© 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."
Why would anyone bury a storm drainage pipe within a reinforced concrete slab? One could answer that question by posing another one: Why would a computer manufacturer design a laptop so that ordinary maintenance — say, changing a battery — would require a trip to the factory?1 In both cases, the focus is on the immediate cost, pleasure, or "functionality" of the object, rather than on maintenance headaches that, inevitably, occur down the road.
What follows is not an all-inclusive list of maintenance issues. 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:
Steel columns were made to extend below grade, where they are fastened through steel base plates to concrete caisson caps (Figure 1). To protect these steel columns from corrosion where they would be in direct contact with the earth, the construction documents show a rather sketchy detail in which some rubberized flashing material would be adhered to the surface of the steel wide-flange shapes, which in turn would be covered with some sort of steel sheet somehow flashed, soldered, or welded into the column itself. All of this appeared to be detailed without a great deal of specificity or precision, and the actual built details do not appear to offer systematic or reliable protection against water intrusion. Beyond the apparent inadequacy of the details and the questionable execution of the details, a more worrisome aspect of this decision to bury steel sections underground is that mechanisms for corrosion can arise in numerous ways that may not have been anticipated during the design process. For example, below-grade humidity could penetrate through even the smallest cracks or seams in the rubberized membrane, and then condense on the cool steel surface (cooler in winter than the surrounding soil because the column cross-section acts as a perfect thermal bridge to the cold outdoor environment). Because these events would all be occurring underground, it is not possible to know whether there is a problem now, or whether a problem will develop fifty years from now.
And unlike buildings with a great deal of structural redundancy, Milstein Hall relies on just a few enormous columns to resist both gravity loads and lateral forces: any weakness in a single column could have catastrophic consequences.
Also puzzling is the lack of a complete stainless steel covering at several of the columns adjacent to Rand Hall (Figure 2).
Milstein Hall's covered outdoor space — between the glazed auditorium and lobby and the existing north wall of E. Sibley Hall — is always rather dark (Figure 3); for some reason, lights recessed in the stamped aluminum soffit panels cannot be easily turned on. Perhaps for this reason, sloped mullions have been designed with integral light fixtures, with some sort of plastic cover plate. These custom-designed fixtures seems to have continual problems, including strange discontinuous patterns created by the internal lighting elements, and breakage of the cover plates (Figure 4).
Everything works fine until it doesn't. Technology stays the same until it changes. Expectations for performance of building elements is constant except when such expectations change. Pipes never leak, until they leak. Interior spaces are never re-designed, until they are. The point is this: building systems that might wear out or break or otherwise need to be inspected, replaced, upgraded, or repaired should be designed to be easily accessible. Embedding such systems into reinforced concrete seems like a rather shortsighted idea, yet this is a widely-used strategy in Milstein Hall. Mechanical ducts are buried below the basement slab, built in below the concrete steps of the auditorium, and installed between the two concrete layers of the crit-room "dome" (Figures 5-7). Conduit leading to light fixtures is similarly embedded within the concrete slab of the dome, as if patterns, requirements, or even aesthetics of such lighting fixtures will never need to be reconsidered (Figure 8). Such an attitude all but guarantees that routine problems — which are inevitable in any building over time — will turn into costly crises.
The design of auditorium air plenums with registers on floor surfaces adjacent to built-in chairs (Figure 7), along with the design of built-in and mechanically-activated leather chairs (deployed only for Board of Trustees meetings — see video below), is particularly counterproductive, as these elements are sensitive to food and liquids that might be inadvertently dropped or spilled. For this reason, and contrary to the "artist's conception" rendering of the space (Figure 9), food and beverages are forbidden in the space — good luck enforcing that one.
Moving parts have a greater probability of malfunctioning than fixed elements. Even a door — the most basic of moving building elements — can fail in unexpected ways, especially when unusual or complex building elements are thrown into the mix. One curious example of such a nonstructural failure is a fire-rated door installed in the fire barrier wall between Milstein and Sibley Halls that happens to open over floor-applied signage consisting of cut-out thermoplastic letters and figures. Because of variations in slab height together with the added height of the raised signage letters adhered to the slab, the fire-barrier door tended to get stuck in its open position when it hit the letters — violating the integrity of the fire barrier (Figure 10). After I pointed this out to building's project administrators, the door was "fixed" by raising its height above the sill so it cleared the signage letters. Unfortunately, it now appears to violate the requirements of NFPA 80: Standard for Fire Doors, Fire Windows (Table 1-11.4), which specifies a maximum 3/8 inch clearance under the bottom of doors.
A more complex set of objects with motorized moving parts is the "Board of Trustee" seating at the lower part of the Milstein Hall auditorium. Aside from the bizarre politics that resulted in the decision to allocate space in the auditorium for meetings of the Board, the underlying premise behind the actual design of these seats is so strange as to defy all efforts aimed at comprehension (Figure 11). Suffice it to say that these comfortable and motorized leather seats are stored under the raised floor of the auditorium for use only three times a year when the Trustees are in town, at which times a complex mechanism is activated and the chairs rise out of their hidden space. In a quaintly anachronistic nod to the treatment of royalty or perhaps to captains of industry, faculty and students — the common people at Cornell — are asked to use ordinary chairs that are moved in from some remote storage location when the Trustees leave Ithaca in their corporate jets. But such complex mechanisms can easily break down: a panicky email was sent out to students and faculty in May, 2013 ("...Please note that no one should uncover or sit in the trustee seats for any reason.") when the some of the leather seats could not be returned to their hidden position, and it was necessary to leave them exposed to the hoi polloi.
Not only that, but the removable rows of "regular" seats that are brought in when the "Trustee" seats are not available are rarely sat in, since the sight lines from this part of the auditorium up to the projection screen require an uncomfortable tilting of the head relative to the neck (Figure 12), well beyond recommendations based on anthropometric data.2 There is also a palpable sense that these lower seats are less desirable, perhaps because — being ad hoc, seemingly temporary, and placed on the same flat floor surface with the podium — they deny users the anonymity gained by sitting further back on the sloped surface of the dome.
The vegetated (green) roof of Milstein Hall was designed with a geometric pattern whose origin and justification need not concern us here. This pattern will be very difficult to maintain over time, as natural processes bring both changes to the strict delimitations of the colored sedum plantings, and changes to the types of plantings and their arrangement. Both wind and birds bring unintended plants to the vegetated roof; these will grow not only in the general field of engineered growing medium (once can't really describe the stuff as "soil"), but also in the gutters and along the boundaries (Figure 13)
While it is possible to maintain the original pattern and remove the unwanted "weeds," this process becomes extraordinarily difficult on the Milstein Hall roof; since no guard rails have been provided, workers need specialized restraints before they are even allowed on the roof.
1 "The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we've ever taken apart: Unlike the previous model, the display is fused to the glass, which means replacing the LCD requires buying an expensive display assembly. The RAM is now soldered to the logic board — making future memory upgrades impossible. And the battery is glued to the case, requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple every so often for a $200 replacement. The design may well be comprised of 'highly recyclable aluminum and glass' — but my friends in the electronics recycling industry tell me they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it like Apple did with both this machine and the recent iPad." Kyle Wiens, "The New MacBook Pro: Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable," Wired.com, June, 14, 2012 (accessed Aug. 26, 2013).
2 Lecture hall design standards published by the University of Maryland state that: "Rule 5. Vertical Viewing Angle. Students should be limited to 15 degrees maximum head tilt excursion above horizontal, to reference the center of the projection screen" (emphasis added). Accessed online (pdf) Aug. 23, 2013.
First posted 27 August 2013. Last updated: 1 Sept. 2013