The university campus of the 21st century is here–and it’s a far cry from brick buildings draped in ivy huddled around a cloistered quad. Instead, its landscaping is designed to soak up rain. Its structures are designed to maximize resource efficiency. And its buildings are meant to nurture real-world innovations, in some cases through architecture itself.
This is Cornell Tech, a hotly anticipated $2 billion campus on Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land on the East River between Manhattan and Queens. When I first arrived for its dedication last week, what immediately stood out was how welcoming the entire campus felt: The pathway leading from the street to the campus’s center felt like a grand boulevard. The buildings themselves–with their asymmetrical facades, finishes that caught the light, and individual personas–were the complete opposite of the institutional aesthetic with which higher ed is often associated.
Even more impressive is how the campus relates to the city itself. Roosevelt Island is physically separate from Manhattan and Queens, but the campus frames views of the skylines of both boroughs as if to remind visitors that they are still very much a part of the city. It’s a rare vantage point from which to see so much of N.Y.C., and it’s symbolic of Cornell Tech’s ambitions to become the intellectual and entrepreneurial hub of New York–a Silicon Valley of the East–while offering an ad hoc incubator for forward-thinking design strategies that could have ripple effects throughout the city.
A Super-Efficient Building Boom
While the architecture on Cornell Tech’s campus is visually striking and distinctive–a welcome change in a city with a few too many generic glass towers in its skyline–their environmental creds are the real driver behind their design. The first phase of Cornell Tech’s masterplan includes the Bloomberg Center, a Morphosis-designed net-zero academic building wrapped in an iridescent green-tinted aluminum skin; the Bridge, a faceted glass building that contains offices for startups and students designed by Weiss/Manfredi; and The House, a dormitory and the world’s tallest structure to earn Passive House certification.
Passive House design–ultra-strict construction criteria that result in significantly lower energy consumption and heating/cooling costs–has been around since the 1980s, but it’s mostly been applied to single-family homes. Cornell’s 26-story-tall dorm and faculty housing designed by Handel Architects and constructed by The Hudson Companies is a new demonstration of how the criteria could be adapted to high-density, multi-family structures–particularly relevant in dense urban centers like New York.
Building a first-of-its kind structure involved investing in new construction techniques. To achieve high energy efficiency, Passive Houses have extra insulation to prevent heat loss and gain and complex mechanical systems that turn heat in the air into energy. Handel Architects had to design heat-exchange systems that would work at the scale of the high-rise building, while Hudson Companies had to train contractors to build to these new specifications. Meanwhile, New York City’s Department of Buildings had to grant code variances to allow for the new techniques to be implemented.
All of these efforts took more time, money, and risk than a conventional high-rise. But now that the knowledge is embedded in the city–from the scale of contractors to regulations–it’s already taking off.
“We’ve started to see a shift take place in the development industry,” says Arianna Sacks Rosenberg, senior project manager at The Hudson Companies. “[The city] said, ‘If this works here, it will stand as a model for other buildings.’ We saw that happen and the codes change, which is really exciting.”
The city is embracing Passive House design for tall buildings, and is now issuing RFPs for publicly funded architecture constructed to these standards. The city is especially interested in applications for low-income housing, and Handel Architects is submitting designs for consideration. (Passive Houses must adhere to a strict 60-40 ratio of solid to glass surfaces for energy purposes, which wouldn’t fly for most luxury real estate buyers.)
“If [we] can demonstrate that [Passive House design] is feasible for low-income housing, that is a humongous game changer,” Deborah Moelis, senior associate at Handel Architects, says. “Cornell Tech is kind of a beta test.”
A “Post-Manhattan” Era
New York is composed of five boroughs, but because of its role as the city’s economic center Manhattan has historically received the most attention when it comes to investment and public transit. That’s beginning to change, and Cornell Tech is emblematic of that post-Manhattan thinking, a philosophy Colin Koop–a design director at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the architecture firm behind Cornell Tech’s master plan–says is on the rise. “As New York City grows, it becomes less reliant on Manhattan,” Koop says. “It’s a fully realized set of boroughs. . . . It’s not just a heart and a periphery.”
Cornell Tech isn’t the only city project that represents this approach. New York University is opening a $500 million campus in downtown Brooklyn. The city is investing heavily in redeveloping Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the East River waterfront is receiving new parks, ferry service, and mixed-use development. Long Island City, in Queens, expects a startup boom directly tied to Cornell Tech.
Development is typically viewed (usually accurately) as a direct line to gentrification, but Koop believes that a less Manhattan-centric approach to urbanism will make the city more equitable and livable for all income levels–if the city leverages the land it owns effectively.
Koop explains by pointing out a dichotomy in urban planning between the “highest” and the “best” land uses. The highest use of land is typically equated with monetary value. Luxury housing and development almost always have the highest returns. The “best” use is more subjective and depends on the philosophical perspective of the person making decisions. For example, are a few acres of city-owned waterfront land better suited for condos, or wetlands that can help with resiliency? The former will certainly generate more money in the short term, but the latter will potentially benefit more of the city in the long run.
Cornell Tech is built on 12 acres of city-owned land, but the buildings are owned by private developers. While the city could have sold Roosevelt Island to the highest bidder, it instead decided to use the land to better prepare itself for a future, tech-based economy through education. The campus has a partnership with the public school on the island to help students through co-developing a tech curriculum and hosting field trips, and is expected to generate 8,000 jobs and spark $23 billion of growth. The campus itself is open to the public, and is meant to feel transparent and welcoming. The goal? To invest in the city as a whole.
“The ‘highest’ and ‘best’ together is something that Cornell hopefully represents,” Koop says. “It’s more beneficial to the neighborhood than luxury towers–and nothing against them–but what [Roosevelt Island] needed was a more diverse set of uses. It already has a lot of houses. It didn’t have higher education, a hotel, and offices. All of those put together is an exciting thing to have. It would be great for the city to think equally intelligent at all of its sites.”
New York has over 43,000 acres of city-owned land, which amounts to roughly the size of Brooklyn. About 20% of that land is classified as having “no current use.” As the city grows, policy makers will have to figure out what to do with these assets and what will best benefit the city as a whole–reconciling the “highest” and “best” uses as Cornell Tech has.
Resilience That Any City Could Adopt
Landscape is a major element of Cornell Tech, and the campus feels strikingly open. It’s more like a public park than a university–and that’s by design. The university wants people from outside its orbit to come to the campus. Picnicking on Columbia’s quad might feel a bit strange if you aren’t a student; not so at Cornell Tech.
A central walkway cuts through the campus–dubbed the “Tech Walk”– and buildings flank the main path. Smaller walkways lead to the individual buildings, like veins from an artery. The entire campus is car-fee. There are ample benches, trees for shade, outdoor tables and chairs, and mini “landscape rooms” in front of the buildings. For now, there are sprawling lawns, which will be open space until the campus’s next growth spurt, which is expected in 2027.
The invisible hand guiding the design of the campus, though, is sustainability and resiliency. How the design achieves this, especially when it comes to the landscape design by James Corner Field Operations, is subtle and often hidden completely.
The site is elevated above 500-year flood levels, which helps protect it from storm surges and sea level rise. SOM’s master plan called for a gently sloped site that’s tallest in the very center, which naturally channels water toward landscaped areas filled with a special mix of soil, mulch, plants, and gravel that that filters and retains rainwater. Field Operations riffed on the area’s geological characteristics, like dolomite boulders and natural vegetation that’s both drought tolerant and can withstand inundation along the edges of the East River. Much of the pavement is permeable and wicks water away from the surface of walkways so there are no puddles. Underground cisterns hold the excess water for future use, and if too much water accumulates, it’s clean enough to discharge into the river.
The entire campus is essentially a huge sponge that soaks up stormwater and repurposes it for irrigation or gray water. “They’re very low-key sustainable practices that, in a way aren’t innovative in and of themselves, but are innovative in a city environment,” Karen Tamir, a principal and landscape architect at Field Operations, says.
While Cornell Tech’s non-mechanical approach to stormwater can’t be replicated on every site, Tamir believes that it has potential for waterfront locations. In the past, Field Operations has incorporated biofiltration-based stormwater management into its waterfront projects, but Cornell Tech was the first to not use any mechanical filtration. This passive, porous design approach is something Tamir believes every site could adopt. As New York City continues to reorient itself around its postindustrial waterfronts while reevaluating how to use them to fight the rising tides–like public parks that double as sea level rise protections–Cornell Tech’s “no-tech” stormwater management strategy might see wider adoption.
“Sea levels are rising, there are more and more hardscaped surfaces, and larger stormwater volumes,” Tamir says. “It’s a really important part of any landscape to bear some of the brunt and have functionality–but not at the expense of beauty.”