Milstein Hall OMA

Ten years after Paul Milstein donated $10 million for a new addition to the Cornell Arts and Architecture building, and following a limited competition won by Steven Holl, Cornell has finally completed the addition to their Arts and Architecture building after having settled on OMA as their architect after stints with both Steven Holl and Barkow Leibinger.

i haven't yet visited the new facility, but intend to do so in the near future and add my own photos.  My initial impression is that this is wonderful architecture and as good as anything OMA / Rem Koolhaas has produced to date, and a lively yet sensitive addition to the Cornell campus and, most importantly, the Cornell Arts Quad, one of the most interesting college quadrangles in the country.

North end of the Arts Quad, with Sibley to the right.

The Arts Quad sits high on shelf near the top of a hill overlooking Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.  Like most traditional American college quads, it began as a series of buildings in a row, outside of town, that evolved into a grouping of buildings enclosing a large green.  The Cornell quad has large trees scattered about, and the buildings are far enough apart and the relationships between them such that space flows through the quad, much like a traditional New England town center green.  Sibley Hall, the Architecture building, sits at one end of the quad and is especially active in promoting the Arts Quad as a flowing, active space rather than a captured, static space, which you can get a sense of in the plan below:

Sibley in red, Rand in orange

Sibley Hall

The dominant feature of Sibley Hall is the central cubic volume topped with a dome.  It's now such a hallmark of Sibley that it's hard to imagine the quad without the Sibley dome at the north end, just off center, terminating the long green axis in a nudge to the east.  Yet there was a time when the dome wasn't part of the composition.  Originally, the north end of the Quad saw only what we now perceive as the wings of the dome, with a space between what was then East Sibley and West Sibley.  It wasn't until 1902 that the cubic auditorium and museum (now administrative offices) were built, tying the 2 wings together and creating a central, commanding presence on the Quad.  Somewhat paradoxically, and perhaps harkening to its engineering school origins, it's the very formal geometrically disciplined composition of the Sibley dome, a circle set within a square, a dome within a cube, that is set off axis of the Quad, creating the wonderful spacial effect of leaking the space out of the Quad and initiating movement across the gorge to the north campus.

The new Milstein Hall ingeniously comments on the Sibley history and it's role in the making of the modern Arts Quad.  It also behaves itself when it has to, not interrupting the flow of space along the face of Sibley out of the Quad, but aligning itself with Sibley on the south face while creating a new facade and gateway of sorts for those entering the Quad from the north.

Milstein as new entrance to Quad

Just as the Sibley dome filled in the interstitial space between two existing buildings to create a new center, so too does the new Milstein Hall, and does so using some of the same tools as the original Sibley dome, though in very different, modern, ways.  The two buildings now in question are Sibley Hall and the Architecture annex of studios in Rand Hall, an early 20th century industrial building with large steel windows where all the undergraduate architecture studios were housed, and lots of interesting undergraduate friskiness occured.  Most of the proposals from the other firms that have worked on this addition have razed Rand Hall, and one has to credit OMA for seeing the opportunity presented by keeping the structure just as it is.  

Insertion 1, Context, Insertion 2
The backside of Sibley has always been a backside, for many years the parking lot for the Arts and Architecture buildings, though it faces one of Cornell's great assets, the Fall Creek Gorge.  Milstein Hall now occupies that rear space, and does so in a way that extends the reach of the Arts Quad out behind Sibley, terminating it with the old sculpture foundry building (c 1860's).  In this sense, the Milstein addition is working within the interstitial space of 3 buildings, knitting them together as they have never been, and extending the space of the Quad to the edge of the Fall Creek Gorge, as you can see in the model below.

Rear view showing roof of Milstein terminating at the sculpture foundry.

Milstein and the old Foundry; Foundry becomes a Milstein elevation when seen from beneath the slab. 

i think many have questioned the space beneath the new Milstein, thinking of other modern attempts to glide cantilevers over the ground plane, often resulting in a dark and unpleasant space for the observer.  i don't think this will be the result here, and even if it is, i don't think it will be without having been considered.  Beneath the central dome and cubic volume of Sibley is a basement space that one enters from the Quad by going down a few steps.  This space is home to the Green Dragon, a cafe and meeting place for generations of art and architecture students (free coffee!).  It is a dark space with a low ceiling, very basement like, and cherished for its underground quality and murals of dragons past.  It has often been understood as an extension of the space of the Quad, as the windows sit at ground level, so that as one sits in the Dragon, gazing out the windows, one is viewing the ground plane of the Quad.  

As i've said above, Milstein Hall is in one way a reenactment of Sibley Hall.  The main difference in Act II is that Milstein has taken the central cubic volume of Sibley Hall and inverted it.  The dome is now an object sitting beneath a square volume of space that houses the studios and ties together the 3 buildings.  That the space beneath the square and around the "dome" has similarities to the Dragon can't be avoided; its a modern interpretation of course, as the space isn't a confined one, and its not literally a basement; its the ground plane, activated by the perversely subterranean dome.

N-S Section

View from the Dome, with Foundry beyond, not so unlike a Green Dragon.

Lower Level

Ground Level

Upper Level (Studio's)

Spacial link between Quad and north side of Sibley/gorge.

Rand Hall and new date.

Milstein and Foundry

Dome peek a boo

Bicycles parked alongside dome as if preparing for X-games.  Youth references abound.

Hard to see, but some y'onions are perched up top.  One of them lost grip on her cellphone and the sound of it sliding all the way down the dome could be heard throughout.  This space is a natural hangout.  It both declares itself apart and of the old man to the left.  You can bet which choice the kids will make.

View from opposite end.  i enjoyed the "tin" ceilings, a ubiquitous feature of these parts.

Mr. Sibley, meet Mr. Milstein..


As discussed, Milstein is a building with many interesting qualities, as are many others on the planet.  But this project goes a step further as the new home to the Architecture school at Cornell.  This building is a pedagogical player, behind the professors and fellow students, and as such has so many things to say about the profession and where it finds itself early in this century.  How does one make use of existing facilities while proposing new ones?  How does one add on to an existing building, respecting both history and this modern age?  What role does detail play in the language of building?  How does structure integrate itself into built form, or not?  How does one heat and cool a building dominated by glass walls?  The building doesn't always provide answers to its questions, but thats the point.

i found many lessons being given during my visit.
Entry level

Looking back at main entrance.  Interesting spandrel solution, if you can afford it.

Slab system intersection with dome

Studio level

The view from Rand, through Milstein.

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