© 2013 Jonathan Ochshorn
From the Critique of Milstein Hall introduction: Milstein Hall at Cornell University, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is an interesting building, in some ways an amazing building, and, by virtually any conceivable objective criterion, a disaster. That something amazing can simultaneously be a disaster is hardly a paradox. In fact, disasters are often amazing, and our amazement often increases proportionally with the range and scope of the disaster.
I will not be criticizing the visual appearance of this building, or making judgments about its subjective, aesthetic merit. I personally find the building interesting, and its underlying formal rationale provocative and compelling. But I am not particularly qualified to render such judgments, and other authorities or connoisseurs of architectural taste may well disagree. What follows, instead, is an objective critique of Milstein Hall, looking at the building in some detail from a series of different points of view, none of which are driven by aesthetic considerations.
From the Nonstructural Failure introduction: "The architect (qua artist) is not so much "help[ing] us along the heroic journey of our own lives" but rather creating, out of thin air, a heroic journey for herself: leaving the world of safe, predictable constructions; proposing buildings that have both the appearance and the reality of danger... and returning in glory from this confrontation with the agents of conformity (whether owners, users, public officials) with the building constructed."
The first, and last word, on dangerous architectural details is Monty Python's legendary Architects Sketch: "The tenants arrive in the entrance hall here, are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort and pass murals depicting Mediterranean scenes towards the rotating knives..."1
One might wonder why architects — at least those who are not engaged in satire or parody — would create buildings that could cause injury. In most cases, the answer seems to be a pathologically narrow focus on how building elements appear — i.e., what they look like — and a corresponding inattention to qualities of these same building elements that could cause harm. This is, at least in part, related to building complexity or peculiarity, as such buildings invariably contain elements that are original, newly conceived, and untested. That these elements are untested or unprecedented doesn't completely explain their danger; rather it is the combination of their being untested, while at the same time being designed from a standpoint that is almost exclusively formal, artistic, and expressive, that increases the likelihood of danger.
What follows is not an all-inclusive list of dangerous details. I have not been given official access to such information, so the items that follow are based only on my random observations of the building:
Snow drifts on the roof, unconstrained by railings or parapet walls (there are none) will themselves cantilever over the roof edge, presenting a hazard to cars and pedestrians below. This phenomenon depends, of course, on the amount and consistency of the snow, and the direction of the prevailing winds, but dangerous overhanging hardened snow "icicles" have already appeared, much larger and more dangerous than those documented in Figure 1a. [Updated Dec. 11, 2014] Figure 1b shows a bigger protruding snow drift.
Milstein Hall, cantilevered above University Avenue, may be struck by a car, truck, or maintenance vehicle at some point, as it is only fifteen feet above the street surface. This is not to suggest that trucks hit over-road bridges all the time (Figure 2). However, the likelihood of such a collision between a vehicle and a building is dramatically increased when the building is put in, or over, the roadway.
Figure 3a shows the aftermath of a truck-bridge collision (March, 2012) in which the bridge was actually higher above the street than is Milstein Hall. The bridge damage is transferred to the lower stone fascia of Milstein Hall (Figure 3b) through the magic of Photoshop.
The Milstein Hall cantilever over University Avenue is problematic in two other respects. First, because of the structural flexibility (not to be confused with functional flexibility) of such cantilevered spans, the live load allowance for the upper level space above the street needed to be reduced, thereby precluding its future use as a library or other similarly-loaded occupancy. Second, it is not clear how the adjacent wood-framed Foundry building will be protected in case of fire, especially if a fire occurs in the pitched roof running parallel to University Avenue (Figure 4). In such a case, the capability of fire department vehicles would be severely constrained, as the soffit of Milstein Hall appears to prevent the use of turnable or telescoping ladder equipment.
It's one thing to explicitly design a building to interact creatively with skateboard users, perhaps because such a function corresponds to the desires of the building or site users; it's quite different to design a building whose formal characteristics encourage skateboard use, while facilities managers or risk management consultants simultaneously prohibit the practice. Whether the building architects envisioned this sort of activity when designing the concrete "dome," or whether this was an unforeseen outcome, the fact that the building's form increases the probability of injury — both to skateboarders as well as to the building itself — can be characterized as a building failure (Figure 5).
Building codes generally prohibit the use of a single step within a building to negotiate a small change in elevation, since such subtle transitions are not always noticed, leading to injuries. In the outside world, things are a bit different, as there is an important "single-step" elevation change that is hard to avoid: the curb between sidewalk and street. On the other hand, curbs are generally quite easy to see, since they are part of a larger system that often includes visible clues, mostly with different colors and textures that identify the transition. These transitional elements include things like light-colored concrete sidewalks, green-colored grass strips (often with trees), grey-colored granite (or concrete) curbs, and dark-colored asphalt streets.
There is clearly no regulation prohibiting such curbs, which serve a useful purpose. The designers of Milstein Hall, however, have used this "loophole" in the no-single-step rule to create an incredibly dangerous transition between the paved outdoor area above the gallery space and the paved loading dock. Not only are all the typical curb-elements identified above missing (i.e., there is no articulated "curb" material at all, there is no grass strip, and there is no significant change in color or texture between the "pedestrian" area and the truck-loading area), but the elevation between the two concrete surfaces changes in a linear fashion from zero to 20 inches, further increasing the danger.2 Due to the north-south orientation of this transitional "line," there are not even any shadows created by the elevation change in the afternoon or evening, further obscuring the dangers (Figure 6).
There are numerous instances in Milstein Hall where vertical discontinuities greater than 30 inches in the horizontal walking surface present hazards to people walking on those surfaces (Figure 7). In some cases, the surface may not be intended as a walking surface, but could easily be used as such, especially by small children searching for adventure (see the ledge overlooking the sunken garden facing the loading area, as shown in the video below). In other cases, horizontal surfaces are designed and built, presumably for formal or expressive purposes, that are separated from habitable spaces by guard rails, but remain as tempting perches for students — for example, as "overflow" seating in the auditorium.
1 A more complete account of the Architects Sketch can be found in Wikipedia, accessed Aug. 26, 2013.
2 The change in elevation actually increases to more than 37 inches, if one includes the 17-inch-wide concrete "path" alongside the glass guardrail above the sunken garden. Whether this is noncompliant is subject to debate; whether it is dangerous, especially for young children, is clear.
First posted 27 August 2013. Last updated: 2 Nov. 2018