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Cornell Tech's new NYC campus puts sustainable architecture into practice

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A look at the new, $2 billion campus that’s set to transform Roosevelt Island

Iwan Baan

“How much does your house weigh?”

That was the question Buckminster Fuller used to ask in the 1920s when marketing his Dymaxion House, a 3,000-pound, circular, mass-producible, affordable, and environmentally-responsible house way ahead of its time. The line, later adapted for the title of a documentary about Norman Foster, a Fuller enthusiast, has become shorthand for a different kind of thinking—technological, industrial, radical—around architecture. Fuller turned his back on 150 tons of brick and right angles in favor of an evaluation method copped from the world of transportation.

I was reminded of this Fuller quote as I toured the three new buildings on Roosevelt Island, officially opening today, that make up the 12-acre campus of Cornell Tech. Those structures include the Morphosis-designed Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, an academic building named for the daughters of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy gave the applied sciences graduate school $100 million in 2015. The Bridge, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, is a seven-story “co-location” building intended to bring entrepreneurs to academia, and vice versa; while The House, by Handel Architects, is a 26-story, 350-unit dormitory for students, staff, and faculty that also happens to be the world’s largest Passive House building. (The fact that all three buildings are opening at the same time and on schedule gives me nostalgia for Bloomberg-era competence.)

On my tour, with the architects stacked back-to-back, a half hour per building, Michael Manfredi remarked that it felt a bit like a school science fair. At every turn, they spouted numbers:

40, 60, 1,465, 0

Forty percent of the surface at the 160,000-square-foot Bloomberg Center is transparent, 60 percent opaque, wrapped in an exterior “jacket” of insulation and greenish-copper aluminum that I wouldn’t mind wearing as a parka. On its roof, a curvy canopy of 1,465 photovoltaic panels generate energy and shade the building in order to allow it to reach net-zero status. Morphosis principal Thom Mayne originally called the array the “lilypad,” and it maintains a hint of that curvaceous shape, jutting out beyond the edges of his sleek and shiplike building.

40, 60, 5, 24,000

The Bridge, while it looks glassy, also adheres to the 40 percent window, 60 percent wall ratio, hiding five-foot-tall ribbons of insulation behind a continuous surface. On its roof, a 24,000-square-foot checkerboard trellis with more PV cells doubles as a spectacular party space.

882, 9, 36, 8, 13

The House’s super-sealed exterior, created from prefabricated 9-by-36-foot panels with eight to 13 inches of insulation is projected to save 882 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Screens on the first floor will show you how much energy the building has saved today, the architectural equivalent of a FitBit, and murals by Charles Lindsay on the elevator core depict carbon molecules in extreme closeup.

The café at the Bloomberg Center.
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis


Even the art is numerical: on the first floor of the Bloomberg Center, which dedicated one percent of its budget to a series of site-specific installations. In the café, an ocean of tiny text from the 1962 book The Art of Computer Programming covers the ceilings and the laminate tops of the tables. The “o”s and the “l”s are enlarged, and look like the 1s and 0s of codes swimming up to the surface. Artist Michael Reidel wanted to apply them to the café’s trays, too. In the four-story atrium, Matthew Ritchie has covered the glass walls with a visual history of diagrams—hoping to entice the students to add their own.

6, 500

These buildings wear their sustainability on their sleeves, and especially in this late summer of high winds and high waters, the methods used to make this peninsular campus low-impact and highly sustainable are to be applauded. The gentle slope up from street level at the northwest corner of the site masks a six-foot berm, created by Skidmore Owings & Merrill as part of the site’s master plan, which put all of the buildings well above the 500-year flood plain. The city mandated that 20 percent of the site be open space, down to the generous width of the walkways between buildings. The landscape, by James Corner Field Operations, is all native plants, with minimal grass and lots of absorbent rock gardens. The southern half of the site, to be developed between now and 2027, has been covered in turf for the opening. (Andrew Winters, senior director of capital projects for Cornell Tech, assures me that will be wildflowers, not golf course.)

But numbers can’t tell the entire story. The best case scenario is that these numerical goals spur architects to rethink certain contemporary architectural tics, and to demonstrate that sustainability can go hand in hand with design variety. A more sustainable architecture requires choices that affect aesthetics—lots of money spent underground on geothermal wells, or undercover on superthick insulation—but need not supersede or undermine them. If glass walls don’t work, fine and good: Do we really need a city with more glass walls? I’m tired of the canard that transparency, in the form of doorless expanses of glass, can equal openness. And I’m more interested in how the buildings feel, after the spreadsheets have been balanced, than in dwelling on the efforts required to get there. I don’t think that’s shallow, but progressive: Now that we know how to make a net zero building, how can we make them more than an engineering puzzle?

Of the three buildings at Cornell Tech, the Bloomberg Center does the best job of brushing away limitations. The color palette is almost relentlessly white and gray, giving the long open office floors a cool northern light akin to a painting studio. A broad lateral staircase invites walking and, combined with daylit hallways and glass skywalks, should foster those creative collisions tech folks like to fetishize.

The awkward elements in the design are those that seem like holdovers from other Morphosis projects: the four-story atrium just past the turnstiles is a shadow of the giant steps at his Cooper Union building, and too narrow for its height. Will people use the gymnastic staircase that bulges out from above the entrance as more than a marker, when the interior stairs are so much more integrated? At the southern end, over the café, the Bloomberg Center bursts into exuberant and unnecessary Mayne-isms: a projecting roof, a mystery void, assorted ins and outs. I would have let the spiny staircase be the only alien bursting through the sleek box, but maybe Morphosis clients feel robbed without such flourishes.

The Bloomberg Center.
Matthew Carbone for Morphosis

Weiss / Manfredi probably had the most difficult task of the architects employed on the island, coming up with an expression for a building whose purpose is still aborning. Cornell Tech classrooms and teaching studios occupy 30 percent of the space in the Bridge, a co-development by the school and Forest City Ratner: mostly large, amphitheater-like classrooms in the bottom half, finished with touches of the team’s signature red (all the more noticeable after the Bloomberg Center’s monochrome). The rest of the building is a co-location facility: rentable, raw office space for companies—leaseholders ranging from Citigroup to Two Sigma to Ferrero International, so far—who see a benefit in proximity to Cornell Tech.

Historically, such companies snapped up square footage in former industrial warehouses in places like Dumbo, so what the architects of the new building needed to supply was column-free floors, with as many corner offices as possible, mixing space in the middle. Their building looks like that diagram: two prisms, linked by a “bridge” of hallway and meeting rooms that will be shared by the building’s tenants. The various points and promontories were sculpted to create views of both sides of the river. In the building’s current empty state the gymnastics feel, literally, like an empty branding exercise, with an outline ideal for transformation into a graphic identity. Future tenants might prefer less architecture, in the industrial mode, or interiors more shaped to their particular purpose.

The Bridge
Iwan Baan

In March, traveling north on the FDR Drive, I snapped a picture of The House at Cornell Tech, Handel Architects’ graduate dormitory for the school which is, at 26 stories, the largest residential Passive House building in the world. “The Cornell Tech tower next to the Queensboro Bridge is so blah,” I wrote, opening myself up for three days of passivhausplanation which boils down to: It doesn’t matter how it looks, it matters how it performs. Many assumed that I could not get over the solid-to-glass ratio, as if architecture critics only love glass towers. (PSA: We write about what the architecture profession gives us.)

To which I say: Can’t we have both? The House is not an offensive building. Narrow in footprint, with inset horizontal gray bands containing the windows, and a vertical “zipper” above the front door that is actually the louvers for the air-conditioning system. You would hardly notice it among other towers, or in a landscape of other tan-and-beige masonry buildings. The crisply detailed, well-organized, and well-lit rooms are probably enough to sell other universities on passive house construction for their dorms. I liked the Muji-esque furniture designed by Handel Architects and custom-made by LacquerCraft much better than the chunky wood furniture recently seen in other dorms.

The 26th floor Amenity Space at The House.
Iwan Baan

But this passive house has been given a spectacular site, next to the longest span over the East River, in the middle of New York City. Its new neighbors—including a hotel and an executive education center designed by Snohetta, coming in 2019—have been designed at peak of contemporary architectural style while fulfilling their energy imperatives. The panelized construction, 9-by-36 foot panels constructed offsite, for maximum quality control, would seem to offer infinite possibility in terms of color and finish. The horizontal bands seem designed out of a fear that the windows would look too small, but I think a punched grid of rectangles could have had a more distinctive, even retro, look in a facade made in a distinctive color or metallic finish.

When I previewed the masterplan for the campus in 2012, my primary concern was its public-ness. Collaborative workspace, dot-com incubators, high-rise dorms: These are all very nice for the people with badges, but how would the campus work for the rest of us? The location alone exuded ambivalence about New York; Roosevelt Island has long been a neighborhood apart, even though it is the city’s most accessible island save Manhattan. (Cornell rejected two of the other sites offered by the city in the original 2011 Request for Proposals, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Governors Island, for limited transit access. Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, NYU, and Stanford also put in bids for a campus.) It’s so quick to get there on the F I have to remind myself not to miss the stop and end up in Queens.

Weeks before the official opening on September 13, it was clear that the public had, in fact, discovered their new public space. Tables inside and outside the Bloomberg Center café held chatting groups, not all of whom were centered around the petals of students’ open laptops. (Freelancers, get on it.) A mother with a stroller rolled smoothly up the hill along Techwalk, a generously sized pedestrian thoroughfare. Cars are banished to the public streets at the periphery, and there’s almost no campus parking. Winters pointed to the transparent end of the Morphosis building, where a pointed overhang shades a set of public seats, with Wi-Fi, as the first of a series of calculated, welcoming moves.

Cornell Tech Campus.
Iwan Baan

I’d dispute whether a prow can ever be welcoming, and transparency without access is often merely frustrating. But there is no giant sign, no hovering security guard. Snohetta’s future hotel, on the other side of the path, should have a visible front door because right now you can’t see any way to get in. In renderings, the hotel tower comes down to the corner on V-shaped legs, creating a covered portico that curves around toward a raised patio. I want a Saarinen-esque awning, a bright yellow door that says, Welcome! The masterplan has all the buildings’ doors opening off a circle further up the path, which may be discouraging to the uninitiated.

Once you’re in, though, you’re in. Besides the café in the Bloomberg Center, there will eventually be a second dining spot in the Bridge, as well as some retail (likely a bookstore). The ground outside the Bridge has been stepped to create an amphitheater that matches one inside that building’s lobby, which will be open to the public. Terraces that step up a full story will be outfitted with tables and banquettes, with power outlets and wifi, and anyone can sit there and gaze at the view of Manhattan. When the floors inside both buildings are full, the public may have to jostle for a spot, but for the time being it should be a paradise of well-lit and well-caffeinated third space.

The sooner the public spreads out in the available open space, the better, as far as I am concerned: stake out your territory now, before the buildings fill up with paying students and paying tenants. Buildings that sustain a city both give and take, with palpable generosity that goes beyond the numbers.