Milstein Hall Hangs Tight at Cornell

Milstein Hall Hangs Tight at Cornell

Office for Metropolitan Architecture
with KHA Architects
and Robert Silman Associates

Much has been written about the trouble that Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) has faced in striving to get its new building off the ground. On the one hand, national program officials have threatened to revoke the school’s accreditation on account of its woefully out-of-date facilities. On the other, the university itself, in the midst of financial straits, has balked at construction costs and halted building projects across the institution.

It is remarkable, then, to report that the erection of steel framing members has been completed on the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)–designed Paul Milstein Hall, a $55 million, 47,000-square-foot project that will fill out the AAP’s programmatic needs and secure its place as a top-of-the-heap design education program. Just as remarkable, however, OMA’s design seems to defy gravity, with a structural system of muscular steel members that support jaw-dropping cantilevers, and a unique, cast-in-place concrete dome as complex in construction as it is simple in form.

Milstein Hall will supply students with much-needed studio, crit, and exhibition space, as well as a 275-seat auditorium and fine arts library. Its most essential role, however, will be as a connector and common space for the college, which is currently situated in four separate buildings at the northern edge of campus: Rand Hall, Sibley Hall, The Foundry, and Tjaden Hall. These buildings are stylistically diverse, but typologically identical: linear, corridor-based buildings that segregate the school’s various functions without ever managing to create a sense of community. OMA’s design attempts to fill this gap.

Rising on a former parking lot at the north end of this academic quad, the building features three levels, two above grade and one below. The upper level, known as the top plate, shoulders the majority of the programmatic burden and showcases the wonders of modern structural engineering.

Connecting to the second floors of Rand and Sibley halls, the top plate houses the crit and studio spaces and the library. Rather than separating these uses with walls, the architects delineated them with subtle manipulations of the section. The library, for example, sits within a sunken area, while the studio and crit spaces occupy elevations all their own. The entire area is flooded with natural light by perimeter floor-to- ceiling glass walls and a grid of skylights.

Fitting these elements on one level proved too much for the area of the site, so OMA cantilevered the volume 48 feet out above University Avenue to the north. The building features an even more impressive cantilever of 60 feet to the south where Milstein Hall connects to Sibley.

Here, landmark regulations prohibited columns from obstructing the view of the historic edifice. These cantilevers are made possible by a system of full floor-height trusses custom-designed by Robert Silman Associates. These trusses, which are made up of extremely hefty steel members with webs as thick as 4 inches, ring the perimeter of the volume but also cut through the plan in two places.

In order to maintain the upper plate’s open circulation, engineers designed a hybrid truss somewhere between a Vierendeel and Warren, which features both vertical and diagonal bracing elements that deliver rigidity as well as permeability. The trusses were shop-fabricated in Canada, then trucked to the university under police escort. Once on site, ironworkers craned the massive assemblies into place, shored them up, and welded them together.

To connect the upper plate with the lower two levels—which house the lobby and exhibition space at grade (middle plate), and auditorium and computer labs below grade (lower plate)—OMA designed the lower plate’s ceiling as a smooth concrete dome that pierces the floor of the upper plate. While a simple and elegant form, this sloping volume is putting the concrete contractor, Pike Company of Rochester, to the test.

The concrete will be both structure and architecture, meaning that its execution will have to be flawless the first time and executed in one uninterrupted pour. In order to accomplish this, Pike has designed a form of wooden trusses on 16-inch centers topped by several layers of MDO plywood.

To ensure a smooth finish, the plywood will then be treated with a polyurethane coat, which will be washed with water before the pour begins, clearing the surface of any boot marks or cigarette stubs that may accumulate while the #9 rebar reinforcing and sprinkler and lighting systems are wired in place. Pike is currently completing a 20-foot mockup to test its method. If all goes well, the official pour will begin on site in early July.