In the punishing history of higher education in architecture, the first decade of the 21st century may be remembered as something of a respite. This is not thanks to any maturation of a pedagogy in which the necessary routine of critique is all too often abused as an opportunity for ritual bullying.
It’s because drawing got more digital, and digital projectors got more affordable. A student narrating a slide presentation of computational renderings from the back of a cinematically darkened room stands shoulder to shoulder with his or her critics and colleagues, addressing the image of the work in collaboratively parallel gaze. The student’s back is neither figuratively nor literally up against the wall on which the paper (and the student, like a butterfly) is pinned. The darkness and displacement of a projected review eases the spatial positioning and social hierarchy that—in acute combination—have earned such crits, and their associated spaces, such nicknames as the Shooting Gallery, the Execution Chamber, and the Kill Floor.
Today, the new affordability of big, bright, liquid-crystal-display flat screens may be shifting the dynamic back, returning the student to the front of the room and the line of fire. This was the setup I saw during a recent visit to Milstein Hall, a $52 million, 47,000-square-foot addition to Cornell University’s College of Art, Architecture & Planning in Ithaca, N.Y., completed in October by Rem Koolhaas, Shohei Shigematsu, and Ziad Shehab of OMA. The addition incorporates the architecture school’s historic home in the scruffy but sturdily Sullivanesque Rand Hall, confirming the firm’s stated new interest in what Koolhaas, in a recent lecture at Cornell, called, “not-exactly-preservation, [and] in performance more than shape.”
The new addition features some 25,000 square feet of uninterrupted studio space in an airy Miesian box, about 150 feet wide, elevated and cantilevered 48 feet toward an adjacent gorge. This structure is supported largely by steel hybrid truss systems that appear to bulge blobbishly up from the seeming ground plane below, like a stray piece of late Corbusian roofscape. Those flat-screen crits take place in a circular arena directly inside the mound, the outer slopes of which accommodate the steep pitch of a 275-seat auditorium. Complex spatial overlaps, formal excisions, and glassy openings at the intersection of box and blob accommodate a constellation of primary circulation and secondary assembly and display spaces, as well as the many surprising oblique sight lines between them.
A student’s first clients are, conversationally and judgmentally, his or her teachers. And in this sense, to be commissioned to design an architecture school is to be sent back to the Kill Floor. This may explain why Milstein Hall looks a little like a student project with something to prove: a brilliant big idea, its resolutely off-the-shelf parts contrasting with feverishly fussy features. Consider the auditorium’s semi-robotic armchairs.
OMA’s usual jolie laide here becomes a kind of didactic precocity, as with the deep hybrid-Warren-and-Vierendeel trusses whose webs progressively tilt toward the studio box’s periphery to accommodate moment load—as if someone dropped the model on the way to the crit and decided it worked.
This back-to-school dynamic may also explain some of the troubled history of the Cornell project. It began with a 1997 reprimand from the National Architectural Accreditation Board for inadequate facilities, a 1999 gift of $10 million from developer Paul Milstein, and an aborted addition and renovation by Boston firm Schwartz/Silver Architects. There followed a competition to replace Rand Hall.
The contest garnered an icy palisade from Peter Zumthor and a lead zeppelin from Thom Mayne, FAIA, among other entries; Stephen Holl won in April 2001 with a $25 million incised cuboid. A year later, Holl was off the job, releasing a colorful statement that, “Like a brain surgeon operating on his own brain, making architecture for an architecture school is a peculiarly difficult challenge. I’ve been involved in the process of five different architecture schools over the past 13 years and believe it is one of the most difficult architectural commissions.”