My semester “abroad” in New York wrapped up on December 18th and I headed home to Lancaster, PA for a relaxing winter break with the family. Now that I’ve had ample time to sleep and gather my thoughts on the experience, I will share a brief synopsis of each of the courses I took this Fall. For those of you who might be considering studying in New York during your Cornell tenure, I’ll try to highlight how each course benefited (or suffered) from our location at the center of the big city.
ARCH 3819: What Would Gordon Do?
Architectural History professor Mary Woods designed this course from the bottom up to introduce us to Gordon Matta-Clark and the five boroughs of New York where he lived and worked. Whatever the curriculum may have lacked in coherence, it made up for with interesting field trips and events. Each week, we explored some theme geographically or conceptually linked to Matta-Clark and reflected on how the artist’s work might be read or redeployed 30-years after his untimely death.
Our investigations led us throughout the city, from the Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx to the Freshkill Landfill site on Staten Island. Individually, we fanned out across the city and discovered several lesser-known sites and exhibitions in the outer boroughs. To this end, the class was a great success; it forced us to explore beyond our comfort zone and take advantage of some of the opportunities that the city has to offer.
Pictured above is a portion of my group’s final project, which proposed re-animating derelict sites in Brooklyn using digital projection and responsive-technologies. We were given enormous liberty to choose our own sites and were attracted to the eeriness and vulnerability of these abandoned houses along “admiral’s row.”
ARCH 5101: Big & Small Studio
Craig Dykers from the Norwegian firm Snohetta taught our studio with former employee and artist, Liz Burow. Throughout the course of the semester, we programmed and designed a firehouse for a poor community in eastern Brooklyn and invented different ways of engaging the community. I have already described our panic-inducing final review, but there were many other aspects of the course. For one thing, we spent a good portion of the semester doing “programming” sessions, in which we expanded, organized, and refined the designated program (translation: function and size of req’d spaces). The exercise was new for many of us and threw us for a loop at first — but it is hard to deny the value of such a process as I believe it is one of the things that has propelled Snohetta to international success.
I honed in on the particulars of the firehouse typology and proposed a scheme to streamline firefighting activities while stimulating interaction and camaraderie among the company, visitors, and the local community. The chart above shows an adjacency diagram calling attention to the importance of the apparatus room; the sketches below shows my proposed “extrusion” of the vehicle bay to engage other program elements more closely.
Taking studios in NYC is a completely different experience from studying in Ithaca. While I believe we benefitted from the professional experience of our professors and the proximity of our studio to a provocative site, there were a number of drawbacks. First, the city was a constant source of distractions and it was difficult to engage our projects with the intensity that we do in Ithaca. Second, we were unable to benefit from the many resources we enjoy on campus: an enormous library, a well-equipped shop, and a large pool of faculty with whom to chat. I hesitate to complain about New York, but my studio experience there made me appreciate the culture and resources of Cornell’s primary campus.
ARCH 5110: Thesis Proseminar
The Thesis Proseminar is a course designed to prepare architecture students for their final, independent semester at Cornell. Although we got off to a painfully slow start, the final result of the course was exactly what we had hoped: a legitimate thesis topic, a respectable body of research, and a lot of ideas with which to proceed.
My own project came together in the final weeks of the semester when I consolidated my work into a pre-thesis book or “thesis dossier”. Only drawback: no Cornell library to use in NYC and only browsing access to Columbia’s Avery collection. The Big Advantage: we could “borrow direct” books from Cornell’s online catalog and they would appear on our desks in 48 hours.
ARCH 5201: Professional Practice
The same course is offered in Ithaca and New York, but there is no comparison to be made — the New York City version of Pro-Prac is undeniably more valuable. With Jill Lerner of KPF as our guide, we visited offices across the city and listened to Cornell alumni describe their post-AAP experiences in the workforce. The presentations may have given us the false impression that all Cornell Architecture graduates run lucrative corporate firms, but it was nice to see that that is, at least, a possibility.
The final group project required that we each present a response to a hypothetical RFP for a new science building on Cornell’s campus. In doing so, we needed to invent the name and composition of our “firm”, assign positions and hierarchy, and articulate how we would manage the job.
My group decided to test the humor of our professors by pretending to be a famous Pritzker-prize-winning European design firm led by one eloquent-beautiful-brilliant star-architect named Artemis Von Circle V. We demanded an enormous fee for our services and declared that the only appropriate design for Cornell’s new science facility was a black sphere — slightly reminiscent of the death star. Our imaginary firm focused exclusively on circular geometry and preferred using the color black because it represents the presence of all color, simultaneously. To our surprise, this farce went over well, earning me my first ever A+ for a practical joke.