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Milstein Hall as ‘Miracle Box’

O.M.A, Milstein Hall (photograph by Philippe Ruault, 2012)

While Rem Koolhaas, in the essay “Junkspace,” compares contemporary architects’ understanding of the significance of modernism to “reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it [will] turn into a novel,” he has built a career out of assembling and recombining canonical Modernist tropes with the dirty realism of the built world. In many of Koolhaas’s projects we find the formal diagrams of Mies van der Rohe recapitulated through the diagrams of Le Corbusier: the Miesian plinth and long-span pavilion liberate and connect floating boxes ‘supported’ by Le Corbusier’s five points for a new architecture. This bricolage of high modernism contains a form of nostalgia for past moments where architecture was constituted by scenarios and situations that create and afford individual or collective social desires. One thinks of constructivism, Soviet social condensers, collective housing, informal urbanism, etc. as examples of this architectural tendency. For Koolhaas, the complexities and contradictions inherent in life will always exceed the limited scope and vision of form as conceived by the architect.

In the case of Milstein Hall, the recently completed O.M.A. project for Cornell University’s Department of Architecture, a reappearance of Mies’s long-span pavilion is propped up by a massive concrete hemisphere and wedged between two existing, double-loaded corridor, academic buildings. What at first appears to be a sophisticated approach to manipulating a difficult context, the built work is at once a clever ‘confrontation with the existing’ (as Oswald Mathias Ungers would call for) and a radical separation from the neo-classical campus ground. Unlike the ceremonial dignity and spatial purity of Mies’s Crown Hall at I.I.T. (a clear inspiration for Milstein Hall), which is set in dialogue with the campus through a series of contrapuntal, dynamic relationships and removed from the ground by only a few hovering steps, Milstein Hall actualizes its interstitial location with the minimum formal gesture to the maximum programmatic effect. While the programmatic connectivity and renewed collaboration between divergent constituencies are principal effects of this diagram, the latent comparison to Mies’s masterpiece begs the question: if Crown Hall’s column-free, universal, and expansive interior space is understood to be the spatial result of the structural diagram of the long-span pavilion, how is this diagram re-originated and transformed at Milstein Hall?

While the studio space of Milstein Hall is not column free, the hybrid Vierendeel truss system does create a similar flexibility and openness to that of Crown Hall. Unlike the tripartite division of Crown Hall into an exalted center zone with two adjacent side aisles, Milstein’s studio floor feels more unified and less restricted by any overriding organization. The spacing of the studio desks form a relentless modernist grid, creating a secondary horizon line within the section of the space. While Mies sat only in the center of Crown Hall (supposedly with a cigar ashtray at his feet), the architecture faculty at Milstein float amongst the students, as no one space takes priority as a symbolic gathering zone. Regardless, the more potent effect might be the subtle reorientation of the architecture school towards the gorge at the rear of the building. The full-height glass envelope foregrounds and frames this monumental void, recalling the artifice of Mies’ Farnsworth house taken to a crescendo. The hybridization of Crown Hall and Farnsworth in Milstein creates a re-connection to the natural setting of Ithaca and, in so doing, re-frames the campus setting as simultaneously urban and bucolic.

Alexander Maymind