Campus as Catalyst

Photo © Field Condition

by Colin Koop

When it officially opens in September, the Cornell Tech campus will support an applied sciences university that seeks to transform New York City’s economy. SOM, in collaboration with James Corner Field Operations, Cornell University, Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and the City of New York, developed the framework plan for the campus, drawing upon the history of its site on Roosevelt Island while envisioning a new type of institution. Colin Koop, Design Director at SOM, walks us through the journey.

In Fall 2017, a growing community of students, postdocs, engineers, urbanists, and professors will decamp from their temporary home in the Google building, at 111 8th Avenue, for Roosevelt Island — the proverbial unknown, and their manifest destiny. There they will inhabit a new campus known as Cornell Tech, located on a 12-acre site on this sliver of land in the East River, between Midtown Manhattan and Queens. At that point, an experiment conceived by Mayor Michael Bloomberg will reach its catalytic moment and in the process, help answer a potentially significant question for contemporary urban planning: Can a city effect economic change by creating an institution?

In December 2010, the New York City Economic Development Corporation launched its Applied Sciences NYC competition, which sought proposals to develop a world-class university campus that would drive the growth of the city’s tech sector. The competition was intended to start a dialogue with universities around the globe, and Cornell University was one of 27 institutions that submitted proposals. SOM was invited to join the Cornell team at this formative stage and help decide what exactly this new institution might be.

Early on, we realized the campus plan wasn’t going to be a traditional one. There would be great challenges to surmount: deciding which of three sites under consideration was the best one, coming to terms with a financial model that would rely on third parties to develop many of the buildings, and navigating New York City’s arduous land use review process. But the early visioning sessions were largely aspirational. We joined administrators, faculty, facilities staff, and a collection of consultants to discuss the vision for the institution — all of this before even thinking about the architecture.

The campus should put the creativity of its inhabitants first.

We focused on the experience of the campus: how it should feel to arrive, how a community might be cultivated, and what its relationship to the city should be. Immediately, we struck upon two basic ideas that have guided the project to this day. First, the design of the campus should express the forward-thinking academic vision behind it and be truly integrated into the city. Second, and even more importantly, the campus should put the creativity of its inhabitants first. Cornell Tech was looking for a framework to stimulate invention — architectural invention, to be sure, but the real prize would be scientific invention. We needed to design a campus framework that would encourage the creative process now and into the future, flexibly accommodating a growing and evolving institution.

The next step in the island’s evolution

Roosevelt Island — the location our team selected for the campus — would seem an unlikely site for such an experiment. Although just a stone’s throw from Midtown Manhattan, it has long struggled to become fully integrated into New York City. But we saw the island as full of potential, a place where creativity could thrive. We believed that the campus plan should draw upon the island’s existing character and its rich sense of place. It should grow out of the unusual history that has made Roosevelt Island unlike anywhere else in the five boroughs.

Detail of Roosevelt Island from the Taylor Map of New York, circa 1879

The island’s development goes back to the city’s founding in the 17th century. First known as Hog Island for its livestock farms, it was rechristened Manning Island following the English defeat of the Dutch and remained largely rural. The city purchased the island in 1828 and — as with many of the small islands surrounding Manhattan — it became the perfect location to offload necessary but undesirable civic functions. In this era it was rechristened Blackwell’s Island and was home to New York’s largest penitentiary.

Blackwell’s Island circa 1902. Image by H.M. Pettit

Over time the island became infamous for its poor conditions. By chance, in 1903, Thomas Edison decided to take a boat around the island and survey it on film, leaving an artifact that gives us a good sense of the place. Barren, unattractive, and hostile, the island appears less as a natural outcropping than as man-made infrastructure, cruelly and efficiently serving its purpose. Edison captured the island in transition. The most visible signs of the change to come are the looming piers of the future Queensboro Bridge, which would eventually span the island and spatially divide it in two. Within just a few years, the prison population would be moved to Rikers Island and the building demolished. Still, the city’s desire to exploit the island’s isolation remained.

In the 1930s, when healthcare and research became essential investments as a part of the New Deal, the site was renamed Welfare Island. Where the Blackwell Penitentiary once stood, Goldwater Hospital opened in 1939, one of several healthcare facilities built here during this era. Like most of these large projects, Goldwater was situated in the center of the island, with roadways along its periphery. These were Modernist superblocks: a repetitive series of brick and glass pavilions, all connected by a single interior passageway. Inside was a thriving research hospital — the first public hospital in America devoted solely to the treatment of chronic diseases. For the next 40 years, the island was known mostly for healthcare.

Welfare Island, after the construction of Goldwater Hospital. Photo by Wurts Bros.

Eventually, the island would evolve yet again, to fulfill a different need. By the 1960s, Welfare Island had fallen into decline, like much of the city. Mayor John Lindsay focused on creating a residential enclave that could stem the flight of the middle class to the suburbs. Philip Johnson and John Burgee were hired to imagine a new kind of community. Their 1968 master plan focused development near the center of the island, but placed circulation in the middle — an inversion of the superblock paradigm. Renderings depict a central spine, Main Street, lined by buildings which terrace gracefully to the water’s edge. People could walk down steps and dangle their feet into the East River — an optimistic detail, given the fetid reality of the water at that time. Novelties of 1960s urban planning abounded. There was a pneumatic tube system for collecting trash (still in use today) and a vision for a completely automobile-free environment. Soon, the island, renamed again in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, would welcome its first substantial community of residents. Even the great architect Louis Kahn played a role, designing a memorial to Roosevelt for the island’s southern tip. Optimism was in the air.

Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s master plan for Roosevelt Island, 1968

When we visited the island with Cornell in 2010, we could see the remnants of every one of these eras on display. The burst of energy from the 1960s and 70s had primarily affected the center of the island. Its northern and southern tips remained largely unchanged — a mix of long-term care facilities, public parks, and abandoned ruins. Even the prison could still be seen, in the form of the stone riprap which surrounds the island, broken down piece by piece by Blackwell’s prisoners. Main Street sustained a small but thriving community which had gradually been connected to the rest of the city — first by an aerial tram, in 1976, and later by a new subway station on the F line, in 1989.

An aerial photo from 2012 shows the future Cornell Tech site before the demolition of Goldwater Hospital. Photo © Bart Michiels

It was these transportation nodes, the thriving community along Main Street, plus some hints of new development, that first intrigued us with the site. Of all of the city-owned sites being considered for the campus, only this one was within walking distance of the subway. It was surrounded by a new public park with some of the most beautiful, sweeping views of the Midtown skyline. Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, built posthumously, had just opened. The community felt full of potential and truly connected to the city — a critical fact for an institution that was being designed to transform it. It was time for Roosevelt Island to prepare for its next role: catalyzing the growth of New York City’s economy.

Five principles for innovation

Shortly after our trip to Roosevelt Island, we began to learn more about what this institution could be. Dan Huttenlocher, now the Founding Dean and Vice Provost for Cornell Tech, had worked with his colleagues to develop the academic vision. Where Cornell University in Ithaca was more scholastic and monastic, focusing on longer term research, Cornell’s campus in New York City would be engaged with both the city and its industries. The campus would welcome both approaches, and it would focus on transforming ideas into businesses in record time. The university would be built around research hubs, not departments. These hubs would have an entrepreneurial approach to research: those that yielded advances would flourish, while those that proved less worthy would eventually be replaced by new hubs. To oversimplify it, if Ithaca was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, then New York City would be focused on how knowledge could make an immediate impact.

The campus is designed to be permeable and open, connected to its surroundings by a network of pedestrian paths.

This ambitious academic framework needed a complementary vision to inform the campus planning. Working with the landscape architect James Corner Field Operations, we came back to a central question: how could the campus, in its physical form, encourage creativity? Furthermore, how could our master plan be flexible enough to accommodate an institution whose physical requirements were still being defined and would continue to evolve along with new developments in technology and approaches to teaching and learning? After much debate, we settled on five key principles which we agreed must be unassailable. They would inform every decision we would make. The campus must be integrated with its community, pedestrian-oriented, dynamic, a microcosm of the city, and sustainable.

First, we established the principle that Cornell Tech would be a “river to river” campus, permeable and open. Unlike many institutions, this campus would be as connected as possible to its surrounding community. No quads, no gates. It would face outward, not inward — a crossroads, not an enclave. It would build upon the recent development of the southern end of Roosevelt Island, connecting Main Street with Four Freedoms Park. Later, during the land use review process, the principle of openness would be taken even further. Cornell, in collaboration with NYC’s Department of City Planning, pursued a rezoning of the campus area as a Special District with a waterfront zoning overlay, which requires at least 20 percent of the land to be open to the public. Even with this ambitious baseline established, the university has gone far beyond this minimum requirement, designating much of the pedestrian walkway and a significant portion of the surrounding open areas on the campus as public space. An extraordinary step for an institution to take, this ensures that the campus will truly be tied to the community.

Second, we would place pedestrians at the center of campus. Cars would circulate around the edges, but most radically of all, there would be almost no parking spaces on campus. Most visitors would arrive either on foot or by mass transit and then enter a network of paths. This concept would evolve to become Techwalk, a flexible lattice of walkways and nodes along the north-south ridge at the center of the island, where every building would have its entry. Within this network, generous parcels allow ample space for each developer and their designers to fulfill individual design briefs. It also provides a necessary but invisible framework for demising tax lots and distributing utilities from a Central Utility Plant, situated on the highest point on the site.

The main pedestrian walkway also resolved the key design challenge of resiliency. The East River is in fact a tidal estuary, whose level rises and falls with the tides. Because significant portions of the site lie within both the 100-year and 500-year floodplains, all of the architecture would need to be elevated. The Techwalk provides the solution by creating a datum that each building’s entry needs to stay above. People enter the campus first at its corners and then rise gently through its open spaces at a slope that is largely imperceptible. Once they reach the central ridge, they are surrounded by permeable facades that put the campus’s energy on display.

With parts of the existing site within the 100-year floodplain (areas with a 1 percent chance of being flooded in any given year), resiliency was a key consideration.

This dynamism is, in fact, the third principle — to create a synergy between the inside and outside spaces on campus. Many university buildings in New York offer little appeal to their surrounding communities; typically these buildings are secured near or at their front doors. Here, again, Cornell would be different. The buildings must provide amenities or functions on the ground floor open to the general public (with the exception of the residential buildings, for obvious reasons). These could be cafes, event spaces, or quiet spaces. Each building also would have intimate outdoor spaces immediately adjacent which would complement the amenities inside.

The fourth principle was that the campus would be a microcosm of the city, with apartments, workspaces, teaching space, restaurants, hotels, and event spaces all mixed together. Each individual building would be optimized for its specific use, creating formal and architectural variety. The co-location buildings, designed for collaborative work and research, would be low-slung with wide floor plates for lateral interconnectivity and adaptability, while the residential buildings and hotels would be towers, with north-south orientation for optimal daylighting and incredible views. The conference center would be a pavilion — an interactive node that would become the beating heart of the campus. The open spaces would be similarly diverse. James Corner Field Operations took on the challenge to fulfill this principle, and they returned with a design that supports a tapestry of uses — not merely grass quads and brick paths, but a central square and campus “rooms,” with niches and crevices sprinkled throughout. These are spaces for all kinds of people, from all walks of life, with diverse interests.

Finally, the fifth principle was to approach sustainability in a holistic sense — not only in terms of energy or water use, but also the health and wellbeing of the campus’s inhabitants. We set ambitious but achievable goals for each building and the surrounding landscape.

For the first academic building, we rigorously tested the possibility that it could be the largest project built to net-zero-energy standards on the East Coast. We had recently completed the design of the Kathleen Grimm School, a public elementary school in Staten Island that would become the first net-zero-energy school in New York. We knew that the only way to achieve net-zero at Cornell Tech would be with a vast array of photovoltaic cells (PVs). Through a series of daylighting studies, we established that both the first academic building and the first co-location building needed their entire roofs to be covered with PVs, unobstructed by any other building. This determined the position of the buildings for the master plan’s first phase of construction: the taller residential and hotel towers would be situated to the north, with the academic and co-location buildings to the south.

With the landscape design, Field Operations would integrate sustainability even further. The campus landscape features biofiltration gardens designed to clean stormwater runoff and paths underlaid with gravel trenches that capture excess stormwater. Handel Architects also pushed the envelope with their design for the residential building, which will become the largest building in the world designed to Passivhaus standards. In each case, settling for the status quo was not enough. The ambitions of the campus needed to be realized in its architecture.

Image © SOM | Kilograph

Putting ideas to the test

These principles were central to Cornell’s proposal — which the city selected in December 2011 as the winning bid — and they have come to define the campus taking shape today. As we advanced through the land use review process, they helped us to communicate Cornell’s progressive vision for Roosevelt Island. Remarkably, Cornell never faced the same stiff resistance that other institutional developments have faced in the city. Though the community had great concerns about many issues (particularly during the construction phase), no one ever signed in at the community board meetings as opposed to the project. In May 2013, less than two years from its start, the project was approved by the New York City Land Use Committee — a remarkably short time frame for a project of this scale.

Image © SOM | Kilograph

Later, our focus became the stewardship of these ideas. The first test of the campus plan happened before construction even started, in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy battered the island. Our judgment of how high to elevate the campus and its essential infrastructure proved to be sound. Even as FEMA redrew its flood maps and raised the 100-year and 500-year flood projections by several feet, we didn’t need to change anything.

In the years since Mayor Bloomberg launched the Applied Sciences NYC initiative, the city has already seen impressive results. Between 2010 and 2016, employment in the city’s tech sector grew by more than 30 percent. Cornell Tech is more than a vote of confidence in this growth — it has been heralded as a turning point and a real catalyst for investment. Even in its fledgling state, operating out of temporary quarters, the institution has produced 30 companies that have raised $20 million and employ more than 100 people. Our hope is that the new campus, when it opens, will only help to accelerate this progress.

In its conception and spirit, Cornell Tech is truly unlike any other university — an unprecedented marriage of local government, private universities, and developers. Over time, as new collaborators have been brought on board, the aesthetic expression of the campus has evolved, but the vision has remained constant: an open, integrated, active, sustainable, and resilient campus. Still, questions remain: can this institution fulfill its founding ambitions and transform New York City’s economy? Can this place support, or even facilitate, the creative process of its inhabitants? Is it integrated and adaptable enough to accommodate research in ways that we perhaps cannot yet anticipate? Only time will tell if Cornell Tech can realize its mission: to become the ideal place to create an idea.

We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

8 Takeaways from Make It Stick (book review, part 2)

School Starts

I’m 2% Fluent in Spanish — How to Get on My Level

Kids Bilingual Immersion Gamified Educational Program Chinese English Announced

Kids Bilingual Immersion Gamified Educational Program Chinese English Announced

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week: I Quit Teaching

Elon Musk Does Not Care Whether You Have a College Degree. Why Should You?

Are We Studying Our Curriculum Right?


Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit

More from Medium

Roots and Wings: How local governments are investing in people and neighborhoods

How to Richly Format Your Hive Posts with HTML and Markdown

HIVE formatting.png

Impact of Covid-19 on Healthcare Workers

Coming up with an aesthetic direction for Shikoku 1889 and its box cover