Aloof institution. Catalyst for Change. Environmental poster child. Architectural theme park. Government-initiated economic development. Digital new world. Boondoggle.
The recently-opened Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island is all of the above, or perhaps none of them. How it develops and if it succeeds are questions to be answered in the future. Today, however, it exemplifies multiple trends in American architecture and urban/economic development.
Created by the then-mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, the campus seeks to bolster New York’s economy by supporting the City’s leadership in computer engineering and to be an incubator for new businesses. In 2010, The New York City Economic Development Corporation solicited proposals from universities to develop an applied sciences campus on as-yet undesignated city-owned land along with $100 million in funding. In 2011, the proposal from a partnership between Cornell University of Ithaca and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel, was chosen.
Although this initiative’s ability to create jobs and maintain New York’s position in a global economy won’t be known for a while, its physical manifestation can be judged today. Its first of three phases opened in September 2017. The $2 billion, 12-acre Cornell Tech campus, just south of the 59th Street Bridge (officially the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge) on Roosevelt Island, is self-described as “the first campus ever built for the digital age,” although what that means is not exactly clear. It currently has 300 students but ultimately expects to have about 2,000. To address the goal of merging academia with industry to create new research, products and companies, it also accommodates tech entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Today there are three completed structures: the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, an academic building designed by Morphosis Architects; The Bridge, by Weiss/Manfredi Architects, a tech incubator that provides space for collaborations between academia and industry; and a 26-story residential tower by Handel Architects. Also part of this first phase is a 224-room hotel designed by Snøhetta which is adjacent to the Verizon Executive Education Center, construction on which was started this March. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) produced the master plan along with the landscape architectural firm of James Corner Field Operations (who also did the High Line).
The buildings of Cornell Tech’s 12.5 acre master plan create view corridors toward the Manhattan skyline and the Queens waterfront. A pedestrian path with a central round plaza meanders through the site and will eventually connect the buildings to the residential area to the north and the Four Freedoms Park to the south. Its open space, designed to encourage social interaction is accessible to the public.
Sustainability and resilience are Cornell Tech’s mandate, and the landscaping and buildings aim for ambitious levels of green building. The Bloomberg center’s goal is being net zero energy, The Bridge, being LEED gold, and for the residential tower, being the largest Passive House project to date. Pavements are porous and the campus includes storm water gardens, native plantings and renewable materials. The buildings have been raised above the 500-year flood plain.
The design of the campus builds on its strengths—that of city views. The City skylines act as the “walls” of this campus. The green space opens out to the water’s edge. Walking around, especially in the quiet of a cool afternoon, it’s impossible to not be impressed and, perhaps, a bit overwhelmed by images of bridges, buildings and infrastructure on every side. This feeling is reinforced by the closeness of Manhattan and Queens and the surrounding reflections of the buildings themselves which multiply and distort the views. The buildings’ prodigious use of glass and metal serves to not only reflect each building, but to substitute for formal cohesiveness. The facades however are quite opaque as a result of the material employed for environmental reasons and the insulated glass is quite reflective and not transparent.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s the first campus built for the “sustainable age,” an example of architectural design required to meet self-imposed environmental goals. The 160,000 sq. ft. Bloomberg Center is an all-electric building that does not use fossil fuels. Its roof canopy (as well as The Bridge’s) contains photo voltaic panels to generate solar power as well as to shade the building. A green roof with native plants cools and moderates stormwater runoff. The façade consists of aluminum panels finished with an iridescent coating to provide reflections of the surroundings by the circular tabs punched into them. On the ground floor, a café with sidewalk seating makes the building more welcoming.
Sitting opposite the Bloomberg Center is The Bridge, a seven-story, 235,000 sq. ft. Tata Innovation Center by Weiss Manfredi. Cornell occupies one-third of the building while the remaining space houses technology-focused companies and start-ups. It too has rooftop solar panels and a landscaped roof terrace; the ground floor is built seven feet above the 100-year flood plain. Its floor plan maximizes city views and natural light for the interior spaces.
Buildings in New York used to be constructed as singular entities. Parcels that contained several buildings were designed not only with master plans but also with a cohesive style, epitomized by Rockefeller Center and some college campuses, for example, Columbia University. Buildings now seem to pop up in clumps. More recently, campuses and developments are conglomerations of disparate structures with each one crying out for attention. Although developed as a group, the individual buildings that make up these new assemblages do not have a mandate to relate to each other, but instead continue their life as if they alone lived on the block. Lately, however, the conversation among them is muted. Visual cohesion is provided by landscape architects who knit the various elements together.
Roosevelt Island, two miles long with maximum width of 800 feet, is located in the East River between Queens and Manhattan. It is accessible by car, subway and also from Manhattan by a tramway, part of the transit system. Roads and private vehicles are kept to a minimum and it has remained mainly a pedestrian environment. The City owns the land and provides leases to buildings and developments, including over the years: a penitentiary, hospitals, asylums and in the late 1960s and early 70s, a large-scale housing community master-planned by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. Its population in 2010 was about 12,000 people, all north of this latest development. At the southern tip of the island is the four-acre Four Freedoms Park honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, which opened in 2012 and was built according to a 1973 design by Louis Kahn.
It’s part of the City yet not. Perhaps Cornell Tech is well situated there after all.
All photos by author.