by Barkow Leibinger Architects, a serviceable bar building in the vein of the industrial structures in which the then relatively obscure Berlin firm specialized. Even after the commission of Koolhaas in early 2006, all was not settled. OMA’s initial scheme underwhelmed both avant- and derrière-gardes, and its fate became embroiled in local and academic politics, with the usual questions of context and taste compounded by the effect on endowed institutions of the ongoing financial crisis. Only a further NAAB caution in 2008 and a dramatic university vote in early 2009 ultimately tipped the scales.
Cornell’s saga was perhaps unusually public, but not unusual: architecture-school buildings are legendarily tricky, suffering either from excessive effort, or recessive deference, by designers and clients. Where they succeed, it’s through monomaniacal zeal, as at Paul Rudolph’s Art+Architecture Building at Yale University, or serendipitous adaptive reuse of existing structures, as at London’s Architectural Association. Or at Cornell, strangely, through a touch of both.
In architecture, profession and academy are mutually complicit through the intricate politics of both as well as through the Beaux-Arts ideal of the atelier: architects of substance are generally expected to teach, and employees are, under internship and registration rubrics, expected to go on learning. And the schools are where, in Holl’s acute metaphor, architecture goes to perform brain surgery on itself.
Cornell occupies a notable position in the history of that surgery. It’s the home of the lively Cornell Journal of Architecture, recently revived; it’s the alma mater of Peter Eisenman, AIA, a prominent practitioner who is largely responsible for the consensus that architects, whatever else they’re guilty of, should think. (Or at least read.) Koolhaas himself, another noted architect-as-public-intellectual, famously studied there for a few semesters in 1972 and 1973, at the hands of Oswald Mathias Ungers, then department chair, and the canonical theorist Colin Rowe—whose own interests in urbanity and transparency became those of a generation of designers and critics.
During a recent walk around the new building, I asked Koolhaas what he learned as a student at Cornell. “I learned listening,” he said. He was referring to the philosopher Michel Foucault, who was visiting Cornell at the time when Koolhaas studied, at work on what would become his most directly architectural project, 1975’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a study of the spatial structures of power (and vice versa), that featured the Panopticon prison of Jeremy Bentham.
Asked later what Cornell’s current students might have learned during his return, Koolhaas speculated that they may have been reminded that “they’re on ground where warfare has been played out.” He was referring not to the usual skirmishes of construction management, but to Cornell’s own past, during his student semesters, as a cauldron of architectural discourse and discord—largely between Ungers’s maddening method and Rowe’s methodical madness.
At its rare best, the violence at any architecture school reflects these moments of theoretical urgency and anxiety in the field. The intimacy and immediacy of design teaching enlists students, in a glorious absence of condescension, into the essential battles of their day. At its very worst, this violence turns a school into a prison worthy of Foucault: an isolated and self-regarding enclosure that enforces habitual hierarchy and ritual conformity; that reinforces the great embarrassments of a profession whose offices are known for their screamers and chest-beaters. In this sense, Koolhaas may have given Cornell a building to live up to—as the subversive subtleties of its section continually offer its students a means of spectacular or speculative escape and escapade, a means for bearing witness and listening in, a means for experiencing adjacent events and outside worlds.
It’s a built form of accountability: that central circular crit space, lined by LCD-screens and students, could easily have become a prison yard like that of the Arnhem Koepel Panopticon prison in the Netherlands speculatively renovated by OMA in 1980. But to lean your back against its wall is to liberatingly occupy sight lines to simultaneous spaces and events, from the familiar luminous ceiling of the studio glimpsed through a stairwell, to the nearby skateboarder enjoying the slope outside. It is to experience something of a heteropticon or peripateticon, in which moving eyes and feet on nearby bridge and stair and elevator all offer felicitous encounter and interrupting incident.
Milstein Hall invites the notion that architecture is, in our current political language, more occupation than discipline. The building enables, perhaps demands, a transparency of action and an urbanity of event that would gratify both Foucault and Rowe. As both would attest, the names that we give places matter. It’s encouraging that during their first fall there, students have dubbed a favorite pin-up spot, perched at the far edge of a cantilever under the moody Ithaca sky, not a familiar architecture-school nickname borrowed from the language of incarceration, but something altogether lovelier: the Dance Floor.