Webb Nichols | Milstein Hall: The Architecture of Confusion
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Milstein Hall: The Architecture of Confusion


The following is written after a visit to Milstein Hall, the new addition to the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in June of 2013.

It is written in honor and memory of all those many who speak out in time and particularly, in honor and memory of Klaus Herdeg (BArch Cornell Class of 1963) who, among his many books, penned The Decorated Diagram (MIT Press, 1983).

Milstein Hall: The Architecture of Confusion

A great architecture school becomes its own worst client as muddled thinking for the better part of a decade tyrannizes its desire to emulate itself in a new building.

It is believed that great buildings are as much the result of great clients as they are the result of great architects in the belief (and hubris) that all architects would do great work if they only had great clients.

Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, one of the world’s great architectural schools recently completes construction of a major addition to its original building, a project which devours and regurgitates two famous architects, before settling on a third of equal reputation. The first two architects are given a chance to succeed, tried and are fired.

In theory there is no better setting for great architecture, a sensitive and knowledgeable client with the capacity to interest the best architects available in the school’s challenge to design a new architectural building. What happens?

The third and last architect designs a stark, strident, minimalist building which, in its form and character, is a harsh, cold and gloomy reminder that, in the end, no physical conceptual framework (upon which it relies heavily), no matter how rational its theory, can assert qualitative preeminence over the emotional and tactile response to architecture, gained from one’s first hand experience of a building’s space, form and material.

As one experiences the work of painters, poets and musicians, one can argue that the building, like painting, poetry and music, is simply a gestalt of the Architect’s inner self and character and has little to do with the nature and character of the Client, in this case the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

On the other hand, one can also argue that the way one experiences painting, poetry and music has only to do with what resonates within oneself, reflecting more the mood of the observer and his associations and less the mood of the artist. Each one of us may see the same work of art differently depending on the sum total of one’s prior experience leading up to that moment of contemplation.

But the catch is that, as many people postulate (and many architects deeply believe), buildings shape the character and behavior of their occupants for good or bad. And that belief is a social contract that even a formalist finds redemptive, as they often sacrifice function for form, form being, they believe (and one could assert), the only residue of architectural experience that lasts in one’s memory, an argument that is rational, particularly if the architect is more interested in the building being remembered than the building serving its user.

In consideration of that premise and in the process of hiring an architect, it is useful to learn which of the two fears is the architect’s greatest concern- Fear that they will compromise their public reputation or Fear that they will compromise their Client? The architectural outcome could be predicated on the answer.

So the question is – Will this new building shape the character and behavior of the Cornell Architectural School going forward? Could the building’s environment have a chilling effect on the quality of students, their work and their freedom of expression. Will the thinking of students be dominated and overpowered by context?

Yet there is a third possibility, that the Milstein Addition to the School of Architecture is exactly what the School wants, perfectly fitting their current nature, character and sensibilities and defining their vision of the prototypical learning environment in form, space, material and typology.

One need not know or even speculate on what ideas and motivations sponsored the addition, the addition is now fact with its own ensuing phenomenology. Now the addition is a matter of personal experience for all those people who use or visit the building.

1. Historic Comfort, Sibley Hall, Cornell School of Architecture, Photographer is unknown.

1. Historic Comfort, Sibley Hall, Cornell School of Architecture. Photographer is unknown.

If one stands in the front of Sibley Hall, the original School of Architecture, which closes off the northern end of a tree filled academic quadrangle, and one looks to the right, one can see Milstein Hall peeking its cantilevered boxlike head out from behind the east corner of the original school (fig.1).

One is drawn to this oddity, an architectural element with absolutely no relationship to the building that it is glued to- no similarity in materials, color, ornament, scale or structure (fig.2).

2. Milstein Hall: The End, Photographer is unknown.

2. The End. Photographer is unknown.

In fact, it stands in unsympathetic and brutal opposition to its neighbor. This architectural interloper is encased in a shear surface of glass, framed by vertical striated blue grey and white recessive horizontal marble bands that delineate the top and bottom of the box as weak and unconvincing painterly applique.

And when arriving at the corner, one realizes that one is about to walk under a box whose crushing weight is floating above the mordant darkness of a space that is compressed between the ceiling, the stamped metal underside of the box, and the concrete ground plane below (fig.3).

3. Into Darkness. Photo by M. Carbone.

3. Into Darkness. Photo by M. Carbone.

From this approach to the Architectural School addition, one discerns a thin pancake-like box supported above an all glass base by sluggish black steel columns.

Crowded against and between two existing buildings, internal steel trusses within the box allow it to cantilever precipitously out over an adjacent campus road on one end and out over the entry plaza on the other. These unsupported extensions make the box appear from certain views to slice cleverly along a seam between the two existing buildings (fig.4).

4. The Sliding Cage. Photo by M. Carbone.

4. The Sliding Cage. Photo by M. Carbone

But this visual slight of hand is not in fact the case. The new addition oozes and flows around the corner of Sibley Hall, both above and below the ground like paint escaping from an overturned paint can (fig.5).

5. Manmade Imposition. Photo by M. Carbone.

5. Man-made Imposition. Photo by M. Carbone.

At the corner, the box, without obvious support, seems to be fastened to the existing building with adhesive as connections between the new addition and the existing building do not appear to exist.

At the same time, elements of the Sibley Hall and the adjacent Rand Hall are simply either subsumed or violated, with the brutal severing of the existing cornices to make way for this glass and steel intrusion, being just one of many examples of the addition’s clumsiness.

While it was clearly not the intention of the Architect to make the existing buildings, Sibley and Rand Hall, more appropriate and significant architecturally, the new addition does just that, not by enrichment but by comparison.

But what were the intentions of the Architect? Setting aside any stated or possible theories, within the context of direct experience a number of effects are apparent.

The box disassociates itself from the surrounding architecture by virtue of its shape and material.

The absence of columns and the presence of a partially concealed supporting structure become another dissociative gesture and create palpable visual tension not found in the adjacent buildings.

And where columns do exist they are painted black and recede, particularly when in shadow, where their presence hardly suggests they are supporting anything.

These formal devices work effectively, creating a setting that appears to defy both the law of gravity and our visual expectations.

In nature, due to the law of gravity, objects are most easily and best supported directly from below their center of gravity. The more the support moves away from their center of gravity (cantilever), the more work the structure does to support the object (mechanical response to increased stress) and simultaneously the more uncertain, distracted and bewildered the perception of the observer as things do not appear as one would expect (neuro visual intuition).

The Milstein Hall implies that it does not want to be part of the existing context and it is determined to make sure one sees and feels it. It shows no evidence of ‘pride of place’.

To return to this speculative and curious story of a failed Client and failed Architect, the project responds with ineptness to some of the enduring questions within the architectural community – How best to teach Architecture? What are flexible “smart “buildings and space? What is the importance of circulation space and how to use it effectively? And what are the successful ways of adding new elements to an existing context or building over time?

The addition is constructed as if the surrounding buildings do not exist, except as an inconvenience and something to jostle against. This fact is believable if indeed the pretext is to disassociate the building from its context in order to assert a new order of architectural language whose grammar and syntax requires the repudiation and crushing of its environment.

It is as if there was more than a rebellious nature about the project to begin with by placing the new addition in no sympathetic relationship to the main building which has housed the Architecture School since its initial construction which began in 1870.

But instead, wedging the addition between two buildings at one end of an existing parking lot that stretches behind the school. Is the addition’s site planning another statement of disassociation, departure and abandonment of the old order (fig. 6)?

6. Vacuous Parti. Author unknown.

6. Vacuous Parti. Author unknown.

Nevertheless, expressions of prejudice or the implementation of theory are now subject to direct experience.

During the day, as one looks toward the new addition under the cantilevered box laminated to the end of Sibley Hall, the darkness grows more intense and gloomy.

And during the night, from the same location one confronts and is surprised by a lighted glass wall, both part of the new addition’s base and reminiscent of a brightly lit but empty arcade.

Arriving at this ground level arcade and passageway, between the Sibley Hall and the edge of the new addition, one comes upon two conceits, the first, is the warping and lifting up of the ground plane into a round whale-back shaped folly upon which are sprinkled half hemisphere plastic domes masquerading as seats (fig. 7).

7. The Arcade. Photo by M. Carbone.

7. The Arcade. Photo by M. Carbone

And the second folly, which we had seen from a distance, is a less radical gesture, the sloped mullioned enclosing wall with inset LED lighting. However the lighting is already delaminating and deteriorating. Sadly, even things that are supposed to be sophisticated lose their effect when they fall apart (fig. 8).

8. Sitting on the Whale. Photographer unknown.

8. Sitting on the Whale. Photographer unknown

Later, after reaching the other end of this tunnel, if one turns and looks back into the passageway to the left leans the lighted sloped glass wall of the new addition and to the right the exterior wall of the original architectural school. And, strangely, between the walking surface and the base of the original school stretches stone rip rap bound in wire mesh (fig. 9)

Is this stone, normally used for retaining earth embankments, to convey some esoteric message? With its coarse and hostile texture, the riprap appears to be thrown in this man-made ditch with disdain. Or is the riprap simply an afterthought? For it is not a sophisticated gesture, but rather, a startling one, magnified by the stones omnipresence. Could that be the point?

The ensemble, The glass and marble box floating above the base, the whale’s back within the tunnel, the angular enclosing wall, the ponderous black columns, the stamped metal ceiling, the rip rap and the edge of Sibley Hall offer optic schizophrenia even within a context of calculated disorder.

Moving closer to the corner of the glass base, one peers down into an auditorium space whose seating surface starts below at a lower level and rises, sloping up and away from the viewer, into and through the box above (fig. 10).

10. Some of the Pieces. Photo by M. Carbone.

10. Some of the Pieces. Photo by M. Carbone.

The folding backs of the seats are arranged in a precious photogenic figure-ground pattern. Looking to the right through the sloped glass wall, one can see across the passageway the forlorn captured piece of Sibley Hall, its exterior windows now looking out on the barren tunnel arcade.

Again, the appearance of the black columns is really remarkable. They are not convincing as columns. They truly do not look as though they are holding anything up. Yet the crushing weight of the underside of the box is more palpable and accentuated (fig.11).

11. Figure-Ground. Photo by M. Carbone.

11. Figure-Ground. Photo by M. Carbone.

It is beyond irony that the curtain drawn across the windows on the left is a printed tapestry of columns whose true nature was always evident in the support of the beams and vaults of porticos, arcades and interior structure.

This reflexive homage to antiquity may be simply a cynical pseudo gesture and not aspiring to any lineage, as the depiction of the column bases appear to be a failed attempt at rendering Renaissance Ionic columns.

In another photo of the lower level of the auditorium, we have an opportunity to inspect one of the columns. We get a close look at this Wagnerian Anti-Column with its thick turgid flanges designed to prevent buckling from the supported weight above. This column has neither the pictorial and utilitarian quality of the columns at Maison de Verre in Paris nor the mannerist and architectural quality of the Colonnade at the Vatican in Rome (fig.12).

12. Wagner. Photo by M. Rosen

12. Wagner. Photo by M. Rosen

But rather, this column and its siblings, providing vertical punctuation at regular intervals throughout the project, convey, acta non verba, a basso profondo response- stolid, unmoving, maybe even bombastic and certainly unengaged.

Stepping out into the parking lot, one soon becomes aware that they are walking on the roof of a structure that encloses habitable space underneath, adjoined by a sunken courtyard containing a vertical stair tower and some plantings (fig.13).

13. Elements of a Style. Photo by M. Carbone.

13. Elements of a Style. Photo by M. Carbone.

The courtyard is surrounded by a glass and steel railing. As part of the architectural expression, one suspects, the railing is not supposed to exist in order to accentuate the surface of the ground plane with a rectangular hole cut in to it, with the railing simply being just a transparent barrier to keep people from falling into the courtyard.

But in contrast to the surrounding elements ( the concrete roof slab, the elevated box, and the heavy black steel columns), the railing is a brittle, thin, hard- edged vertical glass plane with an uncomfortable metal cap.

As it winds around the courtyard, the railing feels weak and ineffectual by comparison to the other elements of the project. At the same time, these elements, the elevated box, the walking roof and the sunken courtyard appear to be anchored unconvincingly by the vertical stair tower.

From a position beyond the sunken courtyard, standing on the sidewalk across University Avenue, one looks back at the addition and can see again many of the addition’s troubling features (fig.14).

14. Wasteland. Photo by M. Carbone.

14. Wasteland. Photo by M. Carbone.

The pancake-like box resembles a hostile elevated cage. Due to the receding black columns, the cage appears to be balanced on top of a glass box (enclosing the ground level space underneath).

From where one stands, the Cage slams into the original architectural school with rude disdain on the right and, cantilevering over University Avenue on the left, confronts and bullies the existing Foundry building, at the same time, lording over and crushing the road and sidewalks below (fig.15).

15. University Avenue Demise. Photo by M. Carbone.

15. University Avenue Demise. Photo by M. Carbone.

While the effect is overpowering, the composition is rudimentary and bland. The stair tower adds little interest. As an important element, the stair tower is a finicky, complicated vertical assembly, with the building’s structural truss theme simply rotated ninety degrees to add horizontal stiffness to a yet another uninspiring box.

Walking down University Avenue and looking back across to a bus stop underneath the cantilevered box, one sees yet another formal conceit, a curved eyebrow that rises up and squeezes the underside of the box, pinching the surrounding space to the point of dusty inaccessibility (fig. 16).

16. The Bus Stop. Photo by M. Carbone.

16. The Bus Stop. Photo by M. Carbone.

Here one also has an opportunity to observe a group of the Wagnerian columns marching in recessive geometric order beside the sidewalk. The column that pierces the middle of the eyebrow is painful to look at. Whether pinning or piercing, perceptually, it is just another tension provoking digression.

As an aside, with a little imagination, the interior vaulted surface of Milstein Hall could be seen as the inside of a whale with the eye beneath the eyebrow, one of the whale’s “all seeing eyes” which has been pierced (by a harpoon). The whale, with an octopus in its belly, is captured in this huge cage. With the whale’s back exposed in the arcade and its head protruding on University Avenue, the whale is doomed to live out its life, gazing at the world through one wounded eye (17).

It is worth noting again the stamped metal ceiling. While pressed-metal ceilings are enjoying a modest renaissance today, they reached their heyday in the 1870s through the 1880s which is also the era that Sibley Hall began its construction, as already mentioned.

While the historic link is interesting, the pressed metal squares with their delicate embossed pattern are unconvincing. That may be the point. As soon as one recessed light in the ceiling goes out, the assembly will take on an air of neglect and, parenthetically, become a serious challenge for the facilities department (fig.18).

18. The Intersection of Time. Photo by M. Carbone.

18. The Intersection of Time. Photo by M. Carbone.

From farther down the sidewalk, the thrusting of the cage over University Avenue with its crushing affect and unforgivable imposition on the space of the Foundry to the right is further clarified. The discontinuity of this relationship is unbearable and in many ways unthinkable (fig.19).

19. Smelling The Kill. Photographer unknown.

19. Smelling the Kill. Photographer is unknown.

It is hard to imagine what it is like to walk down the sidewalk between the north face of the Cage and the Foundry. Or what’s more, what it is like to work in the Foundry with the Cage lurking silently outside above the Foundry’s windows, blocking out the sky and daylight and exacting its crushing environmental toll on all those working inside (fig. 20).

20. Watching One's Prey. Photo by M. Carbone.

20. Watching One’s Prey. Photo by M. Carbone

For those who do not know, the Foundry is where some of the most creative artistic work has been done at Cornell and some of Cornell’s best artists were born. How ironic that this very private, nondescript building should, having such a history, be confronted now by this overpowering, self indulgent, arrogant, and presumptuous building.

At a street intersection further down the sidewalk, one can look back to see the cage extending past either side of Rand Hall. This view captures another level of visual and formal discord. The mass and shape of Rand Hall and the flat thin cage of the new addition establish observable dissonance, as here the pancake-like addition is no match for the scale and bulk of Rand Hall (fig.21).

21. False Identity. Photo by A.Chimacoff.

21. False Identity. Photo by A.Chimacoff.

Rounding the corner of Rand Hall, one is back looking down the arcade-tunnel between Sibley Hall and the new addition. What is evident here is the discontinuity between Rand Hall and the new addition in both scale and articulation of surface (fig.22).

22. Nowhere Plaza. Photo by M. Carbone.

22. Nowhere Plaza. Photo by M. Carbone

Standing now on the edge of a road above the plaza, one can look down and see the entry to the new addition hidden just to the right and behind the black truss column anchored in the plaza (fig. 23).

23. Hidden Target. Photo by M. Carbone.

23. Hidden Target. Photo by M. Carbone.

The entry, an opening cut into the glass plane of a ground level enclosing wall, occupies no specific discernible place of significance as an entry, other than being located at a corner closest to the intersection of pedestrian traffic on the plaza. To put it another way, the entry appears simply as ‘glass as door’ as opposed to ‘glass as wall’, with the intention of the entire surface to be a ‘ transparent non-wall’ (just an educated guess).

The entry itself presents its own set of issues. But they are consistent with the overall tectonics of the building. The door, an automated all glass, sliding belt, bi-parting door with motion sensors, functions like the doors at the entrances to Home Depot, Target and Best Buy among other big-box wholesale outlets.

With this kind of door, there is hardly a ‘there there’. The door is an entry’s version of valet parking. It removes the space-time transition. With mechanized convenience the doors slide apart, not exactly at the hands of Moses but at the hands of technology, diminishing the physical sense of entering, derived by opening a door or doors. Welcome to Milstein Hall.

Slipping inside the parting doors, one is confronted by ‘the Octopus’ , a swirling system of massive concrete curved stairs and elevated walkways or bridges (fig. 24).

24. Cross-Circulation. Photo by M. Carbone.

24. Cross-Circulation. Photo by M. Carbone.

Apart from their overpowering sense of permanence, the stairs and bridges exude capriciousness in their location and form, while at the same time, devouring and dominating the available space.

And their dramatic contrast with the box above and the orthogonal ground level glass enclosure is another tension laden proposition whose costs have got to outweigh its benefits (fig.25).

25. The Aquarium. Photo by M. Carbone.

25. The Aquarium. Photo by M. Carbone.

Looking down into the flexible presentation space at the lower level, one is struck by its visual and acoustic vulnerability. What is the point here? Those looking from a distance cannot see drawings with the necessary accuracy or hear clearly the presentation or the related teaching.

Is this training for presenting in an airport? Or ‘reality teaching’ meets ‘street corner’ performance. It feels a little like an aquarium with the students as specimens on display. The openness is glorious in concept but questionable in implementation.

Is the school to be a museum of current artifact? Or is the school to be an incubator of future promise?

As far as the student who is presenting goes, is there anything to be gained by an unpredictable, visually and acoustically distracting ad hoc audience? Access as ‘democracy in action’ does not apply to everything (fig.26).

26. Distant Observers. Photo by M. Carbone.

26. Distant Observers. Photo by M. Carbone.

And with the flexible partitions cleared away, the resulting scene is a fantastic vision of discipline and concentration. Here a young woman is presenting a project, while buses, with accompanying sound, pull in, drop off, collect riders and then pullout above and behind her. Now that is a challenge (fig. 27)!

27. The Presentation. Photographer is unknown.

27. The Presentation. Photographer is unknown.

To remind you, this is the same eyebrow window that we saw moments ago from across University Avenue. And there is the same black column, piercing the eyelid and possibly the sclera. Ouch!

What is this all about? Another statement about reality? The importance of Mass Transit? I suppose one gets used to the coming and going of buses and spectators peering in from the outside. But one gets the feeling that all this openness and transparency may be, simply, a little self-promotion. The School of Architecture as a living human diorama. Look at how wonderful and interesting we are !

Sometimes it is useful to look at the raw unoccupied space of a building to gain a sense of its potential. How much of the space is governed and restricted in its flexibility of use? How much of the space anticipates change? How much space anticipates future certainty? How does the architecture respond to the essential space and philosophical requirements of the program (fig. 28)?

28. Aimless Cutouts. Photographer is unknown.

28. Aimless Cutouts. Photographer is unknown.

Here we see the extent to which the bridge and stairs and the vaulted ceiling have restricted the placement and shape of forthcoming events and related architectural elements (fig. 29) with the only exception possibly being a Beaux Arts Ball (30).

29. Where is Froebel? Photo by M.Carbone.

29. Where is Froebel? Photo by M.Carbone.

These conditions again bring up important questions- what is the nature of an architectural school? What is the best way to maximize its financial and physical resources in order to maximize an intended result? What is the result that a school should be seeking? What is constant about the teaching of architecture? What changes?

Does it not boil down to providing the student with the principles of design regardless of the Zeitgeist to avoid “ what he [sic] sees others doing- some of the largest and most emulated firms in the profession – taking a little here and a little there until the entire design is assembled. Because we give him no principles of design, he is aware only of effects” (31).

Without “methods and means”, it is hard to blame a student for regressing into copying the latest “flavor “ of architecture.

And where and how in a school is the best teaching done? Does it depend, like great coaching, on understanding the nature and character of each student?

A former Dean of the College of Architecture once said – “The geniuses take care of themselves. We are just trying to teach the rest of the students to be responsible architects (32)”.

It seems reasonable to start with establishing the goals and objectives of teaching and then to translate those objectives and “methods and means” into supportive architecture.

Is not the essence of teaching the principles of design, to first convey information accurately to a student to which a student then responds with their particular interpretation of that information in various mediums (words, drawings, models, etc.) at which time the teacher then evaluates the success of that interpretation based on principles not personal or cultural bias?

On that basis, one needs a space for teachers to convey ideas without distraction, a space for students to think about those ideas without distraction, a place for them to produce their response without distraction and a place to present their ideas to others without distraction.

In that context, it is reasonable to consider a building that maximizes the conveying, reflecting on, stating and presenting of ideas with the minimum of visual and acoustical distraction.

Or should one throw in and maximize distraction as part of the student’s training to deal with the nature of today’s Zeitgeist, a context where ever increasing levels of stimulation and speed of activity are coupled at the same time to an ever decreasing span of attention among the participants. It is an interesting thesis-Turn up the volume for survival. Turn up the sound to make sure someone hears you.

But to continue, two additional views of the lower level, which look in the other direction, give one a sense of the extent to which the space is permanently sacrificed and restricted in so far as the context relates to the modest teaching objectives suggested above (fig. 33).

32. Feckless Space. Photo by M. Carbone.

33. Feckless Space. Photo by M. Carbone.

‘Smart’ buildings (and one can find many examples throughout history) lend themselves easily to adaption and reuse.

What is also evident in these photographs is the waste of circulation space, a luxury that I doubt the School of Architecture could really afford.

The design of circulation space has always been one of the defining elements of great architecture for the program elements, as spaces, have less flexibility of expression due to their need to adhere to a particular set of well articulated requirements (fig. 34).

33. Students Ascending a Staircase. Photo by M. Carbone

34. Students Ascending a Staircase. Photo by M. Carbone

To that point, what is also intriguing in the photographs of the lower level is the attempt by the circulation space to serve unsuccessfully a number of reasonable objectives and masters – to allow easy movement between program elements and to be used effectively as teaching and exhibition space. In any case, the former is subjected to limiting, dictatorial, iron fisted control and the latter subjected to amorphous, indecisive, open-ended vastness.

Note that the black columns remain, as they have elsewhere, an ambiguous visual counterpoint floating in space.

It is also at this lower level that a series of hidden corridors lead below ground to Sibley Hall, Their existence could be viewed as tenuous bloodless arteries stretching symbolically between the existing main building (heart) and the new addition (reconstructed head).

Rooms without windows and daylight line these corridors. As many of these spaces are offices, one has to believe they were a significant yet prejudiced part of the project and denied the reasonable amenities usually afforded such spaces.

Climbing the stairs and walking back across the bridge, one can look up past the adjacent stair into the cage above. Here the tension between the two formal systems, the flowing concrete forms and the orthogonal patterns and architectural elements of the box above is most pronounced (fig.35).

34. Students Come and Go. Photo by M. Carbone.

35. Students Come and Go. Photo by M. Carbone.

Whether the tension between systems represents a dynamic equilibrium of visual elements or simply the result of the orthogonal elements serving as a backdrop for the concrete stairs and bridges depends on one’s point of view. Nevertheless, the scene still appears to be ‘much ado about nothing’.

Climbing to the top of the stair and circling around a balcony to look back across another transparent metal-capped glass railing, one sees for the first time the contents of the cage, a vast open single space drafting room with a glass enclosed entry into the auditorium (fig.36).

35. Stairway to Heaven? Photo by M. Carbone.

36. Stairway to Heaven? Photo by M. Carbone.

Again, it is useful to look at the space before it is inhabited. From this view, the vastness of the cage’s floor, the imposition of the steel trusses and the appropriation of a horizontal sliver of Sibley Hall are clearly visible (fig. 37).

36. Waiting for Godot? Photographer is unknown.

37. Waiting for Godot? Photographer is unknown.

Much has been made of the fact that the cage’s transparency will establish a more direct (and one assumes fortuitous) relationship between students and nature. From the elevated distance of the drafting room, the relationship can be nothing more then that of viewing a stage set, changing with the seasons, but hardly sponsoring the direct emotional experience attributed to an ‘objective correlative’ first defined in art by Allston and later discussed in literature by Eliot.

Or for that matter, the artistic ‘setting things right’ evident in the work of Giacometti who sought the correct perceptual relationship between human beings and their surrounding world.

As human beings, everything we do, everything we make, everything we build should be the best that we can do, make or build out of profound respect and love of earth, nature and our fellow human beings.

Institutions often become conspiracies against their intended purpose. Subject to both external and internal pressure, the institutions and their leaders allow fear and self-preservation to become the driving force for their actions.

If one of the goals was an open, accessible, transparent “all for one and one for all” democratic setting, is this what democracy looks like? A vast open space without intermittent spatial delineation? All the tables in perfect aligned rows (One wonders if the legs are anchored to the floor?) It appears only the drafting stools are allowed to roam free (fig.38).

37. A Patient Search? Photo by M. Carbone.

38. A Patient Search? Photo by M. Carbone.

Is this a ‘searched for’ expression of equality and fairness? I suspect that the layout of classes places the students in zones. One wonders where the most desirable location is? Overlooking the parking lot? Sitting over University Avenue? Looking into the windows of Sibley Hall?

Maybe this is simply training for a future in an architectural office. But the vastness of the setting reminds one eerily of the ‘sweatshops’ of the early 1800s which continue all over the world today (fig.39).

38. The Sweatshop? Photographer is unknown.

39. The Sweatshop? Photographer is unknown.

Make no mistake about it, there is a pecking order. That is why Freshmen (Freshpersons) build Dragons and Upperclassmen look for other amusements like crickets, chickens from Babcock Poultry Farm and other imaginative diversions.

Are there no territorial imperatives? No ascendancy based on merit or matriculation? Just Students being shuffled around on this tabula rasa. This could be a pretty bleak way to spend five years.

Critics have lauded the space for its informal nature. Does that mean that formal constructs are a block to learning? And the informal will accelerate learning and qualitative response?

What defines this space as informal? Is it the uninterrupted vistas? The fact that one can roam unimpeded to any location in this vast room? What would formal look like ?

The sense of this space is one of being both controlled and exposed; of being both building dominated and device dependent.

Here we witness the full scope of activity in simultaneity- students talking at their drafting tables, students sitting and chatting on a small grandstand built on top of the projection space of the auditorium below, and other students standing closer to a presentation, listening to a teacher in a dark suit, make a point (fig. 40).

39. Levels of Interest? Photographer is unknown.

40. Levels of Interest? Photographer is unknown.

Does this image encapsulate the ideal context for learning? It is hardly ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ by Rembrandt or ‘ The Gross Clinic’ by Eakins, which one might take exception to, even excluding the total absence of women, also not foreign in the history of architecture.

What would a ‘machine for teaching’ look like? It is interesting to observe the ceiling of the drafting room as a metaphor for the ‘machine for teaching’ The various building systems (structure, heating and cooling, lighting and power) are highly integrated, yet discreet and unobtrusive, direct, straightforward and calm and visually interesting as pattern and shape. And the systems are focused totally, efficiently and effectively on accomplishing their separate roles in collective support of the activity taking place.

Seeing that this is a place of creation, what historically is the creative context for the creator? The moment of creation is a very private experience inspired by thoughts relating to everything one brings to that moment from one’s experience of the ‘other world’. And it is the selective associative engagement within that world that garners a result.

The context of the creative environment has a number of attributes. It is private. It is free from distraction. It is familiar. It is motivational. It has constancy in that one can leave and return to that environment with the expectation that nothing has been disturbed or changed. This context can be as simple as a notebook or as complicated as the space of a studio.

Finally, all buildings should be a supporting stage for human activity and promote the qualities of what it is to be human. Buildings should provide a background which elevates human interaction to its fullest and most meaningful engagement with life.

To depart successfully from the status quo, the avant-garde (of which, I am sure Milstein Hall regards itself to be an artifact) must achieve in its content and mastery of idioms, a level that, no matter how radical, has a clarity of expression that permits access, understanding and appreciation by even the most uninformed, through their direct personal experience of that avant-garde statement.

Seeing as great architecture is both passion and belief, measured in form and embraced by light, buildings cannot rely on theory. They must rely on fact.

In many ways, Milstein Hall is grotesque, both in its lack of empathy for its context and in its capricious design and expression of the building’s requirements.

Milstein Hall has unfortunately lumbered to its final resting place devoid of any plausible mystery or any possible anticipation of experience.

With so many generations of Cornell teachers, architects, artists and planners of a serious and thoughtful mind and devoted to the pursuit of excellence, what could have taken place at Cornell to allow Milstein Hall to escape critical thinking and emerge into the light of day? Was it, the always present ‘silence of the Lambs’, a silence born out of the influence of politics and the crippling power of fear?

What is this all about? Another statement about reality? The importance of Mass Transit? I suppose one gets used to the coming and going of buses and spectators peering in from the outside. But one gets the feeling that all this openness and transparency may be, simply, a little self-promotion. The School of Architecture as a living human diorama. Look at how wonderful and interesting we are !


All captions are the author’s to provide a mental bridge to the text. In all cases, efforts have been made to identify and credit the photographers when known.


  1. Photo (jPEG 220×165,11.1 KB), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ college of architecture. The Photographer is unknown.
  2. Photo (PNG, 501×379, 352.6 KB) The Photographer is unknown.
  3. Photo (528×351.jpg), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  4. Photo (125×125.jpg), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  5. Photo (125×125.jpg) www.allenmatkins.com/publications. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  6. Drawing (jPEG, 500×286, 167.3 KB), elseplace.blogspot.com, Author is unknown.
  7. Photo (528×351.jpg), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  8. Photo (jPEG, 195×140, 19.6KB) archinet.com/fproduct/projects. The Photographer is unknown.
  9. Photo (jPEG.125 x 125, 7.2KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  10. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.8 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  11. Photo. (jPEG, 125×125, 7.2 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  12. Photo (jPEG 3264 x 1952,1.6 MB). private archive. Photograph by Michael Rosen.
  13. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.7 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  14. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 5.7 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  15. Photo ((jPEG, 125×125, 6.5 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall.Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  16. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 6.8 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  17. The eye of a whale functions like that of a human, both being from common mammal ancestry. Those that have come face to face with a whale, claim that the whale’s eyes, projecting unsettling intelligence and awareness, challenge one “ to reevaluate our perceptions of intelligent, conscious life on this planet”, Bryant Austen, Beautiful Whale, Abrams Books, 2013.
  18. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 6.2 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  19. Photo (jPEG, 500×331, 116.6 KB), elseplace.blogspot.com, Photographer is unknown.
  20. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.5 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  21. Photo (jPEG, 2000×1125, 1.2 MB), private archive, Photograph by Alan Chimacoff.
  22. Photo (jPEG, 660×371, 98.0 KB), news.socbay.com/%2BBennet-O-timkien. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  23. Photo (jPEG, 1024×683, 270.9 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  24. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.9 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  25. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.9 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  26. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 6.7 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  27. Photo (PNG, 505×503, 363.7 KB). The Photographer is unknown.
  28. Photo (PNG, 454×299, 177.1 KB). The Photographer is unknown.
  29. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 6.3 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  30. The Beaux Arts Ball has been a long standing tradition at the Cornell College of Architecture, Art and Planning. For those who are inquisitive, the only extant references appear to be articles in The Cornell Daily Sun, Volume XLIV, Number 111, 1 March 1924 , offering references to “exotic dress”, Volume XLIV, Number 151, 23 April 1924 referencing “Mother Goose” and finally, Volume LXVII, Number 121, 9 March 1951, providing a brief description of the proposed “A Night in Mars” [sic] with architects promising “that coeds and nymphs will swim in the canals”. The absence of other retrievable documentation could indicate that other Beaux Arts Balls were either too tame or too wild to be found acceptable for the general public. All this is brought to the attention of the patient reader to gently underscore, as a footnote, the fact that to do ‘great architecture’ one must have ‘Soul’.
  31. Colin Rowe, As I Was Saying, Volume One (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), page 45. Quote from a memorandum written for the Dean of Faculty at the University of Texas, Austin in 1954.
  32. A recollection of a conversation with Burnam Kelly, a former Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (1960-1971) in response to a student revolt and demand to redo the existing curriculum.
  33. Photo (jPEG, 528×351, 47.9 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  34. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 6.8 KB), ww.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein- hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  35. Photo (jPEG, 528×351, 52.8 KB), www.archdaily.com/295331/2013-united-states- best-architectural-schools. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  36. Photo (jPEG, 125×125, 7.5 KB), www.archdaily.com/199854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  37. Photo (PNG, 703×472, 559.5 KB). The Photographer is unknown.
  38. Photo (jPEG, 528×351, 65.9 KB), www.archdaily.com/179854/Milstein-hall. Photograph by Mathew Carbone.
  39. Photo (PNG, 501×497, 392.8 KB). The Photographer is unknown.
  40. Photo (jPEG, 205×150, 13.8 KB), archrecord.construction.com. The Photographer is unknown.


All references appearing in this work are real. Any resemblance to real actions, objects and activities are not purely coincidental.

  1. Historic Comfort, Sibley Hall, Cornell School of Architecture.
  2. The End.
  3. Into Darkness.
  4. The Sliding Cage.
  5. Man-made Imposition.
  6. Vacuous Parti.
  7. The Arcade.
  8. Sitting on the Whale.
  9. Arcade Reprise.
  10. Some of the Pieces.
  11. Figure-Ground.
  12. Wagner.
  13. Elements of a Style.
  14. Wasteland.
  15. University Avenue Demise.
  16. The Bus Stop.
  17. [Quote]
  18. The Intersection of Time.
  19. Smelling the Kill.
  20. Watching One’s Prey.
  21. False Identity.
  22. Nowhere Plaza.
  23. Hidden Target.
  24. Cross-Circulation.
  25. The Aquarium.
  26. Distant Observers.
  27. The Presentation.
  28. Aimless Cutouts.
  29. Where is Froebel?
  30. [Footnote]
  31. [Quote]
  32. [Quote]
  33. Feckless Space.
  34. Students Ascending a Staircase.
  35. Students Come and Go.
  36. Stairway to Heaven?
  37. Waiting for Godot?
  38. A Patient Search?
  39. The Sweatshop?
  40. Levels of Interest?

You can find more of Matthew Carbone’s Architectural Photography at his site HERE

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