Critique of Rand Hall Fine Arts Library proposal, Cornell University

Jonathan Ochshorn


contact | homepage | index of selected writings

"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

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)

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)