A Bridge to the Future: WEISS / MANFREDI’s Cornell Tech Incubator Unveiled

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

A sliver of land wedged neatly in the middle of the East River, Roosevelt Island has a fascinating architectural history dating back to the 18th century: the 1796 Blackwell House remains intact as the sixth oldest house in New York City. Home to a penitentiary and hospital prior to its rebirth in the last half-century as a predominantly residential census tract — it’s officially part of Manhattan, though its more or less equidistant to Queens, as well — the two-mile stretch is soon to embrace its future thanks to the new Cornell Tech campus, which has made headlines this month since it was first announced in 2013.

Masterplanned by SOM and landscaped by James Corner Field Operations, the site includes a mix of building types including a “Corporate Co-Location” designed by WEISS / MANFREDI and unveiled last week. An allusion to the adjacent Queensboro Bridge, the straightforward metaphor of “The Bridge” scarcely belies its significance as a “crystalline incubator” that promotes cross-disciplinary collaboration. Per the architects, “The building rejects the oppositional paradigm of academic or entrepreneur and replaces that with a literal and philosophical bridge that connects academic inventors and entrepreneurs under one roof.”

The key shift in programmatic terms comes in the form of a seven-story “corporate co-location loft,” where students and industry leaders can meet to discuss ideas and even form partnerships for tech startups and innovative research projects. It is very much in line with modern thinking on multifunctional workspaces, with a combination of formal and informal spaces being seen as the ideal balance for fostering working relationships and improving communications between academics and industry professionals.

“We had worked with both types of clients, but never together in one building,” reflect Weiss and Manfredi, who designed the expansive Diana Center at Barnard College in 2010 and the striking Novartis Office Building two years later. “For us, this project has presented an unparalleled opportunity to foster a productive reciprocity between diverse modes of research, teaching, and entrepreneurial ambitions. This whole facility is an unprecedented building in general, and uniting these two distinct territories involved advocating for ample loose-fit places where both cultures can connect and ideally collaborate.”

In a similar manner to the internal layouts of numerous commercial premises — notably Frank Gehry’s new Facebook headquarters in California — multiple spill-out zones are included, creating incidental spaces that the architects believe will engender spontaneous conversations and collaboration throughout the building. “Through a number of intensive programming tests, we were able to identify the overlaps between these two programs and structure these intersections with unique, vertically interconnected spaces such as the double-level forum, the East Amphitheater, and the tiered Masters Studio.”

These common areas aim to encourage lingering and mingling, with a warm material palette of timber to contrast with the panoramic views toward midtown Manhattan. Similarly, the main atrium is deliberately designed with maximum transparency in mind. “The central core includes open, sectionally intense spaces that unify the building and allow different programmatic elements to converge. It frames views through the building to unveil the educational and professional processes, while also framing river-to-river views outward to Manhattan, Queens, and the campus beyond.”

The development’s sustainable credentials are highly visibly – a soaring canopy of photovoltaic panels sails above one of the main buildings, cutting a distinctive shape that the architects proposed as a “symbolic indicator of the technological advancements of the campus.” The solar arrays are complemented with a generous green roof so that, when viewed from the Queensboro Bridge, the campus reads as an extrusion of the surrounding park. Planned by SOM and landscaped by JCFO — the firm behind the High Line — new green space forms a large addition to Southpoint Park and Louis Kahn’s iconic Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park to the south of the site.

“Building on Cornell’s rich campus landscape traditions in Ithaca, SOM and Field Operations developed a master plan that introduces a vibrant central walkway which will connect a series of open spaces for the students,” the architects explain. “The landscape is what will knit this campus together. We saw an opportunity to draw the landscape through the building — the central core terraces out into the landscape, creating a strong connection to the campus plaza and a place that may be actively programmed at all times.”

Meanwhile, the distinctive geography of the island, just 800 feet wide at its widest point, informs both the layout of the campus and the design. “We designed the building to simultaneously pull the campus landscape up into the center of the building, elevate the activities within, and extend the building’s west and east wings forwards Manhattan and Queens,” explain partners Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. “River-to river vistas are carved through the building and open up paralleled views across the island.”

Upon completion, the Bridge campus will undoubtedly — and perhaps dramatically — change the culture and texture of lower Roosevelt Island. With nary a square foot available for development in the main commercial districts of Manhattan, the Cornell Tech campus offers a tantalizing vision of both academic and corporate architecture in the 21st century, and it is the Bridge that may well set a new standard for cross-programming as academia and industry become ever more synergized.

If you want to see how the relationship between technology research and education and business will look in the coming decades, it could soon be time to shift your gaze from Silicon Valley to the East River. As Weiss and Manfredi put it, “The site is extraordinary and has been the backdrop of utopian dreams for decades.”

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