A scaly silver beast emerging from a hillside, or a precise composition of abstract geometries? Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, the latest addition to Cornell’s Ithaca campus, can be seen as both, and it’s an ideal symbol for a university that has won acclaim for architectural and technological excellence. OMA’s Millstein Hall brought the architecture school into the 21st century, and Morphosis has now done the same for Computing and Information Science, an interdisciplinary department that was established 14 years ago. Bill Gates was greeted like a rock star when he opened the building his foundation helped to fund (donating $25 million of the $60 million construction cost). It’s a model of digital design and fabrication as well as sustainability, and is a precursor to the collaboration of the same architect and client on Cornell NYC Tech, the research campus that is slated to open on New York’s Roosevelt Island in 2017.
The faculty was eager to improve their working conditions. “We told the architects we needed light, light, light,” said Kavita Bala, associate professor of computer science. “I work in computer graphics, and it’s important to have bright, open spaces where ideas can flow.” Jeffrey Hancock, professor of communication and co-chair of information science asked for a “non-traditional design to inspire us. Curved lines intersecting with linear angles, lots of glass and light—not just in the common, collaborative areas, but in every office, lab, and teaching space.”
Transparency is the hallmark of the Morphosis design. A five-story block of laboratories and meeting spaces rises from a slope and is entered from an upper-level plaza beneath the cantilevered west end, or from below. Each glazed facade is shaded by sharply angled panels of perforated stainless steel. It’s a strategy the architects have employed on several recent buildings, but each iteration builds on what went before. An addition to New York’s Cooper Union is veiled in steel mesh. For the Hollywood satellite campus of Boston’s Emerson College, folded aluminum panels screen the inner faces of two residential towers, and different shapes were combined in a random pattern.
At Gates Hall, the concentration and configuration of the panels responds to the path of the sun. As on previous jobs, Morphosis worked closely with the A. Zahner Company of Kansas City, which custom designed the 450 panels in 90 subtly varied forms to simplify production and installation, and to achieve an elegant composition at minimal cost. The dramatic variation from one facade to the next animates the simple block, as does the cantilevered wedge that contains a third floor student lounge at the southwest corner. Zahner also fabricated the yellow ochre metal panels that line the soffit of the entry plaza. Tapered concrete columns help support the overhang and root the building to the ground, while faceted concrete benches extend the geometry into the landscaped perimeter.
Within, the themes of openness and transparency are further developed, so that the researchers and students who formerly toiled in dark, enclosed spaces are encouraged to look in on their colleagues and socialize in the many shared spaces. A lofty skylit atrium is wrapped in fritted glass to expose activity on four levels of the building. A lecture hall opens off the ground-floor entry hall, which is linked to the first floor by a two-story, south-facing space. Other large meeting areas are grouped around the atrium for ease of access. Fully glazed offices, small meeting rooms, and labs flank racetrack corridors on the three upper floors, and these incorporate break-out areas for chance encounters and impromptu meetings. A glazed attic story pulls additional natural light into the fourth-floor labs. Everyone on the south side enjoys the bonus of a grandstand view over Hoy Field, the campus baseball diamond.
Gates Hall should achieve a LEED Gold certification for its conservation of resources and energy. High-performance glass and efficient shading devices provide an abundance of glare-free natural light. There’s a chilled beam passive convection air-conditioning system that draws on the campus lake for cooling. It’s a bold step towards the zero-energy building planned for Roosevelt Island. Gates also demonstrates the steady evolution in Morphosis’ work as they’ve moved from an exaggerated emphasis on complexity and raw detailing to more sculptural and refined projects, with no loss of vigor and originality.