A little more than ten years ago, Cornell University launched a Computing and Information Sciences (CIS) program. Its purpose is to meld technical and social intellectual approaches in a single department dedicated to developing innovative solutions to complicated problems. Administratively, CIS brought together three disparate but complementary disciplines: computer science, information science, and statistics. Physically, however, these fields continued to operate from separate facilities both spread throughout the Cornell Campus, as well as in rented office space in downtown Ithaca, New York. In order to create a truly cohesive culture for this otherwise balkanized program Cornell needed a new building designed for its particular needs.
Los Angeles–based Morphosis, which also has an office in New York City, delivered a 100,000-square-foot, five-story building that is currently completing construction on the corner of Campus and Hoy roads, directly adjacent to the Cornell Big Red’s baseball diamond. While in essence a simple, efficient, rectangular plan and elevation, the design features several elements—including a twisting stainless steel sun screen and a protruding arm of the upper floors hovering above the main entrance—that make it an unmistakable product of Morphosis as well as a suitable looking enclosure for a discipline forged by the realities of the digital age.
Courtesy YKK AP; Courtesy Morphosis
The protruding arm shelters the entrance, which is itself raised above street level and fronted by a sculptural display of staggered stone blocks known as the “rock pile.” The entry plaza is accessed by a ramp from Campus Road or via a staircase ascending from Hoy Field (the baseball diamond). Morphosis decided to cover the entrance with the upper floors in order to provide some shelter from Ithaca’s long and inclement winters. Indeed, throughout the project, public spaces that have been designed to promote interaction among the faculty and student body have been housed primarily inside, as opposed to in semi-enclosed or outdoor spaces, as they might be in California. The one exception is the south courtyard, which connects to the foyer of the building’s lecture hall in a subterranean level and provides breakout space for the department. This landscaped zone can be used as an informal study and gathering area during pleasant weather and also provides ramp access to Hoy Field.
For the most part, the building’s public spaces are housed in the full-height grand entrance atrium, which also houses the building’s central vertical circulation corridor. The design promotes the use of open stairways that provide views throughout the entire atrium. The idea is that this will increase the chances of the building’s users seeing and interacting with each other, as opposed to elevators, which the designers decided would limit such opportunities. In addition to circulation space, lounges (housed within the protruding arm) and conference rooms ring the atrium and the entire volume is naturally lit via a skylight.
Locating the facility’s primary vertical circulation off the atrium at the western extremity of the building allowed the architects to maximize the rest of the plan for the main programmatic spaces: laboratories and offices. The labs, which occupy the perimeters of the floors, where they enjoy daylight and views, are not like scientific wet labs with rows of benches for beakers and plenty of safety plumbing and ventilation infrastructure. Nor are they like typical classrooms with rows of desks facing a blackboard. Rather they are more in the vein of a digital startup’s office. While there may not be any beanbags or ping pong tables, the rooms are large, open plan, and informal, outfitted with workstations—large tables—capable of accommodating several students at once working on a group project.
As cold as Ithaca may be for most of the year, when Morphosis clad the building in 35,000 square feet of YKK AP’s enerGfacade unitized glass-and-aluminum curtain wall, outfitted with 1 3/16-inch high-performance Viracon IGUs, its primary concern was mitigating heat gain and glare. In order to accomplish this, the firm reused a tactic that it had developed for its Cooper Union building: a perforated stainless steel panel system that shelters the glazing, supported on outrigger fins that attach to the exterior of the curtain wall. This stainless steel screen system clads floors two through four, creating a different expression on the exterior for these levels, what Morphosis calls “the floating bar.” To open up clear views to some of the key campus features that surround the building, the architects twisted the screen system in places, so that the panels bend from vertical to horizontal and back. Thanks to this feature of the design, students will now be able to take in whatever action may be happening on Hoy Field to the south, or gaze upon the impressive neo-gothic stone bulk of Barton Hall to the north.