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.
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.
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.
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.
More Photos of The Bloomberg Center, by Morphosis Architects:
More Photos of The Bridge, by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism:
More Photos of The House, by Handel Architects: