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How Design Can Help Bridge Business And Academics

Located amidst the “cauldron of activity” of New York, yet also on the peaceful Roosevelt Island, the Cornell Tech campus is a testament to design that celebrates form and function.

Standing on the roof of The Bridge, one of the new buildings that make up the just-opened Cornell Tech campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island, your eyes are drawn in countless directions.

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The rooftop offers the “most generous view of” the East River, says Marion Weiss, one of the two Weiss\Manfredi architects who led the design of The Bridge. Placed at the southern tip of the island, the Cornell Tech campus takes advantage of that view, with Manhattan resplendent to the west, Brooklyn’s exciting growth to the east, and the river itself dominant directly south.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

Your eyes are naturally drawn by the design of the rooftop space to the United Nations building a couple miles southwest–an intentional nod to Cornell’s international flair, Weiss explains. They also naturally look straight west across the 59th Street Bridge and to 57th Street, which spans Manhattan. And lastly, Weiss says, if you look east, the future is framed in the guise of the rapidly developing borough of Queens.

Cornell Tech, which offers a series of graduate degrees in topics like Human-Computer Interaction and Social Computing; Security and privacy; Artificial intelligence; Data and modeling; and Business, law, and policy, is meant to bridge the academic and the entrepreneurial. It’s home to both students and to startups that have spun out of the university program.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

For decades, the Roosevelt Island location was home to a poorly used sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. Once that institution went away, it was obvious the site should be used for something celebrating New York’s cosmopolitan and diverse spirit, as well as its intellectual and entrepreneurial spirit. Thus Cornell Tech was born.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

The campus’s doors opened just last month, and on Tuesday, a few dozen attendees of the Fast Company Innovation Festival were among the first to get a tour of the fantastic, high-design structures, which in some areas still sport the smell of fresh paint, and in other areas are still under construction.

Cornell Tech isn’t a big campus. It has just 300 students and 38 startups spread across two buildings–The Bridge and the adjacent Bloomberg Center. Having existed for a few years inside Google’s New York campus, the institution is at a “funny place,” said Daniel Huttenlocher, Cornell Tech’s dean and vice provost: with about 300 alumni, it has about the same number of current students and graduates.

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[Photo: Zack DeZon]

A big part of the school’s philosophy is centered around what Huttenlocher calls the “studio environment,” in which students with interdisciplinary backgrounds work together on projects meant to address significant social challenges, such as applying technology and entrepreneurialism to combatting domestic violence.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

‘Cauldron of activity’

Befitting a modern, tech-centric campus, Cornell Tech was designed with numerous cutting-edge innovations. For example, a central apartment building–featuring 325 units–is likely the world’s tallest passive house in the world–a category of building that uses 70-80% less energy than a typical New York apartment.

That design element mirrored a unique trait of New York. While in most cities transportation is the number one energy consumer, and buildings number two, New York flips that calculation on its head thanks to a highly efficient transportation system and a plethora of dense, older buildings. There are now at least three other passive house construction projects underway in the city.

As Michael Manfredi, the other half of the Weiss\Manfredi architecture team that designed The Bridge, put it, Cornell Tech was built to leverage Roosevelt Island’s unique placement amid the “cauldron of activity” in New York City, while also being peacefully set apart from the intensity of the city.

Inside the building’s main lobby, there are tall glass windows for miles, and in the center, a stunning wooden staircase that bisects a maker space on one side and studio space on the other. The idea is clearly that while the spaces are distinct, they are meant to be close together, and easy for students to access.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

It’s all about mobility

When talking about the Bloomberg Center, Cornell Tech’s academic hub, Ung-Joo Scott Lee is quick to point out how the world has changed since he was in school. Today, he says, mobile devices have made it easy to work just about anywhere, and that’s as true for students as it is for professionals. That’s why just about every space at the Bloomberg Center was designed to make it easy to sit down and work, with plentiful chairs and desks throughout the building.

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Lee, the principal at Morphosis Architects, and the project principal and manager of the Bloomberg Center, said another of the building’s major design philosophies was getting it as close to “net zero” as possible, meaning generating as much power as it consumes.

One of the keys to achieving that goal, Lee says, was finding the right balance between glass and solid exteriors. The more glass, the more daylight–meaning less power needed to light interiors–but less structural stability. So the answer was to use as much glass as possible for communal areas–allowing as many people as possible to enjoy the views.

[Photo: Zack DeZon]

Leave them alone with their Red Bull

At an institution designed to create natural collaboration between people working on large projects, the Bloomberg Center is filled with numerous collaborative spaces. There’s tons of open-plan space, ideal for sitting down with a few fellow students to talk over concepts.

Unless, that is, you’re a computer science student. Those folks, Lee joked, don’t always want to work with others. Open plan space doesn’t work for them. They need areas to work in solitude, so the building also offers small areas for them to work in solitude, or at least in small clusters. “Sometimes they need to be left alone with their headphones and a Red Bull in hand,” he says, “and code for 48 hours.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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