When Structural Gymnastics gets in the way of real architecture.
We have examples of two university buildings sporting major structural cantilevers requiring an amount of steel typically used in bridge design. Comparing these two structures we find one reasonable and aesthetically appropriate and one, which will quickly become a white elephant.
Milstein Hall at Cornell’s school of architecture uses structural gymnastics to link two buildings on campus and serve as a symbolic gateway to campus. While over the top structurally, the building succeeds on several levels: It physically links Sibley and Rand Halls while dramatically framing and preserving the Foundry. Designed by OMA the hall Cantilevers over University Avenue creating a symbolic gateway on the north end of campus. The buildings textured white metal panels and white structural steel integrates Milstein Hall with the classical white trim of the early twentieth century Sibley Hall. While the structural solution is expensive it is an appropriate given the buildings function, context and most importantly to inspire students in their chosen field.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Millennium Science Complex at my alma mater of Penn State. The building is a structural tour de force of wasted space and money. Designed by “World Renowned” architect Rafael Vinoly the science lab looks a like beached ship that’s out of scale to the campus and its landscape. Its cantilevered arch top floor with a ‘diamond’ shaped skylight allows daylight to the rock garden below. These gymnastics were rationalized to keep vibrations from the labs in the basement. Well there are many ways to eliminate vibrations while still maintaining an appropriate scale and rational budget. Built for $225M which pencils out to an astonishing $800/ SF while a typical university laboratory building can be built for the $350/ SF. Sometimes napkin ‘Big Idea’ sketches shouldn’t be built. Just because one can technically achieve a structural feat doesn’t make it an appropriate solution.
The Bottom Line: Trends in architecture come and go and a recent spate of Higher Ed buildings makes me thankful that the starchitect arms race coupled with unchecked construction budgets is about to run its course. Reduced funding, escalating tuition and lower enrolment all are impacting Ivory Tower flagrant spending. Perhaps now university boards will take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously and demand fiscal accountability and design responsibility from their Starchitect designers.
Photo: Millennium Science Center: High Concrete