This is an opinion column written by Brian Crandall, who runs the blog “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”
Cornell’s a large campus with many buildings to its name. With some, form comes before function, and others it’s function before form. The goal is to have both a pleasing form and functionally efficient, which many of the more beloved buildings, like Willard Straight Hall, have been able to accomplish.
Some building accomplish neither. Some buildings do such a bad job at accomplishing form or function that they force the university to do an overhaul of its planning process.
There’s a few that could earn such a dubious distinction (old MVR north and Bradfield come to mind), but one resulted in a special amount of acrimony – Uris Hall.
Let me do a quick summary. Uris Hall was completed in 1972 thanks to a generous donation from real estate developer Harold Uris ’25 and his brother Percy (who graduated from Columbia, which has a less offensive Uris Hall). According to the now-offline Dear Uncle Ezra’s 12/27/2005 edition, Cornell gave the donors the ability to dictate design preferences, and while they were in Pittsburgh, the Urises noticed how amazing the (then new) U.S. Steel tower’s facade looked (which uses cor-ten steel). They wanted to see that on the new building, so that’s why it was used on Uris Hall. Corten steel turns a rusty-gold with blue overtones when it reacts with common air pollutants, but because of Ithaca’s lack of air pollution to oxidize the steel’s surface, it’s a decades-long process.
Okay, so it’s ugly. But it gets so much worse than that.
For one thing, the upkeep of the facade gave the building an incredibly high maintenance cost, something that Cornell was not happy about. An October 2, 1973 Sun article notes that Uris cost about 81 cents per square foot to maintain in 1972-1973, compared to the campus average of 15 cents per square foot. When a building is 174,000 square feet, that cost really adds up (if you’re keeping score at home, that’s about $115,000 in 1973 dollars, or about $616,000 today). There were a couple primary reasons for this: large glass expanses of single-pane bronze-tinted glass resulted in huge utility bills and were too big for facilities equipment to clean, and the slowly rusting steel. Technically, if all had gone to plan, the rust would have formed quickly, and the oxidized surface of the steel would have created a protective coating and kept future maintenance costs low. In reality, the slow rusting resulted in a runoff of steel oxide film being deposited onto the glass, which had to be quickly cleaned off before it could etch into the windows. So every rainstorm was a race against time with inadequate equipment. These were things that the architect, Roy O. Allen Jr. of SOM, admitted had not crossed his mind when designing the building.
For what it was worth, Harold Uris donated another $1 million for the building’s maintenance, and the university reconsidered the balance of building design vs. maintenance costs. Corson himself declared that the university would not borrow money to construct buildings that would be a long-term burden on university finances.
When it came to being a disaster of a project, Uris Hall wins the gold medal.