Critique of Rand Hall Fine Arts Library proposal, Cornell University

Jonathan Ochshorn


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"A cruel but pointed project would be a systematic study of the failings of the buildings that house university architecture departments. Invariably designed and built with great fanfare, as a class they are perhaps the most loathed of all academic buildings... The buildings are exciting and unworkable."
— Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built, Penguin Books (New York: 1994), p.68.


I've been writing about the proposed Fine Arts Library project for Rand Hall at Cornell University. At issue is the function and future of physical books for academic research, as well as the utility of so-called "low-value" buildings as incubators for innovation (and the short-sightedness of designing a library as a one-of-a-kind, non-adaptable, dysfunctional, high-value work of art) and various objective fire-safety and accessibility problems in the proposed design.

Following are my articles and blog posts that critique the library proposal, in reverse chronological order (from latest to first).

Links to my articles and blog posts

How to build a double fire wall between Rand and Milstein Halls

This blog post demonstrates that a 3-hr double fire wall can be built between Milstein Hall and Rand Hall without any structural modifications to either building. (June 14, 2017)

Summary of Cornell's False Claims for 2016-0269 Rand Hall Variance

Provides a summary of false claims made by Cornell and its Code consultant in their application for a Code Variance (Petition No. 2017-0269) to build a noncompliant Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall. (June 13, 2017)

Koolhaas proposes temporary toilets and fire exits in "flexible" Milstein Hall as Rand Hall closes for two years

This is a Cornell Chronicle parody dealing with Cornell's response to the need for temporary toilets and egress in Milstein Hall during the construction of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library. My blog post describes another "transition" issue in E. Sibley Hall: a combination of carcinogenic material and poor ventilation is proposed for the temporary digital fabrication lab. (April 30, 2017)

City of Ithaca code enforcement operates in the shadows

Reproduces an email that I sent to the City of Ithaca requesting that they investigate record-keeping (or record-destroying) practices of their Code enforcement officials, in light of a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request that I made in early March, 2017. The City's response to my FOIL request included zero records of any meetings or correspondence concerning the Fine Arts Library proposal, even though specific references to both meetings and correspondence can be found in the transcripts of the Code variance hearings that Cornell initiated. (April 28, 2017)

Errors in Cornell's 2016 Fine Arts Library Variance Request

Reproduces an email that I sent to the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes outlining false and misleading statements made by Cornell's Code consultant at the 2016 Variance Hearing (April 25, 2017)

"Hat's off" for the Fine Arts Library at Cornell

Discusses the fire-safety implications of a recent cost-cutting proposal to remove the "hat" from the top of the Fine Arts Library scheme; also shows why there are more floor levels than there are stories, and why that matters (April 21, 2017)
animation gif showing students using rolling carts in proposed Fine Arts Library
Students will invariably use the rolling carts shown in the architect's rendering of the atrium space to navigate under the hanging stack levels. Five-second Youtube video is here

Cornell Fine Arts Library proposal to prevent public access

Reproduces an email sent on March 30, 2017 to Cornell's project manager for the Fine Arts Library project (and copied to many others) describing a card-access control system for the proposed library that was revealed by Cornell at a Code-variance hearing, and asking whether "Cornell provided false information to the Hearing Board in order to justify their request for a Code variance, or if the FAL is really intending to violate longstanding Cornell library policy regarding visitor access." (March 30, 2017)

Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Analyses in detail the 100% design development submission for the Fine Arts Library as well as Cornell's 2015 and 2016 Code variance requests. Shows that the scheme remains noncompliant because of its open exit access stairs and its atrium floors. Contains my Performance Compliance Method calculator. (March 24, 2017)

Cornell, inspired by Trump, ridicules regulations; creates "alternative facts"

This is a Cornell Chronicle parody that discusses the anti-regulatory and anti-Code mindset of Cornell's "liberal" administration. (March 24, 2017)

Mezzanine problems in Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library

Discusses why the interconnected mezzanines and stories proposed for the Fine Arts Library are no longer permitted by the New York State Building Code, something motivated by serious fire safety concerns and implemented through the seemingly innocent change of a single word: from floor in 2007 to story in 2010. (February 28, 2017)

Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library at 50% design development

Discusses problems with the 50% design development drawing set, including the apparent elimination of the fire wall shown in the schematic set, creating new Code compliance issues — in particular, leaving the proposed library's construction type as V-B, which in turn makes the proposed mezzanine levels (already noncompliant for other reasons) much too big. (February 9, 2017)

Comments on Ho Fine Arts Library: A Body of Books

Dean Kent Kleinman (with University Librarian Anne Kenney) wrote a public relations piece for AAP's Fall 2015 Newsletter, also posted on the AAP news/events website (Oct. 8, 2015). Kleinman and Kenney's piece frames the new library proposal as a heroic defense of books and libraries against the straw man of electronic access. This blog post contains a detailed critique of their argument. (October 12, 2015)
collage of Site Analysis diagram for Rand Hall library with hat-boa from The Little Prince
My collage of a diagram of the Fine Arts Library (with it's glass and metal "hat" that appears in the architect's schematic Site Narrative) with the famous image from The Little Prince in which things that cannot be literally seen are explained to the hapless grownups.

Rand Hall's 1st-floor column capacity

The proposed library scheme destroys the third floor and roof structure of Rand Hall and replaces them with large transfer girders spanning from wall to wall at the parapet level, along with numerous other expensive and complex structural renovations to account for the new loads introduced by these transfer girders and the difficulty of stabilizing the new columns once the floor structure is removed. Is it true that all of this work is necessary in order to create a library of a certain size that can support a certain number of volumes? This blog post demonstrates that the existing structure is perfectly adequate to support a library of the same size and weight as the one proposed, without destroying a perfectly useful and adaptable low-value industrial building. (August 4, 2015)

What's wrong with Rand Hall's East Stair Tower?

This began as a photo documentary of Rand Hall's east stair tower, to show that it is a rather innocuous design addition from the 1960s that has a minor impact on the building's visual presence; this seemed useful to counter the argument made in the Site Narrative (see link below) that this stair was a major visual abomination that ought to be removed. (August 2, 2015)

The Cornell Fine Arts Library Site Narrative

This is a detailed page-by-page critique of the "Site Narrative" prepared by the Fine Arts Library architects as part of their schematic design submission. Among other things, it criticizes the use of meaningless and misleading jargon, or archispeak, in the narrative, as well as specific features of the design. (August 1, 2015)

More problems with Cornell's Fine Arts Library proposal

Discusses additional Code problems with the library proposal: mezzanines that are loo large (the maximum allowable size is one half of the space in which the mezzanine is situated, and the proposed mezzanines are larger than that); and so-called "protruding objects" (hazards to humans, especially those with vision disabilities, that are prohibited by the Building Code and by the Americans with Disabilities Act) that are built into the design on the lowest floor level of hanging stacks. (May 13, 2015)

Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall

Discusses the schematic design proposal (prepared by AAP alumnus Wolfgang Tschapeller, M.Arch. 1987), in particular, its fire-safety Building Code violations having to do with an inadequate fire wall and a proliferation of interconnected floor levels without adequate shaft enclosures. (April 21, 2015)

Comments on Cornell's Application for a Variance

This is Part 10 of my "Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety" in which I discuss Cornell's first request for a Code variance for the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall, triggered by a NYS Hearing Board's determination that the 3rd-floor location of the library in Rand Hall was not compliant with the NYS Building Code (full disclosure: I filed the Code Appeal that ultimately led to this determination). Contains links to several other pertinent documents. (October 11, 2013)

Summary from Code Appeal

This is Part 9 of my "Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety" in which I describe the Code Appeal that I filed with the Regional Board of Review of the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration, documenting 8 Code violations in Milstein Hall as well as the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall (May 29, 2013)

Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall

This is Part 7 of my "Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety" in which I discuss fire safety (Building Code) issues caused by Cornell's decision to move the Fine Arts Library from E. Sibley Hall to the 3rd floor of Rand Hall. (July 25, 2012)

Cornell's Fine Arts Library

Discusses how the idea for a new Fine Arts Library got its start, and how the desire to create a monument for the collection of books derives from competition amongst schools of architecture, rather than from a desire to disseminate knowledge through open-source (and digital) means. (July 5, 2010)