© 2013 Jonathan Ochshorn
From the Critique of Milstein Hall introduction: Milstein Hall at Cornell University, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is an interesting building, in some ways an amazing building, and, by virtually any conceivable objective criterion, a disaster. That something amazing can simultaneously be a disaster is hardly a paradox. In fact, disasters are often amazing, and our amazement often increases proportionally with the range and scope of the disaster.
I will not be criticizing the visual appearance of this building, or making judgments about its subjective, aesthetic merit. I personally find the building interesting, and its underlying formal rationale provocative and compelling. But I am not particularly qualified to render such judgments, and other authorities or connoisseurs of architectural taste may well disagree. What follows, instead, is an objective critique of Milstein Hall, looking at the building in some detail from a series of different points of view, none of which are driven by aesthetic considerations.
From the Nonstructural Failure introduction: "The architect (qua artist) is not so much "help[ing] us along the heroic journey of our own lives" but rather creating, out of thin air, a heroic journey for herself: leaving the world of safe, predictable constructions; proposing buildings that have both the appearance and the reality of danger... and returning in glory from this confrontation with the agents of conformity (whether owners, users, public officials) with the building constructed."
I have not speculated about the reasons for detailing failures in Milstein Hall (some general notions about architects' attitudes towards detailing can be found in Designing Building Failures). It should be emphasized that such problems are not inevitable, even in complex or peculiar buildings. There is, however, a higher probability that such design problems will occur when complex or peculiar buildings are produced and, for that reason, more attention must be paid in both the design and construction phases to avoid them. By analogy to "defensive driving" techniques employed to reduce automobile accidents, architects should always employ "defensive detailing" to reduce the likelihood of sloppy or dysfunctional details.
As buildings get more complex, more collisions of geometries and of materials can be expected; each potential collision must be investigated and resolved. Anticipating problems means understanding architecture as something in motion rather than as a fixed and static object — to think of buildings as objects to be inhabited rather than merely modeled or photographed. Everything moves: structures move under dead, live, and environmental loads; elements expand and contract due to thermal and moisture changes; while water, vapor, air, and heat flows make the building enclosure a virtual laboratory of physical and chemical changes. Defensive detailing simply means that the unanticipated must, instead, be anticipated.
Here is an example of defensive detailing (or lack thereof): Alarms were placed in some of the fire-barrier doors installed between Milstein and Sibley Hall — the idea was to have these alarm go off when doors were propped open for too long a period of time. Unfortunately, the alarms have been going off quite often, sometimes several times per day, and are easily confused with actual fire alarms. Occupants of the building, hearing these alarms go off routinely, no longer respond to them: this places everyone in danger, since a real fire alarm may no longer be understood as a serious call for evacuation.
What follows is not an all-inclusive list of sloppy or dysfunctional details. I have not been given official access to such information, so the items that follow are based only on my random observations of the building:
Curtain wall cover plate details were worked out in the field, having never been adequately documented for the two visually similar but internally different conditions at the south-east and south-west intersections of the ground-level sloped glazing. The glazing at the south-west corner enclosing the auditorium is much thicker than the glazing at the south-west corner enclosing the entry lobby due to the greater need for acoustic resistance at the auditorium. Workers could be seen puzzling over the detail at the south-east corner, instructed to provide a few alternative metal plate mock-ups on site, so that those in charge could decide which detail to actually use (Figure 1). While this does not necessarily lead to nonstructural failure, it does point to a lack of adequate attention paid to detailing, which certainly increases the likelihood of such failure.
Milstein Hall's roof beams and corrugated steel deck are exposed in the upper level studio space, but the floor structure is mostly covered up by stamped aluminum soffit panels. Where a rectangular hole is punched in this floor structure to accommodate a stair to/from the lobby below, glass fascia panels were installed, revealing parts of the steel structure that would otherwise be hidden. The spaces between these glass panels were not sealed or covered with vertical mullions, however, thereby providing numerous access points for moths and other insects or arachnids (Figure 2). They get in, but cannot find their way out, and so this glazed area has inadvertently become something of an entomological display case.
There are many ways to characterize nonstructural building failure. One type of nonstructural failure comes about because of the difference between drawing or modeling something and actually building something. It may seem obvious that representation and reality are different, yet this difference is often ignored when designing buildings. Many products are manufactured as extrusions (aluminum sections, for example), or are rolled or otherwise molded into straight elements. In some cases, such elements can be bent (drywall and steel rolled sections, for example), but in many cases, building components manufactured in straight sections cannot easily be reconfigured into curved geometries. Even intersections of straight elements that are not at right angles can cause problems.
Both of these issues appear in Milstein Hall. The curved glass guard rail for the stair linking the lobby to the upper level studios is one example where ad hoc and sloppy construction details resulted from the use of products — designed for straight lines — in curved applications (Figure 3). The enclosure separating the upper level studios from the auditorium below is an example of a sloppy and seemingly ad hoc transition where straight elements are joined (Figure 4). It's not completely clear why this detail presented such complications.
Bowing of wood floor boards occurs due to differential expansion or contraction on either face of the boards. If the wood grain is not perfectly consistent (such perfection found only in the finest quarter-sawn lumber), moisture will have a different effect on the two faces, as these faces will differ in the degree to which their grain is oriented radially rather than tangentially — wood expands and contracts more tangentially than radially. It is possible that, even with the wood grain perfectly consistent throughout the cross section, moisture will be present to a greater or lesser degree on the bottom faces of the boards that are in closer contact with moisture in the underlying concrete slab. Since wood expands or contracts depending on its moisture content, which is in turn sensitive to atmospheric conditions, any such exposure to moisture may cause bowing of the boards. Furthermore, this effect is more pronounced with wide boards such as the ash planks specified for Milstein Hall (Figure 5), since the bowing occurs over a greater cross-sectional dimension.
Acoustic problems due to hard surfaces in the upper level studio space have been partly remediated through added acoustic ceiling panels; even so, the studio space remains difficult to use for critiques because there are no separated critique rooms; the crit room below the concrete dome is an acoustical joke, or perhaps a nightmare. Aside from the inappropriately large reverberation time owing to the hard concrete surfaces of both floor and ceiling, the doubly-curved geometry of the ceiling creates unusual patterns of unwanted reflected sound including effects reminiscent of whispering galleries (Figure 6).
Auditorium acoustics are mediated by sound-insulation above perforated stamped aluminum panels on the ceiling. Outdoor noises are kept out by thick acoustically-treated glazing. However, all of this attention to the attenuation of sound is compromised by the auditorium's "weakest link": the glass door at the lowest level provides no acoustic isolation from corridor noises; the same is true with the glass doors linking the auditorium to the studio floor above (Figure 7). A new glass door between the auditorium and the adjacent crit room, mandated when a NYS hearing board ruled that the single exit designed for the crit room was illegal, makes it impossible to use both rooms simultaneously: any noise generated in either the crit room or the auditorium is heard in the adjacent space.
Lighting failures: it is impossible to use digital projection facing and adjacent to the west wall of the studio on clear days in late afternoon or early evening because of the western sun; there have also been reported glare issues from skylights, as well as excessive lighting levels at night.1 In general, lighting systems seem to be experiencing problems: studio lighting was turned on at all times, even when the studio was unoccupied (I've heard, but cannot verify, that motion sensors were not working properly); and recessed soffit light fixtures above the outdoor, covered space between Milstein and Sibley Halls were not useable at all (I asked why these lights were not turned on during an August 2013 reception that took place in this dark covered space and was told that turning these lights on was, inexplicably, not possible — see video, Figure 8).
There have been a couple of instances of unintended concrete staining, or mottling, on Milstein Hall's walls and floor slabs. In the case of the floor slabs, a red stain appeared in the Crit room, possibly caused by wooden protection boards that were placed over the slab before it was fully cured. In the case of exposed concrete walls, also along the Crit room as well as the auditorium, mottling or staining apparently resulted from the combination of two form release agents that were applied to wooden forms (Figure 9). In some cases (not necessarily, but quite possibly, in this instance), the specification of LEED-friendly, but relatively untested, products causes such unintended problems.
An interior metal curtain wall veneer has started peeling (Figure 10) on the second-floor studio level, adjacent to the exterior stair.
The curtain wall near the LEED-certified bike rack is experiencing some problems (Figure 11).
More curtain wall problems on the west facade. I shot this video in July, 2020, but just got around to embedding the video (with a new and improved "soundtrack").
1 See "Cornell's Sustainable Vision for Milstein Hall" (note 4): online, accessed Aug. 16, 2013.
First posted 27 August 2013. Last updated: 1 December 2020