© 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."
What follows is not an all-inclusive list of cracks in Milstein and Sibley Halls. 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:
Concrete has a tendency to crack, simply because it shrinks when it cures. If the concrete is somehow restrained — prevented from shrinking — cracks will develop. On the other hand, if unrestrained, or subdivided with control joints, or properly reinforced, such cracking can be controlled. There has been extensive cracking of the topping slab in Milstein Hall (Figure 1), not only at "corners" without control joints, but also in the general field.
The concrete slab of the bridge over the Crit Room space has also cracked, even with control joints present, presumably due to the complexity of its geometry (Figure 2).
Slab cracking has also occurred around basement columns where control joints were not properly detailed or constructed. Without properly detailed control joints to isolate the column from the rest of the slab-on-ground, the slab will crack — effectively creating its own "control joints" — since settlement of the slab will, in general, be smaller than settlement of the heavily-loaded column (Figure 3).
Cracking has also occurred in the brick load-bearing walls of East Sibley Hall as a result of foundation underpinning (Figure 4).
While no officially-sanctioned study of the causes of these masonry cracks has been made public, one plausible explanation is that inadequately-braced foundations, together with excessive vibrations from caisson drilling, contributed to the cracking (Figures 5 and 6). The century-old foundations of East Sibley Hall were underpinned by creating a new reinforced concrete foundation wall under the existing shallow foundation. However, no tiebacks were used to prevent lateral movement of this new wall, which runs in an east-west direction. Some combination of lateral thrust originating in the brick arches cut into the perpendicular (north-south) walls and from the mansard roof above, along with vibrations from the drilling of caissons immediately adjacent to this new wall, may have triggered these substantial cracks in the perpendicular masonry walls of E. Sibley Hall. That is, the entire north wall of Sibley Hall appears to have moved laterally towards the excavated Milstein Hall construction site, because (1) the arches in Sibley Hall already provided a discontinuity — a line of weakness — in the perpendicular bracing walls; (2) a horizontal force (thrust) was already present in those walls due to the action of the arches themselves as well as the geometry of the Mansard roof above; (3) the vibration of the masonry structure by caisson drilling facilitated the cracking of relatively weak brick mortar joints; and (4) the laterally-unbraced underpinned foundation wall was able to rotate on its footing since no horizontal tie-backs were provided.
Cracking has also occurred in the concrete wall of Milstein Hall under the cantilevered concrete slab that extends over an outdoor exit passageway below the loading dock just to the west of the main building (Figure 7). It's not clear what the cause of this crack is; possibly the wall is restraining the movement of the cantilevered slab above — to which it is attached — in ways that were unanticipated by the structural designers. After the adjacent retaining wall displaced by about 5/8 in. at the top, apparently causing a glass guard rail to shatter in May 2015, a more plausible explanation emerged. It seems that the retaining wall was actually tied to the adjacent building by horizontal reinforcement (this reinforcement became visible after movement of the retaining wall caused increased spalling of concrete in the building wall). For reasons that remain unclear, but possibly owing to corrosion of rebars where water seeps into the construction joint between the retaining wall and the building wall, the retaining wall failed to remain vertical as soil pressure pushed it out of alignment, causing both the shattering of the glass guard rail above, as well as increased concrete spalling in the adjacent building wall. My video (Figure 8) describes this process and shows the results of this building failure — a failure that may no longer be merely "nonstructural."
First posted 27 August 2013. Last updated: 18 May 2015