This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell recently announced plans for a $63 million renovation of one of the engineering school’s academic buildings, Upson Hall. Built in 1956, the 160,000 square-foot building houses mechanical and aerospace engineering, and housed office and lab space for computer science until Gates Hall was completed earlier this year.

One of the more fascinating details about this project is that Perkins + Will, one of the architecture firms involved in the renovation, was also the same firm responsible for the original 1950s design. Perkins + Will is a global firm with with a staff of 1,500 in 24 locations worldwide.

Current Upson Hall
Proposed renderings for the building’s redesign


The Ithaca Voice recently had the opportunity to speak with Rob Goodwin, design director at Perkins + Will, and discuss the plans for Upson Hall.

Q: Hi Rob, thanks for your time, it’s greatly appreciated. So what’s your involvement with the Upson Hall project? Do you have any personal connection to Cornell?

A: I’m the design director for the New York office, and I’m a graduate of the architecture program at Cornell. I’m in charge of Perkin + Will’s effort as part of the project team. I don’t lead project design, but I support it and provide guidance. First off, I want to stress that this is in integrated team. LTL Architects, Perkins + Will, and Thornton-Tomasetti are working on this project as an integrated team of architects and engineers, appropriate for an engineering building.

Q: What sort of goals are you trying to achieve with the design for the renovated Upson Hall? What’s the guiding design philosophy here?

A: Integration and openness of design. The skin design is interesting when you look at current building, its continuous window language and blank walls are typical ‘50s design. There’s a certain elegance from its era, but there’s also a real need to look forward. A recladding was always planned within the design process, and it will transform the identity of the building. The new design will create a sense of more openness, and there’s a certain amount of flexibility in the layout to accommodate changing program needs. The new design has what’s called an “aggregated façade”, the patterning accommodates both opening and flexibility; there are subtle changes in façade from offices to classes and lab spaces. The textured terracotta will be rich, deep and beautiful. The windows are set into the façade, providing texture and showing the depth of the insulation. The new façade offers a rich textured expression, versus the older building, which looked sort of thin.

Ithaca is predominantly a cloudy place, so daylighting is an issue. We’re maximizing and optimizing since light is at a premium. Also, while Ithaca isn’t the arctic, it is a cold climate, so good insulation is also important. Balancing the need of insulation with daylight is a delicate balance, and we think we’ve achieved balance with the current design. Bringing Thornton-Tomasetti into the design process early allows the design to better support technical needs while creating a new identity for the college.

The landscaping also helps create identity. An issue now is that there is not a strong connection from the inside to the outside, and the building entries are not strongly identified. We want to open up the building as much as possible, and landscape helps that through enhancement of the Quad entrance and the Hoy Road entrance. Wonderful exterior spaces become much more utilized.

The Wood Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — designed by Perkins + Will
Parkland College Student Union in Champaign, Illinois. Also designed by Perkins + Will

Q: We know Cornell’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department will be a primary occupant of the building, based on the renders. Computer science recently moved out of Upson to Gates Hall. Any idea what other academic units will be located in the renovated Upson Hall?

A: The department you mentioned (MAE) primarily. There are student project labs in the lower level, where they build cars, aeronautical stuff, all sorts of great things…that will be expanded. We’re making an opening in the entry area where you can look down and see the activity, it will show engineering is not just computers and behind closed doors.  A number of new classrooms are being designed into the building, there’s new lab spaces, space for 3-D printing, wind tunnels, current research experiments will continue, and the new labs will be more flexible and supportive of new research.

There’s also more shared space. The idea is to treat common spaces as opportunities for interaction, enhancing learning. We’re avoiding horizontal compartmentalization, where everyone just stays to their own floor. New lounge space has been added so there are increased opportunities for interaction. The stairs are close and convenient to the lounges, which helps integrate floors and give more identity.

Q: The historical angle is really fascinating, to see that nearly sixty years later, Perkins + Will is once again involved back on Cornell’s campus to work on Upson Hall. How often does that kind of thing happen?  Do you have any reservations altering the original work?

A: Perkins + Will has a history at Cornell. Both (Lawrence) Perkins and (Philip) Will were grads of Cornell from the early 1930s. Phil Will was even a trustee of Cornell in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The engineering quad buildings were designed when there was strong post-war demand, they needed to be quickly built. They were designed for accommodating the needs of the growing economy, and universities needed space quickly.

These buildings were designed for a certain time, and schools need to address obsolete buildings.  Cornell decided to keep the existing building. The structure is good, but the skin is not efficient. At the same time, some people like the look of the current building, some people find it very unattractive. It’s time for the next phase, we’re not sentimental enough to not want to see the building changed. Perkins + Will agreed it’s time to transform the building, so the engineering school can move on to a new phase.  We’re excited to be a part of that. With the high level of technical performance and sustainability desired by Cornell, it should be among the best-performing buildings at the university.

Q: What’s the most exciting part about working on this project?

A: If we create a place where users learn, discover and interact, that’s great. My personal interest is that the building performs as well or better than planned. The integration of design, engineering and sustainability is exciting, Upson could be a new benchmark for other new buildings to follow on Ithaca campus. We don’t think of sustainability as a limitation, but an inspiration. We want the building to operate as efficiently as it can.

Q: As a Cornell graduate, what’s it feel like to be designing a building for your alma mater?

A: Really fantastic and a little daunting. There’s a legacy of great architecture at Cornell, and we want to add to it in a positive way. Every architect dreams of the chance to build something on campus where they were educated.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.