Each spring, Cornell University’s freshman architecture and engineering students duke it out on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus—with makeshift constructions that liken mythical creatures crafted out of readily available materials provided by their departments. This tradition, which goes back more than 100 years, is “Dragon Day.”
The event's history can be traced back to 1901, when freshman architecture student Cornellian Willard Dickerman Straight thought that the university should dedicate a day to the celebration of architecture. A known prankster, the audacious academic picked St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, for the first iteration of what would become an annual event. Decorating Lincoln Hall, which formerly housed the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the students hung several green and orange banners (the colors symbolic of Irish cultural and religious heritage), along with shamrocks and other thematic decorations.
Although the exact date of the first contemporary Dragon Day is a bit muddled, many records point to sometime between 1897 and 1901, or the years where Will Straight was still at Cornell. The parade eventually transformed into a kind of initiation for architecture students. At its conclusion, the students would burn the dragon in the Arts Quad—just how this came to be is unknown. Although starting a fire today is banned, students have found loopholes to maintain the custom, such as parading the project around the grounds of the campus, donning colorful costumes, and integrating paint guns and bubble blowers. It is now held on the Friday before Spring Break, which is often the week of St. Patrick's Day, but not the case for 2016. This year it was commenced at 1 p.m., on Friday, March 25, kicking off the students' week-long vacation.
Each year’s theme is unique and is determined by Cornell’s architecture students. “The first thing we do as a group is to choose a theme for the dragon,” says freshman student Kayra Cengiz, who is in charge of advertising for the event. “This year we chose ‘rebirth.’ Since Dragon Day is part of a long tradition, we thought rebirth would be a nice variation on last year’s theme, which was “doomsday.”
Appearance is a key way students today want to differentiate themselves from previous generations. According to freshman Silvia Galdamex, the co-president of Dragon Day, “This year’s dragon has many moving parts and will look different from what people have come to expect. We are avoiding black—architects’ favorite color—and the color will appear to change when you see the light reflecting off the dragon at different angles.” Photos from the event show this year’s construction featuring several broken, geometric shapes that follow in a continuous form, swathed in an iridescent material that reflects jewel tones when light hits it.
Now, instead of sacrificing the dragon in a mock effigy, the architecture and engineering students duel for dominance within the campus’s Arts Quad. This rivalry, which is friendlier now but has not always been, is said to have been borne from the engineering students' dissatisfaction that they didn't have a day for themselves, according to Cornell University’s website. While the architects build a dragon, the engineers construct another animal, such as a cobra, a penguin, or even a phoenix. This year, they contributed a brightly colored red and orange phoenix with open wings. Another participant was the university's physics department, which contributed a unicorn colored in shades of lavender.
Dragons Day's novelty comes from its element of surprise—which current students also revel. Although much of the folklore surrounding the event cannot be easily traced, participants say that just adds to the fun.