Crit> Milstein Hall
Thomas de Monchaux considers Koolhaas' new architecture school at Cornell University.
The 50-foot cantilever gestures aggressively toward a campus building and a ravine beyond.
Courtesy Cornell University

Venture far enough Upstate, and you find dragons. In one of the very few endearing rituals of higher education in architecture, students at Cornell’s College of Architecture in Ithaca, New York, have for a century constructed a life-size facsimile of that mythical species, paraded it through campus, given it impossible political and conceptual causes (like Prohibition and Vietnam), and submitted it to critical attack from rival engineers and the similarly cautious- or caustic-minded. And then, of course, set it on fire.

Much the same routine seems to have been applied to the construction of a new building for the architecture school itself, which—since a 1997 National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) reprimand for sub-par facilities and a 1999 $10 million gift from developer Paul Milstein—has seen a procession of luminously scaly and steely possibilities come and go, each one immolated in a familiar pyre of cost, taste, and politics of the most local and academical kind. To wit, after an aborted addition/renovation project by Boston’s Schwartz/Silver Architects, an international competition in 2001 brought forth a cubist airship from Thom Mayne, a boxy palisade from Peter Zumthor, an idea of typical elegance from Williams & Tsien, and a $25 million proposal from Stephen Holl, the then-winner, to entirely replace the school’s historical home with a very big, very shiny glass-and-aluminum cuboid.

The concrete-domed crit and gallery space can be divided to accommodate several meetings.
Courtesy Cornell University (left) and Philippe Ruault (right)

That particular creature was slain a year later in what Holl colorfully characterized to Architectural Record as, “unresolvable dialogue [akin to] a brain surgeon operating on his own brain, making architecture for an architecture school.” Next up was the November 2002 commission of the small and relatively obscure Berlin firm Barkow Leibinger, who proposed a long bar building in the pragmatic vein of the technical and industrial projects in which they specialize. That died a few years later, possibly due to an incurable pizazz-deficiency. By January 2006, the school had turned to that familiar white knight, Rem Koolhaas of OMA, (who famously studied at Cornell in 1972), to get the job done.

But all was not happy ever after. The NAAB returned in 2008 to bark further disapproval. OMA’s initial 2007 scheme, a ponderous floating box of, what Koolhaas later called “universal space” extending towards an adjacent ravine and cheekily peeking into the rustic-gothic quadrangle opposite, had not met with much acclaim from high-octane critics or from campus locals shocked by the new. Efforts by the latter constituency to stymie approvals and delay construction, coinciding with the grim endowment effects of the ongoing 2008 economic collapse and the debatable wisdom of proceeding with big-time starchitecture at that moment, seemed almost, by February 2009, to result in yet another immolation.

Left to right: University Avenue passes below Milstein's cantilever; the new building contrasts with the existing campus; inside studio space.
Philippe Ruault

And yet, a few years, 47,000 square feet, and some $50 million later, here it is: the dragon who lived. That glassy box of formerly universal space, trimmed by Koolhaas in collaboration with design partner Shohei Shigematsu, provides 25,000 square feet of airily uninterrupted studio space. Its cantilever stretches some 50 feet toward the neighboring ravine and is supported by a bulging cast-in-place concrete hillock—a touch of early Niemeyer or late Saarinen. During a recent tour, Koolhaas referred to the “seeming simplicity of the box and the actual complexity of the section,” in which the above-and-below surfaces of the low concrete dome, along with the various excisions, overlaps, and folds where it encounters the studio box, to produce elements of auditorium, lobby, critique space, and various bravura stairs and bridges in a kind of frozen maelstrom of conspiring curves and oblique sightlines.

Courtesy OMA

The effect is of late Mies squishing into late Corb. Or perhaps of an egg-slicer just starting to flay an egg. It recalls the slab-and-slope game at the briefly canonical 1997 Villa VPRO by OMA’s satellite MVRDV, which itself deployed Koolhaas’ earlier work in Utrecht and elsewhere. Willful gestures of seemingly laconic practicality—such as the progressive tilt of columns that accommodates increasing moment force toward the perimeter of the cantilevered studio space—provide the necessary delirium. A visibly value-engineered restraint in details is countered by gorgeously gratuitous gadgetry like Ian-Fleming-worthy auditorium-floor trapdoor-armchairs, or by marble where Mies would demand metal. This conspiracy of constraint and conceit seems just right for an architecture school.

In an October 21 lecture timed to the building’s more-or-less opening for the Fall 2011 semester, Koolhaas aligned the project with a “new generation of work [for OMA], a new focus of the office on not-exactly-preservation, in performance more than shape,” grouping it with recent work for Quebec’s Beaux Arts Museum and London’s New Court Rothschild Bank. These projects similarly and skillfully weave into existing fabric and view sheds, deploying similarly economical but expressive tectonics of big-time trusses, glass walls, and inhabitable concrete slabs. It’s a slightly chastened affect for an office not known for such things, visible in the sober decision to meaningfully integrate Cornell’s original architecture school building, the homely but homey Rand Hall, and the resulting dash of mystery. It demonstrates that OMA’s principal, despite having his flashiest moment behind him, and despite the nimble little rivals under his feet, is—unlike so many celebrated architects of his generation—not yet a calcified member of that other dragonishly out-of-time species, the dinosaur.

Thomas de Monchaux