Love Letter to a Cantilever

Milstein hall is remarkable.

Cornell’s College of Architecture has raised the bar (and elevated the slab) on the design of architecture schools. After two very public cancelled projects and years of turmoil the college is now in residence in its refreshing new home. The building was dedicated with a series of events including talks by Rem Koolhaas, Bob Silman, John Reps and others. But what was most amazing was the return of more than 50 years of graduates to their new and improved alma mater.

And, with that return what was once considered its greatest weakness became its greatest strength; the stubborn (the word ‘incestuous’ is occasionally uttered) continuity of staff and ideas. Recently, as a critic at the college’s NYC studio, I created yet another example of this multi-generational recycling*.

The tradition of multi-generational alumni persists in offices; at one point my office included graduates from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. While I felt I deserved a medal for loyalty and alumni support, this is not an uncommon story. It’s not just loyalty, it’s about common language, common sense of history and pride in a system of thought that persists from Matthias Ungers and Colin Rowe. Ungers is alive in the body of Rem Koolhaas, and Colin Rowe lives through everyone who loves the fabric of the city and believes that history matters.

At a dinner for 15 before the main event, I counted over 40 years between the youngest and oldest in attendance: a 77 year old retired professor at one end of the scale and a thirty-ish successful firm owner at the other. It was as though everyone was the same age, in the same class and took part in the same exhibition of pride and admiration for really good architecture.

As for the cantilever, it has an unexpected genesis. If OMA is to be believed (and it is) the building was first designed to be supported by columns at its northern edge, across the road it covers. But the town of Ithaca, in its infinitely quirky wisdom, was worried that a bus would skid on the omnipresent black ice and take out a column.

This laughable concern led the architects to the remove the columns and create the entire identity of the building; a massive cantilevered floating slab negotiating between two older, staid buildings.

There is a lot to love about this building, and there are parts that any critic worth his Corb glasses could pick on. But the gesture is so bold, so persistent and so damned horizontal that it is hard not to fall for it. It creates a factory scale, continuous studio space that puts nearly every student in sight of nearly every other student. For the first time since the GSD, an architecture school has seen the wisdom of everyone working in one connected space.

* The Evidence:

-Still teaching: Jerry Wells, Don Greenberg, Werner Goehner, Archie MacKenzie, Chris Otto, Arthur Ovaska and Henry Richardson; professors of mine in the early 1970’s, continue to teach at AAP. So do George Hascup, Lenny Mirin & Stan Bowman. That is a lot of familiar faces (well, some are still recognizable) 35 years after graduating.

-Classmates teaching: Vincent Mulcahy and the persistently cranky Jonathan Ochshorn, classmates of mine (and in Jon’s case, a high school classmate as well) are now professors at AAP. Others like John Zissovici were nearly classmates.

-Students teaching: Andrea Simitch, briefly my student when I taught after graduation, now runs the B.Arch program in which I have been a visiting critic.

-Employees teaching: Aleks Mergold, an AAP alum who worked for me in three stints between and after college/grad school, is now teaching at AAP. And recently Suzanne Lettieri left Biber Architects to teach in Ithaca as a design critic.