How SOM Plans To Build NYC A (Better) Silicon Valley

The architects’ ambitious scheme for Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology would turn Roosevelt Island into a lush, low-carbon high-tech oasis–if, that is, it even gets built.


Late last year, Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won a hotly anticipated contest to build a graduate science and engineering campus on a sleepy island just east of Manhattan. It was widely hailed as an unlikely triumph–cooler, techier Stanford had been the front-runner–brought off by an ambitious mix of cash promises, strategic partnerships, and vigorous alumni support.


But perhaps nothing was more ambitious than the universities’ preliminary design concept by the architecture mega-firm SOM. Developed in tandem with Field Operations (the landscape architects of the insanely successful High Line), SOM’s scheme would feature a smattering of big metallic structures that zig-zag down Roosevelt Island, weaving into and around a rambling, verdant landscape. It’d transform part of the island–which has variously hosted a quarantine, an insane asylum, and a prison, but now has a bunch of residential buildings–into a lush, low-carbon high-tech haven, one that sounds more like an 11-acre eco-resort than a place for geeks to toil away in the science lab.

Now there are questions over whether Cornell will plow ahead with SOM’s plans. As Julie Iovine reported in The Architect’s Newspaper, rumor has it that Cornell is under pressure to hire a Cornell architect for the job. University officials haven’t confirmed the rumor, but they’ve also been vague about SOM’s role in the project moving forward. An SOM spokeswoman clarifies: “What we were hired for was the RFP [the city’s request for proposal] and the master plan, which is underway,” Elizabeth Kubany tells Co.Design. “What happens with the individual buildings is not clear.”

Whatever the final result–the campus won’t be built until 2017–the proposal merits a closer look because it shows what a technology incubator can look like in the 21st century and how it can both satisfy its own insular needs and appeal to those of us who aren’t plotting the next revolution in mobile tech.

SOM’s plan has three distinguishing features: a net-zero goal for the academic architecture; flexible buildings that the universities buzzily call academic “hubs”; and half a million square feet of publicly accessible space.

The hubs would be divided not by academic discipline but by interest (mobile tech, for instance). They would feature big, sprawling floor plans that’d allow for the sort of free-flowing exchange of ideas that has become a hallmark of the tech world.


Net-zero Academic Campus
Net-zero energy would be achieved by sipping power from a 150,000-square-foot photovoltaic array (the largest in NYC, the architects say) and geothermal wells. It would also draw on passive heating and cooling strategies. “The [zig-zagging] layouts have to do with harvesting daylight and mitigating heat gain,” SOM partner Roger Duffy says. A caveat: The net-zero goal would be confined to the campus’s academic architecture. That’s because, as SOM’s Colin Koop explains, PVs aren’t efficient enough to generate adequate energy for proposed housing units and a hotel. Those structures would earn LEED Silver certification.

Public Space
“It wasn’t in the RFP,” Duffy says. “But Cornell perceived themselves as an underdog and wanted to differentiate themselves, so one of the big things was public space.” Squeezing in half a million square feet, though–around the hubs’ outsized floorplates and on an island that’s just 800 feet at its widest point–would be no small feat. So SOM decided to feed the landscape directly into the buildings: “The open space is both at ground level and wraps up and over several stories of the base of the campus,” Koop says. “There’s more or less a continuous two-story base of the campus that you can walk up and across; you can enter buildings at multiple levels. It’s about the integration of public spaces and academic spaces, and trying to create as much public space as possible.” And with landscape architecture by Field Operations, you know it’d be good.

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“These three distinguishing characteristics–the hubs, the net zero energy, and the public nature of the project–come together in a way that suggests that this is a unique position Cornell is putting out there in the world,” Duffy says. “Their aspirations are very high. They want to create the right atmosphere that will influence new businesses. [Our plan] is a manifestation of what they want. And what they really want is a 21st-century version of Silicon Valley.”

The question now is whether that 21st-century version of Silicon Valley will at all resemble the gleaming renderings we see today. “We expect the broad principles of the design to be maintained because Cornell/Technion believe in them and because they have been made public,” SOM’s spokeswoman says. “But, this a conceptual design, so some evolution is probably inevitable. The design will continue to develop as the project progresses.”

[Images courtesy of SOM]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D