© 2012 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 Sustainability introduction: "In the sections that follow, all 69 LEED points and 7 prerequisites, listed in the order established by the U.S. Green Building Council, are examined in terms of their relationship to sustainable building and, where applicable, in terms of Milstein Hall's design."
Credits 1.1 and 1.2: Water Efficient Landscaping. The intention of these credits is to discourage the use of landscape irrigation, either by planting things which don't require added water (i.e., native or adapted species that survive using whatever falls from the sky); or by collecting—harvesting—rain water or using cleaned-up wastewater (or graywater) to irrigate plants that otherwise would not survive in the environment in which they are planted. This is not hard to accomplish in the northeastern part of the U.S., which enjoys a temperate climate with adequate quantities of rain to sustain a varied assortment of planted things. In the case of Milstein Hall, the major planted element is a vegetated (green) roof, which consists of sedums—an adapted species of succulent plants that do well in the shallow engineered media characteristic of extensive green roofs.
Now, if lots of things grow in this region without irrigation anyway, why does planting a green roof count as "water-efficient"? In Los Angeles, it might be reasonable to recognize building projects that eschew turf grass and other rain-loving species, but should a New York State building be promoted as "green" just because its plantings need no irrigation? The LEED answer is: 2 points for Milstein Hall!
Credit 2: Innovative Wastewater technology. This credit is designed to discourage use of potable water to wash away human waste. There are two benefits: less potable water is used, so that either less infrastructure is needed to produce and transport the potable water, or potable water can be diverted to other industrial or agricultural purposes; and less infrastructure for wastewater treatment is needed. Rather than investing in this type of sustainable activity, the architects for, and owners of, Milstein Hall instead chose to design and build an expensive architectural joke whose subject is human waste: the toilets and urinals for Milstein Hall are defined by a curving stainless steel wall reminiscent of the surrealist figures of Joan Miró or, more to the point, the interlocking geometry of the small intestine (see Figure 1).
This illustrates in a concise manner the priorities for this building and for this type of architecture: like Miró's painting, the concerns are almost entirely visual and expressive. But unlike Miró's painting, which by its nature can only be visual and expressive, works of architecture are also, and primarily, functional constructions. Milstein Hall prioritizes artistry and irony while sacrificing functionality (and sustainability).
Credits 3.1 and 3.2: Water Use Reduction. This is the third leg of the three-legged water-use stool. Aside from irrigation and wastewater reduction (Credits 1 and 2), one can also reduce the use of potable water by installing high-efficiency toilets, urinals, or showers (i.e., fixtures that use less water per flush or that reduce the flow of water) or by reusing stormwater or graywater for flushing (so that potable water does not need to be used for this purpose) or by using sensors or similar devices on faucets (so that the quantity of water coming out of sink faucets is controlled). One point is gained by reducing the 1992 Energy Policy Act performance requirements (this was the federal law that mandated low-flow showerheads, and water-efficient toilets and urinals, to the consternation of free-market conservatives, libertarians, representatives from water-rich states, and humorists like Dave Barry1) by 20%; two points are awarded for a 30% reduction. Milstein Hall gains these points presumably by purchasing high-efficiency toilets and urinals, and by installing sensors on lavatory faucets. There is no attempt to harvest and reuse rain water that falls on the vegetated roof.<< previous | next >>
1 Dave Barry's legendary critique of low-flow toilets ("Focus on Canadian Toilets," Nov. 1, 1998) can be found here (accessed Oct. 21, 2011). Following is a typical excerpt: "In other words, people can simply waltz across our borders with illegal toilets supplied by ruthless Canadian toilet cartels headed by greed-crazed Canadian toilet kingpins who will stop at nothing to push their illicit wares on our vulnerable society. If you are a parent, consider this chilling scenario: Your child is attending a party, when another youngster—a 'bad apple'—approaches and says, "Psst! Wanna try a 3.5-gallon Canadian toilet? All the other kids are doing it!' The next thing you know, your child is acting furtive and sneaking off to a 'bad part of town' whenever nature calls. Your child is HOOKED."
First posted 18 July 2012. Last updated: 22 July 2015