OMA's Milstein Hall: A Case Study of Architectural Failure
Jonathan Ochshorn

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Fire safety regulations, initially promulgated to prevent conflagrations that routinely destroyed large portions of cities, have been incrementally improved over the past several centuries, first to prevent fires from spreading to adjacent buildings, then to prevent fires from spreading from their floor of origin, and now to prevent fires from spreading even from their room of origin. Automatic sprinkler systems, combined with more traditional passive construction elements (including fire barriers and fire walls), have greatly reduced the risk of loss of life and property damage. Yet even so, fire still exacts an enormous cost: in the U.S., structural fires cause thousands of injuries and deaths each year, both to civilians and firefighters.1 Loss of property is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, just in New York State.

At Cornell University, fires routinely occur in both lab buildings and dormitories, and numerous Cornell students have been killed in off-campus houses and clubs.2 Outside of Cornell, even buildings designed by noted architects like OMA/Rem Koolhaas have been damaged by fire. OMA's New York City Prada store "became one of Prada's most successful stores, but on Saturday night [Jan. 21, 2006] a fire that began in neighboring American Eagle Outfitters injured seven people, including six firefighters, and caused extensive water and smoke damage throughout the building."3 OMA's 34-story hotel under construction as part of the CCTV (China Central Television) headquarters in Beijing was engulfed by "a fierce blaze started by an illegal fireworks show"4 in 2009.

Such examples illustrate precisely the issues at stake with the construction of Milstein Hall at Cornell University and, in particular, with the inadequate fire barrier installed between Milstein, Sibley, and Rand Halls. The Prada store, a retail establishment that should have been isolated from adjacent building areas by a fire barrier, suffered extensive damage when that isolation proved illusory. While it is difficult to determine precisely why the fire spread from the American Eagle store, it is likely that fire separation between the adjacent stores was inadequate, even though the two stores were "separated by a brick wall and 16 feet of lobby area."5 Legal documents allege that the fire "originated in a first-floor HVAC duct/mechanical room and that the fire was permitted to spread via a voids [sic] or voids in the HVAC duct/mechanical room." It was further alleged that "the installation of firestopping material in about the aforestated HVAC duct shaft/mechanical room located on the first floor of the building at 573-575 Broadway, New York, New York was negligently performed." Building code provisions cited in legal documents stemming from the Prada fire reference numerous sections of the 2002 Building Code of New York State, including those that deal specifically with fire barriers.6

The Prada fire caused numerous injuries, mainly to firefighters. One firefighter, in particular, allegedly "sustained serious personal injuries, severe physical pain and mental anguish as a result thereof, incapacitation from his usual vocation and avocation, and was caused to undergo medical care and attention…"7 In response to this five-alarm fire requiring the deployment of "nearly 200 firefighters and scores of fire trucks and other equipment"8 and causing not only injuries to seven people (six of whom were firefighters) but extensive property loss, architect Koolhaas appeared capable only of considering the extensive water damage at the store as a source of wry amusement. As reported in the New York Times: "A sense of humor was also water resistant. Through an assistant in his Rotterdam office, Mr. Koolhaas relayed his condolences: 'It's raincoats next season,' he said."9

In a separate incident, a fire at OMA's Beijing Mandarin Oriental Hotel, under construction and adjacent to—but spatially separated from—OMA's more famous CCTV tower, did enormous damage to the hotel, but did not spread to the CCTV tower. While damage was extensive in the hotel where the fire started, the effectiveness of code-based requirements for either physical separation (frontage), or fire-resistive barriers (fire barriers or fire walls) was clearly borne out here. Reducing code-sanctioned fire separation strategies to lower construction costs or to achieve some formal design objective, as has apparently been done at Milstein Hall, is a risky strategy.

It is clear that many architects and even building owners often don't appreciate the risk of fire, and make assumptions about the safety of buildings without any logical basis. Such attitudes gain currency in part because fire safety is assessed in a probabilistic environment where the risk of damage, injury, or death is not immediately evident. Yet fires are a recurring threat, even on Cornell's campus, and even in buildings connected to Milstein Hall.

Referring to noncompliant lecture halls in Sibley and Myron Taylor Halls at Cornell that were required by a New York State ruling to be either upgraded with a second exit or downgraded to a maximum occupancy of 49 people, Cornell's Deputy University Spokesperson Simeon Moss explained that the University had appealed the State's ruling that required such upgrades or exits because: "We're quite confident in the safety of the buildings."10 Such confidence, however, has no basis in building science or logic. In fact, Cornell's legal complaint against the New York State Department of State's Director of Code Enforcement and Administration and others made no reference to any actual fire science that would, in even the smallest way, justify confidence in the safety of those buildings. Rather, it hinged entirely on a dubious and ultimately discredited legal judgment that the State's Code Interpretation 2008-01 "is invalid and contrary to law."11

Can campus buildings catch on fire at Cornell? "Morse Hall, which housed the University's department of chemistry, was almost wholly destroyed by fire last Sunday, February 13. Little more was left standing than the walls of the building."12 "A laboratory fire today damaged a portion of Cornell University's Space Sciences building, where research financed by NASA and the National Science Foundation is conducted."13 "The S.T. Olin Chemistry Research Laboratory at Cornell University returned to use this morning after a second-floor fire in a research lab Thursday evening, July 8. The fire began at approximately 10 p.m. and involved a quantity of flammable liquids. The building was evacuated and the fire was extinguished by the Ithaca Fire Department."14 "Early yesterday morning, an electrical transformer device erupted in flames at the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory, which houses a particle physics accelerator. Ithaca firefighters responded to the fire alarm at 12:47 a.m., at first with only two fire engines, but because of the severity of the smoke, a third engine was dispatched. The cause of the fire appears to be accidental, but it is still under investigation, according to the IFD."15 "A small fire broke out at the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory yesterday afternoon around 2:47 p.m., marking the second fire in less than a month at the laboratory. An internal a power supply for a vacuum pump short-circuited and caused the fire, according to the Ithaca Fire Department."16

Finally, Sibley Hall, currently home to the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and now separated from Milstein Hall with a deficient fire barrier, also has experienced a damaging fire (fig. 18.1). The 1906 fire in Sibley was reported by the Cornell Alumni News:

Banner for Cornell Alumni News, dated Oct. 17, 1906, price, 10 cents, with photo of fire-damaged Sibley Hall.

Figure 18.1. Sibley Hall's "Mechanical Laboratory After the Fire" in 1906.

Fire early last Friday morning caused damage of $5,000 [$168,960 in 2023 dollars] to the mechanical laboratory in the rear of Sibley College, and threatened to destroy the entire building. Good work by the Ithaca fire department, assisted by University officers and students, confined the flames to two rooms. The loss is covered by insurance.

How the fire started is not known, but it is supposed to have been the result of a crossing of electric wires. … Brick fire walls had kept the flames confined to this section, and the firemen prevented it from spreading further. Pressure was obtained from the big pump directly west of the building. By 6 o'clock the fire was all out. …17

The efficacy of fire barriers or fire walls ("Brick fire walls had kept the flames confined…") was evident in 1906 when Sibley Hall, now connected to Milstein Hall, experienced a serious fire. Yet such barriers can be compromised, either by the actions of complacent architects and code enforcement officers, as evidenced in the design of Milstein Hall; or—ubiquitously—by the behavior of ordinary building users who, as students, faculty, and staff within a Department of Architecture, ought to know better (see, for example, figure 5.6).

One cannot say with certainty either that Milstein Hall would be free of risk by adopting modern fire-safety standards, or that Milstein Hall will experience fire damage if designed, as it has been, according to more lax standards. What can be stated with certainty, however, is that Milstein Hall is less safe than it could be and less safe than current building codes would require it to be.


1 "Civilian Deaths Caused by Fire in the United States from 1977 to 2021," Statista, accessed June 24, 2023, here.

2 See, for example: "Student Dies in Early Morning Cook Street Fire," Cornell Daily Sun, May 5, 2011, here; and "Student Dies in Apartment Fire," Cornell Daily Sun, May 14, 2006, here. Nine Cornell students were killed in a 1967 fire at the Cornell Residential Heights Club; there have been dorm fires in Balch Hall and the Low Rise dorms in 2004 and 2006 respectively; and there have been "129 campus-related fire fatalities nationwide since 2000" (up until Nov. 10, 2008) per Brian Fetterolf, "Renovation Highlights Fire Safety Issues," Cornell Daily Sun (Nov. 10, 2008), here.

3 Eric Wilson, "Prada Store Wrings Out," New York Times (Jan. 26, 2006), here.

4 Andrew Jacobs, "Fire Ravages Renowned Building in Beijing," New York Times (Feb. 9, 2009), here.

5 "Blanco v. Prada USA Corp.," 2009 NY Slip Op 33030(U), Robert Blanco, Plaintiff, v. Prada USA Corp., American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., 575 Broadway LLC, 575 Broadway Associates L.P. and 575 Broadway Corporation and A.R.I. Investors, INC., Defendants. No. 101644/07, Seq. No. 003. Supreme Court, New York County. December 21, 2009, and December 30, 2009, accessed June 24, 2023, at here.

6 "Robert Blanco, Plaintiff against Prada USA Corp., American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. etc.," Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, Feb. 2, 2007, (website no longer available).

7 "Robert Blanco, Plaintiff, against Prada USA Corp, American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., et. al.," Supreme Court of the State of New York, Verified Complaint, here (author's copy).

8 "7 Injured in Soho Blaze," New York Times (Jan. 22, 2006), here.

9 Eric Wilson, "Prada Store Wrings Out" New York Times.

10 Krisy Gashler, "Cornell Sues State, City over Fire Code," Ithaca Journal (June 17, 2009).

11 "Decision & Order, Cornell University, Petitioner/Plaintiff, vs. New York State Department of State, Ronald E. Peister et al.," State of New York Supreme Court, County of Tompkins, Index No. 2009-0220 (Aug. 6, 2009), here (author's copy).

12 "Morse Hall Destroyed by Fire," Cornell Alumni News, 18, no. 20, Ithaca, N. Y. (Feb. 17, 1916), here.

13 "Cornell Space Lab Is Damaged by Fire," New York Times (April 26, 1995), here.

14 "S.T. Olin Lab at Cornell back in use after fire," Cornell News (July 9, 1999), here.

15 Ayala Falk, "Electrical Unit Catches Fire At Synchrotron Laboratory," Cornell Daily Sun (September 17, 2009), accessed July 24, 2012, but no longer available.

16 Seth Shapiro, "Old Equipment Sparks Fire at Synchrotron," Cornell Daily Sun (Oct. 14, 2009), accessed July 24, 2012, but no longer available.

17 "Fire Threatens Sibley," Cornell Alumni News, 9, no. 3, Ithaca, N. Y. (Oct. 17, 1906), here (my italics). This article also is the source for Figure 18.1.

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