“Hat’s off” for the Fine Arts Library at Cornell


It’s possible that cost cutting exercises now underway may eliminate the “hat” (an entire floor level containing book stacks and a seminar room) that was proposed for the roof level of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library at Cornell. Because many of the fire-safety building code issues that continue to plague this scheme hinge on the number of stories and floors, on the definition of mezzanines, and on the use of an atrium designation for the open volume, it might prove useful at this point to assess the implications of this possible change.

First, the distinction between stories and floors is important because an atrium space can only have 3 floors open to it; any other floor must be separated from the atrium volume by some form of protection. Even if the newly configured volume (without the hat) only has 3 stories, it still has at least 4 floors, as can be seen in the sections below. (There are actually 4 stories and 5 floors, as explained below.)

Schematic sections showing the number of stories and floors in a Fine Arts Library without a “hat.”

I am assuming that the mezzanine level shown in the section actually counts as a mezzanine; the AAP Dean recently mentioned that these floor levels might be made larger to carry more books in compensation for the loss of books in the “hat.” If the mezzanine level exceeds 50% of the room or space below it, then it no longer counts as a mezzanine and therefore would add one additional story to the atrium space.

There is a proposed exit access stair on the east side of the building—not shown in the sections, but shown in the bottom right corner of the renderings below—that links the 1st and 2nd stories and is open to the atrium; for that reason, the atrium actually contains four stories and five floors. In any case, the newly configured space violates Section 1006.3 of the 2015 NY State Building Code, which requires that the “path of egress travel to an exit shall not pass through more than one adjacent story.” In fact, the exit access from the highest level of the building passes through the 3rd story, the 2nd story, and then through the 1st story, before finding an exit. In addition, there are five floors open to the atrium, while only 3 open floors are permitted. I’m counting not only floor #1, which is open to the atrium because of the open exit access stair, but also the raised stack portion of the 2nd story, which counts as an additional floor (see the section).

The image below shows the architect’s rendering of the lowest stack level, hovering about 4 feet above the lower part of the 2nd story. Because the floor under this stack level can be used in various ways, and is a potential storage area for combustible material, it needs to be counted as a floor, even if it does not count as a story.

Architect’s rendering of proposed Fine Arts Library atrium space.

What is not shown in the architect’s rendering are two potential uses (abuses) of this space, both of which require that the floor under the hanging stack level be designated as a “floor.” The first possible use of the space is for storage of books or other items, as shown in my altered rendering below.

I’ve added some boxes of books below the hanging stack level to demonstrate that this floor level is really a “floor” and needs to be so designated.

Second, the architect’s provocative inclusion of rolling carts can only have one intention. As shown in my animated video below, students will invariably use the carts as recreational devices to navigate under the hanging stack level.

Links to all my articles and blog posts about the Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Psychedelic Shack


I’ve been recording cover versions of songs that were, in some way, influential in my musical development. Beginning with Surfer Girl from 1963, I’ve picked a different recording artist for each succeeding year, and now find myself in 1970, the year I started the B. Arch program at Cornell University, and the year that Psychedelic Shack became a hit for the Temptations.

Strangely, 1970 was also the year that Peter Eisenman’s “House II” was completed in Hardwick, Vermont. That this house shows up as the “psychedelic shack” in my music video has something to do with current research I am conducting into the question of architectural “function” and, specifically, the suggestion by some architectural theorists that one of the functions of architecture is to express the spirit of the age. Since this idea of a Zeitgeist has always struck me as rather peculiar, I took this opportunity to expose its fraudulent nature by juxtaposing two antagonistic sensibilities from the same time and the same place: on the one hand, Eisenman’s hyper-conceptual tightly-scripted architecture and, on the other hand, the rhetorically psychedelic and “anti-establishment” work from contemporary architects like Archigram (whose “Walking City” appears briefly in the video). The Temptations, of course, is not a “psychedelic” group, so their recording of Psychedelic Shack, written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, can be taken more as a commentary on late 1960s hippie culture than as an example of it. Even so, the song lyrics adequately capture the cultural ambiance:

They got a cat there shoutin’ the blues, talkin’ ’bout payin’ some dues
People walkin’ round reciting poetry, yeah
Screaming guitars and a thousand colored lights
People, I’m telling you this place is really out of sight

Contrast these lyrics with the description of House II by Eisenman (Iman Ansari, “Interview: Peter Eisenman,” The Architectural Review, April 26, 2013 accessed here):

So I achieved what I wanted to achieve, which was to lessen the difference between the built form and the model. I was always trying to say ‘built model’ as the conceptual reality of architecture. So when you see these houses and you visit them you realize that they were very didactic and very important exercises — each one had a different thematic — but they were concerned not with meaning in the social sense of the word or the cultural sense, but in the ‘architectural meaning,’ what meaning they had and what role they played in the critical culture of architecture as it evolved over time. So while the work was interested in syntax and grammar, it was interested to see what the analogical relationships were between language and architecture.

Some notes on the recording and video production:

Music arranged and produced by Jonathan Ochshorn.
Recorded with Logic Pro 9 software.
Vocals: Jonathan Ochshorn.
Real instruments: Jonathan Ochshorn (electric guitar, harmonica).
Software instruments played live on midi keyboard: Jonathan Ochshorn (drums, bass, organ, piano).
Recorded at home in Ithaca, NY, April, 2017.

Video shot by Jonathan Ochshorn with a refurbished iPod Touch in selfie mode, and edited with Final Cut Express.
Still images were mostly found on the internet and edited using Adobe Photoshop, except that one photo is of me at Cornell in 1970 (appearing on a backwards clock while the Temptations are singing “There ain’t no such thing as time”).
Video was shot and edited at home in Ithaca, NY, April, 2017.

Revisiting Form and Forces


I just presented a paper at the 2017 National Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) Conference in Oklahoma City. The paper critiques graphical statics as a contemporary pedagogical tool. You can read it here.

While in Oklahoma City, I also went to see the final game played by the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, where Russell Westbrook was honored in a pregame ceremony by Oscar Robertson. Not everyone is up to speed on NBA trivia; to learn more, read this NY Times article.

Cornell Fine Arts Library proposal to prevent public access


[Updated below] I sent the following email (dated March 30, 2017) to Cornell’s project manager for the Fine Arts Library proposal, in order to find out whether the proposed library card-access control is seriously intended to be implemented. I’ll update this post if I get an answer.

Cornell’s libraries are supposed to be open to the public. According to the Cornell library website: “Any person may visit the libraries and use materials, databases and resources on-site.”

In opposition to this policy, the proposed Fine Arts Library (FAL) will not be a public facility and instead will be card-access controlled. At the 2016 Variance Hearing before the State of New York Capital Region Syracuse Board of Review (Petition 2016-0269), Cornell’s Code consultant stated: “Other factors include that this facility is not necessarily public. I couldn’t just walk in there. It’s card access controlled for students… It’s almost like an indirect or a direct supervision correctional facility. Not that that’s what this place is, just as a side note.” (Emphasis added.)

The provision for card-access control in the FAL proposal is intended to limit the number of people who might use or visit the proposed library in order to justify “relief” from Code-mandated fire-safety requirements, in particular, atrium smoke control measures.

Could you let me know if Cornell provided false information to the Hearing Board in order to justify their request for a Code variance, or if the FAL is really intending to violate longstanding Cornell library policy regarding visitor access?

I’ve written a detailed analysis of this latest FAL proposal and Cornell’s Code variance requests here.

[Updated March 31, 2017]

I received this email reply on Friday, March 31, 2017, not from the FAL project manager to whom my email was addressed, but from Anne Kenney (University Librarian) and Kornelia Tancheva (Associate University Librarian), both of whom are leaving Cornell.

The various Cornell Libraries, including the Fine Arts Library, are open to the public during all their business hours. In support of the land-grant mission of the University, any person can visit the libraries and use materials and services on site.  No library unit can be card-controlled during its normal hours of operation. Any form of restricted access is allowed only after normal hours.   We are not sure what the consultant had in mind, but the Library’s position on this is and has been very clear. Since today is the last day of work for both Kornelia and me, we are copying Xin Li, who will work with Ezra on the Fine Arts Library project.

I responded as follows:

Thank you for confirming that Cornell provided false testimony to the State of New York Capital Region Syracuse Board of Review (Petition 2016-0269 for the proposed Rand Hall Fine Arts Library). You state that you “are not sure what the consultant had in mind.” As I wrote in the email that you responded to: “The provision for card-access control in the FAL proposal is intended to limit the number of people who might use or visit the proposed library in order to justify ‘relief’ from Code-mandated fire-safety requirements, in particular, atrium smoke control measures.” That is what Cornell, through its consultant, had in mind.

Of course, the question I asked in my email was entirely rhetorical, since the answer is self-evident. Furthermore, this is hardly the first false statement made in support of the library project. I hope that your successors will no longer remain complicit in this Trumpian universe where “fake news” is used to support dangerous anti-regulation policies. My detailed critiques of the proposal can be found here.

[Updated April 24, 2017: a flurry of emails to correct the record]

I was just copied on an email from the NYS Division of Building Standards & Codes to Cornell’s project manager. Apparently, Cornell had written to the DBS&C to correct the record, admitting the error in their testimony, and asking for confirmation that the Code variance that they had obtained was still valid. Here’s the body of the NYS response, dated April 24, 2017:

Regarding your letter of April 17, 2017, no further action with respect to a revision of Exhibit A is required. Your letter correction will added to the variance petition Exhibits as an amendment.

The transcript, Findings of Fact and Determination and it’s conditions do not mention nor rely on the language used in Exhibit A to describe the occupancy (publicly accessible vs. card access controlled entry) of the Fine Arts Library facility.

I trust this meets with your request for confirmation that no action is needed. If you have questions feel free to call me at 518 473 8947.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Neil Michael Collier RA CEO
Division of Building Standards & Codes
New York Department of State

Shortly thereafter, I received a copy of this puzzling email from the City of Ithaca Fire Chief (puzzling because it’s not clear whether his understanding is that the occupant load will be restricted, or will not be restricted):

It was my understanding that regardless of key access or public access, the occupant load would not be restricted beyond limits established by the BCNYS/FCNYS for the area and exiting of any A3 occupancy.

Tom Parsons
Fire Chief
City of Ithaca

I followed up on all this with an April 25, 2017, email to the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes; read about it here.

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development


Cornell’s 100% design development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Art’s Library have been completed. The scheme continues to have serious fire-safety deficiencies, continues to be non-compliant with the New York State Building Code, and continues to be problematic for non-Code reasons as well: it destroys a flexible “low-value” industrial-type building that was extremely useful for the department of architecture and replaces it with a spectacularly useless mausoleum for the display of books. You can read more of my articles and blog posts about this project here.

Today, one day before the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I offer two more reading options: first, a detailed analysis of the latest 100% DD drawings (and Cornell’s Code variances) and second, a Cornell Chronicle parody covering the same material.

This photo accompanies my Cornell Chronicle parody.

A Fulbright journal: Five months in Tianjin


I kept an electronic photo-journal for five months while living in Tianjin, China, as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. During my time there during the fall 2016 semester, I taught two courses in the School of Architecture at Tianjin University, and also lectured in several other cities in China. You can read my journal in one of two formats: either as a black and white paperback book (click here to order a copy), or as a full-color pdf, embedded below. It takes a short time for the pdf viewer to load; click on the “fullscreen” button in the middle of the horizontal menu bar to enlarge the content.

[March 26, 2017 update] I’ve uploaded some random videos: Scenes from China.

Tunnel of Love, Live in Hamburg


On the way to our Fulbright semester in China, we stopped in Germany and drove in a loop from Berlin to Weimar to Cologne to Hamburg, and then back to Berlin. While in Hamburg, we checked out the amazing Elbe Tunnel and I could not resist the temptation to record a live version of my song, Tunnel of Love, on my iPod Touch, while walking under the Elbe River. So here it is: I added some basic instrumentation and background vocals when we returned to Ithaca six months later.

Mezzanine problems in Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library


Links to all my writings and blog posts about Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library can be found here.

The Fine Arts Library proposed for Rand Hall at Cornell University has two stories, each with a mezzanine floor, for a total of four levels all linked by a single continuous vertical opening. Vertical openings in buildings are—with some important exceptions—prohibited by Building Codes because they present a serious fire and smoke hazard if not properly designed or protected by a continuous and fire-rated shaft enclosure. The most common exception to the general prohibition of vertical openings states that any two stories may have a vertical opening between them. This much is clear. However, when mezzanines are introduced, things get more complicated and additional exceptions to the general prohibition against vertical openings must be analyzed.

The 2003 and 2007 versions of the New York State Building Codes—the first that were based on the International Building Code (IBC)—state in Section 505.1 that: “A mezzanine… shall be considered a portion of the floor below.” This is important because the exception allowing two-story vertical openings (in Section 707.2 of the 2010 NY State Code or Section 712.1.9 of the 2015 NY State Code, for example) specifically allows such openings to connect two stories, but only as long as they also are separated from other floor openings. Because mezzanines were previously defined as being part of the floor below, they were not considered as separate floors, and therefore didn’t count as additional floor openings under the terms of this exception. In other words, the four interconnected floors in the Fine Arts Library proposal might have been acceptable under these older Codes (assuming that all other requirements governing maximum mezzanine size were satisfied). However, in all subsequent versions of the New York State Building Code, including those from 2010 through 2015, a single word in Section 505.1 (or 505.2 in later versions) was changed, so that a mezzanine is now considered a portion—not of the floor below—but of the story below.

With this seemingly innocent change—from floor to story—the exception in Section 707.2 of the 2010 Code (or Section 712.1.9 of the 2015 Code) allowing floor openings connecting no more than two stories as long as they are also separated from other floor openings now has a very different meaning. With mezzanine floors no longer included as part of the floor below, but still considered as independent floors, the requirement that any vertical opening linking two stories be separated from any other floors is no longer satisfied if mezzanines are present. It is no longer possible to ignore the mezzanine floor levels by claiming that they are part of the floors below them.

There are only two other potentially viable options for designing “vertical openings” for a new Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall, per Section 712.1 in the 2015 NY State Building Code. The first such option—having a vertical opening between a mezzanine and the floor below—clearly doesn’t work for the Fine Arts Library proposal, since only a single mezzanine and floor can be linked together using this option. The only other viable strategy is to design the vertical opening as an atrium.

Schematic section through the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall showing the two “stories” and two mezzanine floors proposed in both the schematic design and 50% design development drawings  with the noncompliant “vertical opening” shown in pink (diagram by J. Ochshorn)


The mathematics of the symbolic skyscraper


In Delirious New York1, Rem Koolhaas describes a crisis in symbolic expression allegedly caused by the development of the skyscraper. First, he questions whether something “filled, from top to bottom, by business” can even be considered as a monument with symbolic content, other than as an Automonument with an “empty” symbolism that “does not represent an abstract ideal, an institution of exceptional importance, a three-dimensional, readable articulation of a social hierarchy, a memorial…”

The idea that buildings for church and state are legitimately monumental (hence having symbolic meaning) but buildings for business are not is, on the face of it, absurd. The attacks on the World Trade Center Towers in 1993 and 2001 provide some evidence that these skyscrapers for business2 (i.e., “world trade”) were symbolic of economic activity and economic power, and that precisely this symbolism was a factor in their selection as targets of terrorism. But even ordinary business towers have meaning (hence, act as symbols): the “corporate officers and the army of clerks they employed determined the meaning and usage of the tall office building” according to Roberta Moudry in her introduction to The American Skyscraper.3 Aaron Betsky is even more emphatic, stating that “Of all the buildings human beings make, towers are the most symbolic” and specifying that they “stand for the wealth and power of the commissioning agency, whether it is a developer, a private entity such as a corporation, or a (quasi-) governmental agency” (in Asia and elsewhere) or “are symbols for the transformation of Manhattan into the haven of choice for the global one percent.”4 That Betsky’s towers include both commercial and residential types does not matter in this context. And, of course, one can always cite Louis Sullivan for paeans to the symbolic grandeur of the skyscraper for business: “that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord Of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.”5

But aside from this assertion that the meaning of office towers is somehow second-class and unsuitable for monumentality or symbolism, Koolhaas makes a second claim that is equally absurd: that the height of skyscrapers makes it increasingly difficult to express internal functionality on outside surfaces, something allegedly required within the tradition of the “honest” facade in modern Western architectural culture. Koolhaas states that “mathematically, the interior volume of the three-dimensional objects increases in cubed leaps and the containing envelope only by squared increments: less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity.”

Figure 1

But as is clear from Figure 1, the ratio of volume and surface remain unchanged as a building gets taller. The mathematical truth is that making a building higher does not change the relationship of volume to surface; only increasing plan dimensions does that (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Thus this alleged crisis (“Beyond a certain critical mass the relationship is stressed beyond the breaking point…”) has nothing to do with the skyscraper or the tower — i.e., with height — but only with the size of the block. And block dimensions in Manhattan were already fixed in size with the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.


1. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, Oxford University Press (New York: 1978), p.81-82.

2. Yes, it’s true that some quasi-governmental organizations, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were tenants of the World Trade Center, but the bulk of space was rented to business: see “List of tenants in One World Trade Center,” Wikipedia (accessed 2/14/17)

3. Roberta Moudry, ed., “Introduction,” The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, New York, etc.: 2005), emphasis added

4. Aaron Betsky, “Symbolism of Skyscrapers: The Meaning of High-Rises Around the World,” ArchitectMagazine.com (The Journal of the American Institute of Architecture), July 23, 2014 (accessed 2/14/17)

5. Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippencott’s Monthly Magazine, March 1896, p.406 (text available here)

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 50% design development


UPDATED Feb. 13, 2017 (see comments below).

I’ve been out of the country since August 2016, so I was not able, until now, to examine the 50% Design Development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Arts Library that have been made available for viewing in the Dean’s office. This post, therefore, may well be old news. However, having already noted numerous problems with the schematic design proposal, I was curious to see if any or all of them had been resolved. As far as I can tell, the proposal still has many problems, some old and some new. In particular, it appears that the fire wall shown in the schematic plans has been eliminated (replaced with various “fire barriers”) so that the advantages of considering Rand Hall as a separate building (only possible with a fire wall) have apparently been discarded. I’ve sent out an email today with a bunch of questions for the contact person at Cornell Facilities, reprinted below, and will update this post if I get any answers.


1. The Building Department Notes in the 50% DD set list the 2010 NYS Building Code and 2010 NYS Existing Building Code as governing Code documents. Will the drawings be changed to reflect the 2015 NYS Building Code and 2015 NYS Existing Building Code now in effect?

2. There is no comprehensive Code analysis in the 50% DD set that explains the basis of the design. For example, the schematic design proposed a fire wall between Milstein Hall and Rand Hall, allowing Rand Hall to be considered as a separate building. There is no fire wall shown in the 50% DD set (except for “mobile fire wall” notations on one of the elevations — see Question #6 below); therefore Rand-Milstein-Sibley Hall must be considered as a single building with a single construction type. This construction type is V-B, based on the 3rd-floor wooden wall construction of Sibley Hall, and not II-B as noted in the DD set.

A Code variance granted in November, 2013 acknowledges the fact that the existing library as designed and constructed on the third floor of Rand Hall (or a proposed, but not yet designed, library on the second and third floors of Rand Hall) would be noncompliant under the 2010 NYS Building Code, and requests that two specific 2010 Code sections be waived. As a result of the variance hearing, certain requirements in Sections 503.1 and 504.2 of the 2010 NYS Building Code were waived, allowing an increase in the allowable floor area of the second floor from about 22,500 square feet to 70,000 square feet and permitting the library to exceed the second-story limit stipulated in the Code (based on its V-B construction type and A-3 occupancy class) and to occupy the third floor of the “Rand Hall” portion of the combined building. A third Code section waiver, not originally requested by Cornell but suggested by the Hearing Board, waives portions of Section 715.1 of the 2010 NYS Building Code so that the requirement for opening protectives (for the windows that penetrate the fire barriers between Milstein, Rand, and Sibley Halls) no longer needs to be applied in considering the Code compliance of the existing library.

This variance clearly allows the current third-floor library to remain in Rand Hall. It does not, however, change the construction type of the combined buildings from V-B to II-B. It should be emphasized that without a fire wall, Rand Hall is not a separate building, even with the variance, and its construction type remains V-B.

On what basis is the construction type for this project listed as II-B?

3. A Code variance specifies what can be constructed, not merely by enumerating practices that are deemed allowable for a particular project, but rather by waiving specific Code sections that would otherwise render the construction noncompliant. The Code variance granted Cornell in November 2013 waives three Code sections in the 2010 NYS Building Code, allowing the current third-floor library to remain. However, those Code sections are no longer applicable to new construction or renovation, since a new 2015 Building Code has taken effect. The variance granted in 2013 for the current library did not waive any Code sections in the 2015 NYS Building Code. Do you believe that a new library built under the 2015 NYS Building Code (and 2015 NYS Existing Building Code) can waive floor area, story height limits, and window protective requirements in the new Code on the basis of a waiver of three Code sections that were granted with respect to the existing library under the 2010 Building Code?

4. Since the building construction type of V-B is neither Type I or Type II, the maximum aggregate area of a mezzanine is 1/3 of the floor area of the room in which it is located. On the basis of what Sections in the 2015 NYS Building Code can the mezzanines shown in the 50% DD set exceed this 1/3 floor area limit?

5. Section 712.1.9 (Two-story openings) of the 2015 New York State Building Code requires that all floor openings must be “separated from floor openings and air transfer openings serving other floors by construction conforming to required shaft enclosures.” Mezzanines, while not counted as “stories,” are still counted as “floors”; therefore openings connecting any more than two such floors are not permitted unless protected by a shaft enclosure, or designed as atriums. How are floor openings connecting all four floors (not stories) in the Fine Arts Library permitted under the 2015 Building Code?

6. There are two notations on the West Elevation in the 50% DD set that say something like “mobile fire wall” (the font is so small that, even with my reading glasses on, I can’t make out the exact words) and point to the north-west and south-west corners of Rand Hall. What do these notations mean? What is a “mobile fire wall”?

7. A sectional drawing in the 50% DD set shows a dimension of 2’-3” below the hanging 2nd-floor stack area, but seems to show protruding objects on the south side of this hanging floor that are higher than 2’-3” and therefore in violation of the 2015 NYS Building Code and ADA. Can you explain what these protruding objects are (see sketch below) and why you believe that they are Code-compliant?

UPDATE Feb. 13, 2017: I received a brief email response from the Project Manager/Sr. Engineer at Cornell Facilities: “Thanks very much for your thoughts and input and I will forward your email to our design team.  It appears that you are reviewing a 50% DD set, which has evolved considerably.  Once the DD phase is complete there will be new drawings that may address many of your questions.” In other words, it looks like I won’t have any definitive answers to these questions until the 100% Design Development drawings are released.

Links to all my writings and posts concerning the Fine Arts Library proposal can be found here.