View of campus looking north, with Manhattan's Upper East Side to the left.
Iwan Baan View of campus looking north, with Manhattan's Upper East Side to the left.

A fabulous green caterpillar about the size and shape of a Vienna sausage crawled across a patch of freshly-laid mulch in one of the garden enclosures of the Cornell Tech campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Architect Ung Joo Scott Lee, AIA, of Los Angeles and New York–based Morphosis Architects spotted it inching along and stopped to gawk: “Talk about green design,” he said.

Badoom-ching. Actually, the presence of the little beast seemed a favorable omen for the project, a twelve-acre compound whose first three buildings—from Morphosis, as well as local firms Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism and Handel Architects respectively—are now open for academic business. “The idea is to draw you in,” says Andrew Winters, Cornell Tech’s director of technical operations. On what has long been one of the most desolate stretches of one of Gotham’s most desolate districts, Cornell Tech has at last managed to bring back a little life.

The Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech, designed by Morphosis Architects
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis The Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech, designed by Morphosis Architects

Green, in the strictly ecological sense, is indeed the theme of the campus, originally a project of the Bloomberg mayoralty with a master plan created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Located on the northern end of a site that is expected to see further development in future, all three buildings in the completed first phase are remarkable for their environmental bona fides—each is aiming to hit net-zero energy, LEED, or Passive House standards in its own right, and extensive rooftop solar arrays contribute to the energy production on-site. The structures are also complementary in their physical footprints: the Morphosis and Weiss/Manfredi buildings angle away from each other to shelter a generous public greenspace (designed by New York’s James Corner Field Operations) between them, while the looming 350-unit residential tower stands off politely to the northeast corner, giving the others room to breathe.

The Bridge, a new research and development facility at Cornell Tech, designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism.
Iwan Baan The Bridge, a new research and development facility at Cornell Tech, designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism.

In other respects, however, the buildings are markedly different. Weiss/Manfredi’s building, The Bridge, is about “taking all the Silicon Valley spread and sprawl, and putting it in one 235,000 square-foot building,” says Marion Weiss, FAIA. Glassy and studiedly neutral in is rhetoric, it houses a combination of public facilities and offices for tech companies expected to draw from the vibrant innovative energy of the surrounding school. Morphosis’ net-zero-targeting, P/A Award-winning Bloomberg Center, by contrast, is solely given over to classroom spaces, and its exuberant quasi-biomorphic form is sheathed in a shimmering cladding of perforated metal. The residential high-rise is by far the most understated of the three, and extremely conventional in outline—a typical tower block—but has perhaps the most sophisticated mechanical plant of the group. Handel’s senior associate Deborah Moelis, AIA, notes that the structure is “the first of its kind,”—according to the architects, it’s the largest residential building in the world to meet Passive House standards, with energy savings of 60 percent or better over comparable structures.

The House residence hall at Cornell Tech, designed by Handel Architects.
Field Condition The House residence hall at Cornell Tech, designed by Handel Architects.

Originally home to the city’s 19th-century Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island has always had the peculiar distinction of being in the center of everything and yet in the middle of nowhere, a big blank canvas just begging for someone to swing over from nearby Manhattan and fill it in. A few have tried: Philip Johnson devised a master plan in the 1970’s, but it was never quite realized, and most recent development has been ad hoc and lacking in a cogent sense of urbanity. Cornell Tech still seems like yet another add-on; but given time, and with increasing foot traffic, the campus promises to make the narrow strip of land finally feel like a part of the city, a welcoming space for New Yorkers of all shapes, sizes, colors—and species.

View of the new Cornell Tech campus from the west, with the Bloomberg Center in the foreground.
Iwan Baan View of the new Cornell Tech campus from the west, with the Bloomberg Center in the foreground.

More Photos of The Bloomberg Center, by Morphosis Architects:

The south façade of the Bloomberg Center, showing the building's perforated metal cladding and rooftop solar canopy.
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis The south façade of the Bloomberg Center, showing the building's perforated metal cladding and rooftop solar canopy.
Bloomberg Center Lobby
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis Bloomberg Center Lobby
The ground floor of the Bloomberg Center, with break-out spaces for students.
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis The ground floor of the Bloomberg Center, with break-out spaces for students.
Bloomberg Center interior.
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis Bloomberg Center interior.

More Photos of The Bridge, by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism:

The daylit lobby of The Bridge.
Iwan Baan The daylit lobby of The Bridge.
A study and break-out space in The Bridge.
Iwan Baan A study and break-out space in The Bridge.
Exterior view of The Bridge at dusk.
Iwan Baan Exterior view of The Bridge at dusk.


More Photos of The House, by Handel Architects:

An amenity space for students on the 26th floor of The House at Cornell Tech, with views of the Manhattan skyline.
Iwan Baan An amenity space for students on the 26th floor of The House at Cornell Tech, with views of the Manhattan skyline.
Exterior view of The House, by Handel Architects, at dusk, with a corner of The Bridge, by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, at right.
Iwan Baan Exterior view of The House, by Handel Architects, at dusk, with a corner of The Bridge, by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, at right.