Cornell Taps Morphosis's Thom Mayne to Design Zero-Energy "Traffic Stopper" on Roosevelt Island

Cornell Taps Morphosis's Thom Mayne to Design Zero-Energy "Traffic Stopper" on Roosevelt Island
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art academic building designed by Thom Mayne
(Getty Images)

Late last year, the mysterious strip of land known as Roosevelt Island became New York City's biggest tabula rasa. As Louis Kahn's Four Freedoms Park began to take shape at the island's south tip, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for a shimmering new applied science campus to occupy a 2.1-million-square-foot property just to the north. The preliminary master plan, bedazzled with sloping silver forms dreamed up by SOM, secured the bid for Cornell University. But despite adulation for SOM’s thoroughly solar-paneled vision, Cornell has chosen Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning principal architect of Morphosis, to design the first building for the new Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute.

"SOM has served us fantastically well," said Kent Kleinman, Cornell's dean of architecture, art and planning, to The Architect's Newspaper. But the gratitude stops there: "No firm is better at turning constraints into creative solutions of astonishing power than Thom Mayne and Morphosis," he continued. While SOM will continue to develop the campus master plan, there was no mention of the firm in the University's latest press release. Mayne and his firm suddenly stole the show, beating out not just SOM for the prized first building commission, but also stealing the competition from a star-studded shortlist including Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Steven Holl Architects.

Since 2009, Mayne and Morphosis have been inextricably associated with the contorting mass known as 41 Cooper Square. The iconic newest addition to the Cooper Union continues to attract visitors like moths to the flame, only to turn them away with its restricted access. As The Architect's Newspaper suggests, the choice of Mayne could very well reflect Cornell's wish for "a traffic stopper on the East River," exactly the opposite of what SOM principal Roger Duffy had predicted for the campus earlier. The only continuity lies in Mayne's collaboration with Arup engineers to meet the long-established net-zero energy goal imposed on the entire campus.

Initial proposals for the new building are expected to be released in November 2012. In the meantime, Cornell's tight-lipped disclosure leaves our imaginations running wild: will Thom Mayne's "astonishing power" be tamed, or is he paving the way for a sculpture garden of LEED platinum monuments?