And so begins the evolution of the campus: each epoch is expressed, allowing the observer to decipher the history of the campus in a way similar to reading the rings of a redwood tree.

The Cornell University campus begins with a dramatic landscape overlooking Cayuga Lake from more than 800 feet above sea level, separated from the surrounding areas by deep gorges on its northern and southern boundaries. The spectacular view of the lake inspired Frederick Law Olmstead to conceive of a campus plan that included a grand terrace overlooking it. Alas, this idea was never realized—but instead the early buildings were grouped around a magnificent green, forming one of the great American academic public spaces.

For the most part, the earliest buildings were humble structures with ambiguous architectural pedigree, reflecting the practicality of the university’s founder, Ezra Cornell. Their rustic stone faces and modest interior spaces were made gracious as they played their part in framing the monumentalArts Quadrangle.

Cornell’s first architectural graduate, William Henry Miller, went on to give the university a more delicate treatment in the late nineteenth century, with brick buildings of the Victorian era on the southern end of the Arts Quadrangle. And so begins the evolution of the campus: each epoch is expressed, allowing the observer to decipher the history of the campus in a way similar to reading the rings of a redwood tree.

In the early twentieth century, a significant building campaign expanded the campus to the east along a level ridge that came to be known as Tower Road. Funded primarily by the state, these buildings were in many ways more consistent than the earlier buildings, which had been endowed by the university. These light-colored brick buildings, serving agricultural and life sciences, were designed  in a stripped-down, classical style commonly used for many government buildings of the time. Several years later, the campus extended as the Law School expressed itself in a Collegiate Gothic collection of buildings.

And so begins the evolution of the campus...

The postwar period brought extraordinary growth to the university. Many would say that some of the buildings built in this era do not move the spirit or contribute to the beauty of the campus. And in some cases, this is undeniable. Fortunately, during the last 30 years, a focus on campus planning and architecture has produced several noteworthy buildings that continue the positive evolution of the campus into the twenty-first century. Five Pritzker Prize–winning architects have designed buildings connecting the university into the larger cultural discussion worldwide. It is fitting that an internationally recognized institution of higher learning be expressed physically by artist’s rendering of the new Bill & Melinda Gates Hall thoughtful and stimulating architecture based on ideas as innovative as the research conducted within its walls.

It would be impossible to improve on Winston Churchill’s famous saying, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Students come to Cornell from all over the world. Some come from large cities; some from small towns. In addition to their studies, they will learn about the built environment. The campus and its buildings have the capacity—and the obligation—to teach about the importance of public space, sustainability, craft, beauty, creativity, and all humanistic pursuits that enrich the soul and fashion more complete citizens of the world. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cornell Master Plan for the Ithaca campus: masterplan.cornell.edu