Selected writings
Follow @jonochshorn

Thoughts on Milstein Hall

Jonathan Ochshorn


"It is essential that the faculty weigh in on the project and I urge you to do so before the Wednesday senate meeting so that your views will have a chance to circulate. There is apparently an impression that AAP faculty, and the architecture faculty in particular, are divided or even apathetic about the need for the project. I believe this is far from the case, and we need to let others know. I will do my utmost to communicate the urgent need to progress on schedule with Milstein Hall, but your voice is needed."

– AAP Dean Kleinman, email to college faculty, Feb. 6, 2009.

view of proposed milstein hall elevator, Cornell

Milstein Hall's glass elevator, shown with Barcelona Chair (starting at $6,000–$7,000 — prices vary — in stainless steel) and lamp.

Dean Kleinman of Cornell's College of Architecture, Art & Planning (AAP) has asked faculty to "weigh in" on the Milstein Hall project. Like many others on our faculty, I would like Milstein Hall to be built. I even admire its design, and the fact that it so shrewdly critiques the history and culture of our college. It will be fun to sit in the glass auditorium, albeit with its electric-powered roller blinds drawn down; or put on my dark glasses and ride in the glass elevator, pretending I'm about to purchase shoes from Prada in New York City. Okay, I admit that a bit of sarcasm may have crept into the last sentence: such things can't be helped. But I'm sincere in my admiration for the building design. Like many other arrogant, extravagant, and basically silly works of architecture, it engages our interest by expressing something about the human condition within the context of our culture's inescapable contradictions and idealistic posturing. To criticize the building on artistic grounds is certainly possible, but ultimately futile: in a few years, like much contemporary architectural production, it will quietly fade into the background as new styles emerge, reappearing perhaps as a footnote in some academic study of fashion and taste in the twenty-first century.

I like the building, but this is just my own subjective judgment; others may disagree, as is common with all works of art. What remain problematic are certain objective qualities of the project. As a Client of this building, and not just a connoisseur of its heroic artistry, I must examine other issues that could have an impact on the health and safety of the people who use it, the ability of the college and university to respond to changing programmatic needs, and so on.

To anticipate my conclusions: Milstein Hall will be fun, exciting, and will generate a bit of a "buzz" for the college. It will provide lots of new space for college and university needs. However, it leaves Rand and Sibley Hall (including the Fine Arts Library) in terrible condition, does not provide a truly flexible building, and makes future alterations to both Milstein and Sibley Halls problematic.

Should it be put on hold or cancelled? Well, that depends on how Cornell would react. If the university would simply kill the project without taking steps to improve conditions, the impact on the Department of Architecture would be catastrophic. On the other hand, if Cornell would compel their architects to substantially redesign the project so that it is pulled away from East Sibley Hall, made flexible in accommodating potential future needs of the university (lecture halls, studios, classrooms, offices, libraries, etc.), and made sustainable in a serious way, then such a "pause" would indeed be productive.

First, a bit of background. The latest version of Milstein Hall was conceived and executed in secrecy, so that only a small group of faculty were able to advise the Cornell administration, and the architects of Milstein Hall, about the needs of the college and the appropriateness of the architect's design in relation to those needs. The schematic design was unveiled with great fanfare in Bailey Hall; from that point, it became extremely difficult for faculty to productively criticize the project, as a great deal of resources had already been expended on its design, and it was apparent that a great deal would be lost if the project was derailed. That a great deal might indeed be lost for the college is undoubtedly true, and the weight of this realization had led me to restrict my criticisms to concerns about apparent violations of the New York State Building Code. As a licensed architect, this is my obligation under the law.

However, as the new Dean of AAP, Kent Kleinman, is now characterizing the departmental faculty as generally supportive of the project, and is urging faculty to communicate their views about this project to a wider audience, I feel compelled to make my concerns known, and to address several misrepresentations about Milstein Hall that have been advanced by Cornell in order to sell this building.

1. It is claimed that Milstein Hall is necessary for the continued accreditation of the professional architecture programs. Cornell's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) states that the "[NAAB] reports also reflected a critical need for AAP to upgrade facilities in the Architecture Department for a variety of needs, particularly for crit space and other spaces designed to foster the ways architecture, art and planning are now being taught." [p.1-48, DEIS] The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) reiterates the same point: "Milstein Hall is necessary to increase the quality and amount of space per student in order to meet the accreditation requirements of the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)." [p.127 FEIS]

In fact, accreditation concerns about the architecture department's "physical plant" have been primarily about the poor condition of Sibley and Rand Halls and their lack of accessibility, and not about the need for a new building. There has certainly been some concern about the amount of "space per student," but this was not the driving force behind NAAB concerns, especially since there are no explicit NAAB requirements that specify minimum "square foot area and quality of studio space available to each student," as is claimed by Cornell (DEIS, 1-5). Following are some actual concerns raised by the NAAB, taken from the last 25 years of NAAB reports:

From the NAAB report dated April 1983: "The physical facilities are atrocious - below minimum standards. The quality and stature of the program deserve better facilities support than the program now has. We particularly cite the needs for improvement in Rand Hall, the Slide Collection space, the Shop, and the Photo Lab facilities. We consider the program's facilities to be inadequate in amount, in their degree of dispersal and in their quality and maintenance... With respect to physical facilities, the Team recommends that the Department develop a special plan, for approval and support by the University, for the refurbishing of space."

From the NAAB report dated April 1993: "The most critical issue of the site visit was the deplorable conditions of the physical facilities. The critical nature of this issue has been clearly documented and communicated to both the dean's office and the central administration through numerous studies and development plans... This must be the very last NAAB team to cite Cornell University for not 'providing space that is appropriate for a professional program in architecture.' While square footage and program areas are a major concern, the physical condition including urgent issues of life safety and (ADA) Americans with Disability Act compliance are monumental. Environmental control for one of the world's most extensive architectural libraries is another critical example."

From the NAAB report dated March 1998: "...the present team finds the physical facilities for the architecture program to be seriously deficient and detrimental to the quality of the program. The members of the team who are in professional practice are unanimous in their assessment that there are serious health, quality of life and educational issues in both Sibley and Rand Halls. The problems are long-standing and well-known to the University, which has neither addressed them in the past nor developed plans to address them in the future."

Given the repeated NAAB calls for renovation of Sibley and Rand Halls, it is remarkable that the university – from the original competition proposal to the current program for Milstein Hall – has ruled out any design that involves renovating Sibley or Rand Halls (in fact, the original competition required that Rand Hall be demolished). In post-competition redesigns, even with Rand Hall's death sentence commuted, the university has strongly reiterated its position that no effort to renovate either Sibley or Rand Halls will be tolerated. It is also remarkable, given the NAAB's past sensitivity to issues of code compliance, that the university would propose a new building that is already nonconforming with respect to the New York State Building Code (more on this below). Milstein Hall does virtually nothing to address the conditions in Sibley and Rand Hall that were specifically criticized in previous accreditation reports. Accessibility is finally being addressed in Sibley independently of the Milstein Hall project. An elevator and accessible bathrooms are proposed for Rand Hall as part of the Milstein Hall project, but such interventions could happen with or without a new building.

original use of Fine Arts Library space, Cornell

Original auditorium in what is now the Fine Arts Library, Sibley Dome, Cornell University

Space, while not initially the most important NAAB concern, has certainly become a bigger issue recently, with the elimination of departmental space due to the expansion of administrative offices, computer rooms, the elimination of trailers, the addition of elevators, the growth of professional and other graduate programs, etc. However, additional program space, to the extent that it is needed, can be more rationally obtained by moving the Fine Arts Library out of E. Sibley Hall and from under the Dome; by changing the Dome space back into a major auditorium accessible from the Arts Quad; and by building a straight-forward, cost-effective, and sustainable addition to house a new library and perhaps some additional program space in a location that does not immediately trigger serious building code issues. Clearly, there are many other options, including a redesign of Milstein Hall, that would also satisfy the needs of the department while taking advantage of the inherent attributes of Sibley and Rand Halls. However, I must repeat that from the very first design competition for Milstein Hall in 2001, Cornell has explicitly ruled out any consideration of Sibley and Rand Halls in planning a new facility (other than requiring the demolition of Rand Hall in the original competition guidelines). The Fine Arts Library was similarly excluded from consideration. Such are the strictures under which this project was conceived and designed: it is hardly surprising that the resulting product makes a mockery of rational planning for the College's facilities.

2. It is claimed that Milstein Hall "connects" the various programs of the College: "The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has designed Milstein Hall to physically and programmatically integrate AAP's Sibley Hall, Rand Hall and the Foundry." (1-5, DEIS, 2008) No more "running back and forth in the cold" between Sibley and Rand, as a student quoted in a recent Cornell Sun article asserted. In fact, Milstein is connected to Rand Hall's second floor, to East Sibley's basement, and to East Sibley's second-floor Fine Arts Library space. The connection to Sibley's second floor seems purely rhetorical, as security concerns in the Fine Arts library make such a literal connection problematic. Moreover, even if such a connection was somehow made possible, connections between Rand and Sibley, or Milstein and Sibley, are still of limited utility. For example, to get from my first floor office in Rand Hall to the department office in Sibley without going outside, I would need to walk up to the second floor of Rand, walk across through Rand into Milstein, walk down two levels to the basement of Milstein (or put on my dark glasses and take the glass elevator), walk through Milstein and then across to Sibley's basement, and then take the stairs up to the first floor of Sibley.

More importantly, Milstein Hall makes no new connections among the three AAP departments. Milstein Hall neither engages the planners in West Sibley nor the artists in Tjaden or the Foundry. The potential for its studio space to foster inter-departmental collaborations is real, but to promote this possibility as a special feature of Milstein Hall is disingenuous: any studio, whether in Sibley, Rand, or elsewhere, could just as easily be the setting for such collaboration. It is the faculty, students, and administration – not a particular location – that makes collaboration work.

3. It is claimed that Milstein will be a sustainable building. It is not hard to obtain LEED certification if you throw enough money at a building design. In the case of Milstein, obtaining LEED points is even easier, since the building can take advantage of several things that have nothing to do with the actual design, including lake-source cooling and cogeneration, proximity to bus lines, use of native plants without irrigation, etc. Cornell even talked about slapping on a "green roof," but then advised faculty that there would be no access (to reduce costs), and finally proposed to remove it from the design entirely (if rumors are to be believed) because of its high price. LEED is a game that certainly can be played, and it will have some environmental benefits, but only compared to what the current design, minus the LEED initiatives, would otherwise provide: not compared to what a rational design could provide.

This is an important point about the LEED rating system: it has no interest in exploring more sustainable design options, but only in comparing the proposed design to a so-called "baseline" design which essentially consists of the proposed building stripped of its sustainable features.

view of proposed milstein hall and foundry, Cornell

Milstein Hall (left) in relation to the Foundry.

4. It is claimed that Milstein Hall takes appropriate consideration of the Landmark status of nearby buildings, in particular Sibley Hall and the Foundry. Of the various standards promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior, and referenced in the FEIS, the most relevant in this case is Standard No. 9: "...The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment." (p.132 FEIS, Summary of Project Analysis Under Secretary of the Interior's Standards.)

I should make clear at this point that I am not personally offended by Milstein's "in-your-face" attitude towards the various historic structures it impacts. My appreciation of Milstein in relation to the Foundry, for example, is not unlike my enjoyment of the psychopathic character played by Al Pacino in the movie, Scarface. Of course, if I was an actual victim of such violence, rather than a detached observer of artistic expression, I would certainly develop a less complacent attitude.

I also do not fully accept the logical basis of the Secretary of the Interior's standards. However, it is one thing to disagree with these standards regarding intervention in historic districts, and quite another to try and twist the clear intentions of these standards to suit a diametrically opposed strategy, as the Milstein proponents have done. It is also somewhat ironic that the useful, sensitively designed, and "material-differentiated" accessible ramp in front of Sibley was only given a provisional life-span by the Landmarks Commission, who insist that it be removed as an affront to the integrity of the historic context, once Milstein Hall is completed.

5. It is claimed that Milstein Hall's large, open, second floor is a flexible space that can be altered in the future to accommodate changing college needs, including the possibility of housing all or part of the Fine Arts Library. However, as explained in detail below, the actual inflexibility of the Sibley-Milstein design may preclude some future alterations, thereby making rational planning for the college virtually impossible. We have also been told that, by removing columns in order to create a cantilevered design, library use is forever banned from the cantilevered portion of the second-floor, as the higher live loads of library stack areas cannot be safely supported. Cornell's FEIS mentions in its Application for a Certificate of Appropriateness to the Landmarks Commission that the current four buildings comprising AAP "all served other purposes originally" [p.131, FEIS]. In other words, the "old" buildings on campus are remarkably flexible, and can be adapted for classrooms, offices, libraries, lecture halls, and even studio classrooms. In contrast, Milstein Hall's unusually large floor plan is ill-suited for any use other than open offices, open studios, or (if permitted), library stacks. Even so, the potential problems with uncontrollable acoustics and lighting in this vast space are enormous. But there is an even more serious threat to flexibility in Milstein Hall, which is described in detail below:

The design for Milstein Hall is nonconforming with respect to the current New York State Building Code. It has been issued a building permit under an older version of the Code (in effect when the building plans were first submitted) which allowed the substitution of "fire barriers" for "fire walls" where the new addition (Milstein) joined the existing building (Sibley). This allowance was peculiar to New York State, was intended to spur economic development at the expense of fire safety, and was eliminated in the current Code. Under the current Code, a fire wall is required to separate Milstein Hall from East Sibley Hall. As it is virtually impossible to build a fire wall between Sibley and Milstein Halls, one wonders why a such scheme was ever seriously considered in the first place.

While legal as a "grandfathered" condition (i.e., where a violation of current Code standards is permitted to remain, as long as it was legal when built), building a nonconforming structure seems shortsighted, and also provides less fire safety than would be required under the current Code. Because Milstein Hall's second-floor level will be used for "Educational occupancies for students above the 12th grade," the second-floor spaces are, or should be, classified as group B occupancies. No occupancies constituting a "higher Hazard" may ever be placed in these spaces, since an alteration to a higher hazard occupancy requires compliance with the current Code, and Milstein Hall, being nonconforming, is therefore noncompliant. Only alterations involving group B uses may occur in Milstein Hall. A library or a lecture hall, for example, would be classified as a higher-hazard A-3 occupancy, and therefore may not be permitted in Milstein Hall as part of any future alteration.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must state that City of Ithaca code inspectors disagree with this Code interpretation. Therefore, I feel compelled to quote directly from the relevant passages of New York State codes to reinforce my argument. As explained below, architects are advised to design according to what the Code says, and not according to what code inspectors may say.

The projected studio classrooms (and ancillary spaces) for the second floor of Milstein fall under the group B, and not the group A-3 occupancy class. The A-3 designation includes things like "lecture halls" and "libraries," "museums," "art galleries," and "bowling alleys," but not classrooms. The group B designation specifically includes "Educational occupancies for students above the 12th grade." In case of any ambiguity, Section 302.1 of the code says: "Where a structure is proposed for a purpose which is not specifically provided for in this code, such structure shall be classified in the group which the occupancy most nearly resembles." The studio classrooms fit most closely into the group B category, and so the code requires that such spaces be so designated. It is also not permitted to classify the entire building or the second story as a combination A-3/B occupancy, even if the building contains so-called nonseparated mixed uses. Section 302.3.1 says: "Nonseparated uses. Each portion of the building shall be individually classified as to use." Taken together, these two explicit code provisions require that the second floor of Milstein be designated as a group B occupancy.

A future change to an A-3 (library or lecture hall) occupancy would not be permitted, because such a change would be replacing an existing occupancy with one of a higher hazard. The relevant code language is as follows: Section 812.4.2.1 of the Existing Building Code of New York State says: "When a change of occupancy group is made to a higher hazard category as shown in Table 812.4.2, heights and areas of buildings and structures shall comply with the requirements of Chapter 5 of the Building Code of New York State for the new occupancy group." Table 812.4.2 classifies group A-3 spaces as having a "relative hazard" of 2 (with 1 being the highest hazard), and group B spaces as having a relative hazard of 4 (lowest hazard). Therefore, it is clear that a change from group B to group A-3 constitutes an alteration to a higher hazard occupancy.

With such a change, the building must conform to the requirements of Chapter 5 of the Building Code of New York State. What are those requirements? Chapter 5 regulates the allowable heights and areas of buildings, based on construction type and occupancy. Since the fire barrier separating Milstein and Sibley Halls is nonconforming with respect to the current code, it cannot be invoked to consider Milstein Hall as a separate building, as would be the case with a fire wall. Therefore, Sibley-Milstein must be treated as a single building under the current code, and the height/area limits are as follows: the maximum height is 60 feet; the maximum number of stories is two; and the maximum area on a single floor is at most 22,500 sq.ft. The combined second-floor area for Sibley-Milstein greatly exceeds this limit of 22,500 sq.ft., and the number of stories in Sibley-Milstein similarly exceeds the Code limit of two. Based on either of these criteria (floor area or number of stories), any alteration to a higher hazard occupancy should not be permitted, as the requirements of Chapter 5 would not be met, and cannot be met.

The objection may be raised that the current design for Milstein Hall would permit an A-3 occupancy if it were to be put in place now, so why not allow such a change in the future? This objection conveniently forgets the fact that the design is nonconforming with respect to current codes. The whole point of the "grandfathering" clause in the Code is to allow such nonconformance to persist into the future, but to require that alterations to higher hazard occupancies meet current standards. Milstein Hall does not meet current standards. By claiming that the current occupancy is within group A-3, the building architects appear to be violating those sections of the Code which (a) require them to designate each space according to its actual use; and (b) designate each use according to the occupancy it most closely resembles. The reasons for designating the second-floor Milstein Hall spaces as group A-3 instead of group B are clear: by doing so (in apparent violation of the Code), future alterations within the A-3 occupancy group would be permitted. In other words, in order to maintain the illusion of flexibility, Milstein Hall's spaces must be improperly classified according to use.

If the architects for Milstein Hall are basing their occupancy classifications on the opinions of the code inspectors (who have already issued a building permit), it should be noted that it is the architects for the building, and not the code inspectors, who are the professionals licensed by the State of New York to protect health and safety; as such, in the event of any litigation concerning this matter, the architects cannot rely upon the judgment of the code inspectors to defend any Code violation. Nor can the issuance of a building permit be used in such a defense. Cornell's lawyers, who successfully bullied the Board of Public Works and the Landmarks Commission in earlier Milstein Hall fights, might find themselves in an uncomfortable position defending what appears to be a deliberate circumvention of the Building Code.

For these reasons, the university may well discover that alterations to Milstein Hall are not permitted. There is no guarantee that the laissez-faire attitude of current City of Ithaca code inspectors will persist into the future. The Fine Arts library, as an example, may be forever locked into its unfortunate home in E. Sibley Hall, with no possibility of moving, except to some remote location away from the college, or possibly into one of two additions, currently slated for future expansion of the Planning and Fine Arts Departments, that could be built on top of the parking structure adjacent to Milstein Hall (see DEIS, p. 1-61).

Milstein Hall has had some additional problems conforming to the New York State Building Code. I have already pointed out the following issues elsewhere: (a) Milstein's second-floor plate covers many E. Sibley windows, making those E. Sibley spaces noncompliant with Code requirements for natural ventilation; (b) Milstein's proposed fire barrier was originally designed only for the second floor, instead of being designed for the basement and first floor as well; and (c) Rand Hall's second floor loses two windows as a result of Milstein's construction, making those Rand Hall spaces noncompliant with Code requirements for natural ventilation.

Items (a) and (b) have been addressed, as a result of my complaints, although it is unlikely that the newly-proposed mechanical ventilation for several rooms in E. Sibley Hall will meet environmental standards for energy and indoor air quality such as those found in the LEED New Construction Reference Guide. It is also clear that this "improvement" in Sibley Hall is an insufficient and ad hoc response to the hole Cornell has dug for itself by placing Milstein's second-floor plate over Sibley's windows, and that it appears to leave many rooms, including the third floor of the Fine Arts Library, without any mechanical ventilation.

Cornell, in denying that the addition of mechanical ventilation to E. Sibley rooms had anything to do with Code compliance issues, says: "Due to aesthetic concerns interior to Sibley Hall, the fire barrier strategy for the walls between Sibley Hall and Milstein Hall have [sic] been changed from utilizing interior roll down fire shutters to interior fire rated glass opening protectives. As a result, mechanical ventilation will additionally be provided to the east wing of Sibley Hall to first floor rooms 140, 142, 144, 156, and 157, and basement rooms B52 and B54." (FEIS, p.13) The fact that neither "fire rated glass opening protectives" nor "roll down fire shutters" for the first floor and basement of E. Sibley Hall appeared on the plans originally submitted to the Building Department, and the fact that this "aesthetic" change was first mentioned in Cornell's response to the concerns about Code violations that I entered into the DEIS record, lead me to doubt that "aesthetic" concerns actually prompted this change. It is more likely that Cornell and its architects simply screwed up by submitting plans for a non-Code-compliant building, and they refuse to admit it.

I also cannot verify whether item (c) has been addressed, since Cornell has neither made public nor provided me with their Rand Hall ventilation calculations.