After a competition that included some of the world’s most prominent architects, Thom Mayne of the firm Morphosis has been selected to design the first academic building for Cornell University’s high-tech graduate school campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
“The goal here is to develop a one-of-a-kind institution,” Mr. Mayne said in an interview at his New York office. (Morphosis also has an office in Los Angeles.) “It’s got to start from rethinking — innovating — an environment.”
The building will get extra attention as the first part of an engineering and applied-science campus charged by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg with spurring New York City’s high-tech sector. It needs to embody the latest in environmental advances and to incorporate the increasingly social nature of learning today by creating ample spaces for people to interact. And to succeed, Mr. Mayne said, it must visually connect to the rest of the city, because its setting is surrounded by water.
Mr. Mayne has grappled with academic buildings before, perhaps most notably one for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the East Village, completed in 2009, whose concave facade is clad in a perforated metal screen and punctuated by a vertical gash.
Mr. Mayne said the Cornell project presented an opportunity to contemplate what an academic building should look like in the information age. Should it have the bullpen environments of tech start-ups or the more cloistered layout of established universities? How should it use space to foster collaboration while also carving out areas for quiet reflection?
“There is no modern prototype for a campus,” Mr. Mayne said. “You have to have a completely different model which has to do with transparency and exposing social connectivity and breaking down the Balkanization that happens departmentally.”
There are no snazzy architectural images yet, nor can Mr. Mayne speculate about what shape the building will take or what materials he might use. “I haven’t even seen the site plan yet,” he said. The only certainty is that Mr. Mayne will not inaugurate Cornell’s new campus by designing some kind of ivory tower.
“I like being able to tell you that I don’t have any bloody idea what it’s going to look like,” he said.
Daniel P. Huttenlocher, dean of the new campus, to be called CornellNYC Tech, and a Cornell vice provost, said that as a computer scientist, he was “very sympathetic to the form-follows-function view of the world” and that he was “heartened by an architect who doesn’t want to get too caught up in the form too early in the process.”
At the same time, Cornell is in a hurry, having pledged to have classes up and running by September in leased space in Manhattan (location to be announced). The Mayne building is expected to break ground in 2014 and to be completed by the start of the 2017 academic year.
Mr. Mayne’s building is part of a campus that will be developed over two decades. The campus will comprise more than two million square feet of building space at a cost of over $2 billion and will serve more than 2,000 students. It will include three academic buildings; three residential buildings; three buildings for research and development; and a hotel and conference center.
In December Cornell, in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, won the yearlong competition to build the campus, beating teams that included one from Stanford University and City College of New York.
The master plan is being designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which was among the six finalists for the Cornell campus. The others were Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Steven Holl Architects and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
Mr. Mayne’s 150,000-square-foot building is expected to cost about $150 million, Mr. Huttenlocher said, which will be covered by a $350 million gift through an alumnus. The city is providing $100 million in infrastructure improvements, as well as the land on Roosevelt Island, currently occupied by a little-used hospital. The new building will include classrooms, laboratories, offices and meeting space.
Morphosis was chosen partly because of its track record of completing projects on time and at a reasonable cost, Mr. Huttenlocher said. “We can’t afford for the budget to be something that balloons out of control,” he added.
The campus is designed to bring academic and private-sector research and development together to speed the translation of academic work into usable products and services.
Mr. Mayne said he would start by talking with the engineering firm Arup about how to design a building with zero-net energy consumption that will use and produce geothermal and solar power.
While the building’s design should be arresting, Mr. Huttenlocher said it also must satisfy its tech-savvy generation of users, who will adapt the space to their needs if it fails to suit them.
“If the building didn’t function well, I think it would get hacked to pieces,” Mr. Huttenlocher said. He added that Cornell liked Morphosis’s “ability to create iconic structures whose form does not obscure or impede its program.”
Mr. Mayne said he designed spaces that were meant to be personalized and “not in any way pristine.”
Morphosis tries to create spaces that allow work to happen in the most effective way possible, Mr. Mayne said. “After that,” he added, “we should stay out of the way.”
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