Category Archives: Architecture

Dangerous (lack of) guardrail at Uris Library

Because toddlers, older children, and foolish adults fall off unprotected ledges, model building codes (and codes adopted by the various states, based on the model codes) require that guard rails be placed at such dangerous edges. The actual 2020 NYS Building Code language is as follows (Section 1015): “Guards shall be located along open-sided walking surfaces … that are located more than 30 inches (762 mm) measured vertically to the floor or grade below at any point within 36 inches (914 mm) horizontally to the edge of the open side.” In other words, if there is a vertical discontinuity at the edge of a walking surface of more than 30 inches (762 mm), even if that drop of 30 inches (762 mm) occurs up to three feet (914 mm) away from the edge of the walking surface, then a guard is required. Furthermore, the guard must be at least 42 inches (1067 mm) high and it must be configured such that a 4-inch-diameter (102 mm diameter) sphere cannot pass through. This latter requirement is intended to prevent children from sticking their heads through the guard and getting stuck (yes, this really happens!).

Now, I haven’t been able to track down the NYS Building Code in effect when the addition to Cornell’s Uris Library, designed by Gunnar Birkerts, was designed and built in 1980–1982, but the lack of a compliant guard seems consistent with the standards currently in place and, presumably, with the standards in place in the early 1980s (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The addition to Uris Library at Cornell is altered using PhotoShop to show a more precipitous vertical drop from the walking surface (left); the addition is shown as it actually appears, still with a dangerous vertical drop from the walking surface (right). Photo and PhotoShop manipulation by Jonathan Ochshorn.

This is because, even though there is a vertical drop of much more than 30 inches (762 mm), this drop does not occur within 36 inches (914 mm) of the walking surface: there is a sloping ledge between the walking surface and the precipitous drop which appears to justify the lack of a code-compliant guard (the horizontal pipe rail at the edge of the walking surface does not comply with the requirement that a 4-inch-diameter (102 mm diameter) sphere, let alone a rambunctious toddler, cannot pass through. Yet, as can be seen in Figure 1, the condition is still quite dangerous, since a toddler or child (or spaced-out adult) could easily run through the open guard, slide down the inclined ledge, and fall to the ground below, possibly sustaining serious injuries.

Now, if the walking surface of the addition were at the top of a very tall building, as modeled in Figure 1, left, the architects may well have felt the need to make a safer guard rail, even though the building code would not have required that they do so! The as-built condition shown in Figure 1, right,  is also quite dangerous, and really should have a guard that meets the standards outlined in the building code.

It turns out that the International Code Council (ICC)—which writes the International Building Code (IBC), which, in turn, forms the basis of the New York State Building Code—has fixed this unsafe loophole in the 2024 IBC, not yet adopted in New York State (in fact, the older 2021 IBC has not even been adopted by New York State; as of this writing, New York State’s 2020 Building Code is actually based on the 2018 IBC!). The latest IBC adds “and at the perimeter of occupiable roofs” to the code section (1015.2) which describes where such guards are required. Since the walking surface at the top of the Uris Library addition is an “occupiable roof,” a safe guard rail would be required under that code.

Even though the current unsafe conditions are “grandfathered” under the older code, Cornell should modify the existing pipe rail and turn it into a real guard, as will eventually be required for new construction once the 2024 IBC is adopted.

New “vertical opening” calculator!

How does one make a vertical opening—a hole—in a single floor, or through multiple floors, while still being in compliance with the 2024 International Building Code (IBC)? This question is quite important, since architects like making holes in buildings. Even so, a code-compliant answer is surprisingly difficult to track down, especially since the fundamental fire-safety requirement for compartmentalization precludes the use of vertical openings and requires that all horizontal floor assemblies be continuous. In other words, at least at first glance, it appears that holes are not permitted at all.

An admittedly exaggerated image of a vertical opening (hole) in a floor. Image created by Jonathan Ochshorn using PhotoShop.

Fortunately, this basic prohibition of vertical openings is modified in countless ways. Yes, code language in the 2034 IBC, found in Section 711.2.2 of the IBC, starts with the requirement for absolute continuity of fire-resistance-rated horizontal assemblies (so that a fire is more likely to be contained within its floor of origin), but a rather important exception immediately follows: “Assemblies shall be continuous without vertical openings, except as permitted by this section and Section 712.” Practically speaking, Section 712 of the IBC provides the architect with various ways to create vertical openings that, at least in theory, provide protection against the spread of fire in ways that are more-or-less equivalent to the ideal of continuity in fire-resistance-rated horizontal floor assemblies. (Nonfire-resistance-rated floor assemblies, per Section 711.3.2, have similar requirements for continuity and allow the same exceptions.)

Of course, one can always make a hole or “shaft” legal by protecting it with a “shaft enclosure”—such things are covered in Section 713 of the IBC. But to make a real hole in a floor—to visually and spatially connect two or more levels by removing a portion of a floor-ceiling assembly—one of the protection methods listed in Section 712 must, in general, be used. Continue reading my paper on vertical openings in floors. Or go directly to my new and improved vertical opening calculator!


Book presentation at AAP Launchpad event

I presented my latest book, OMA’s Milstein Hall, at Cornell AAP’s joint book launch event, called Launchpad, on April 17, 2024, at 5:30 PM. Details here. Because I was in Madrid for the 2024 ASHRAE International Building Decarbonization Conference, my presentation consisted of a 7-minute music video. I was thinking of adding something like, “Be there. Will be wild!,” but will resist the temptation. Bad taste.

The video was released on YouTube at the same time as the book launch event. Why not subscribe to my YouTube channel to get notices of such things!

Finally: my new 2021–2024 IBC Allowable Area Calculator!

I had created a free online calculator to determine allowable heights, number of stories, and floor area, based on various criteria in the International Building Code (IBC). This calculator, however, was getting old and out of date, so I finally revised it, based on the 2021 and 2024 IBC (the latest iterations currently available). It’s free and (relatively) easy to use, so try it out, here.

Generic site plan showing various parameters for the calculation of the area increase factor (for frontage).

Adding insult to injury: Cornell deletes Rand Hall egress information

I’ve written about the many egregious fire safety violations in Rand Hall’s Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell, e.g., an article describing my “Appeal regarding building code violations in Cornell’s Fine Arts Library.”

So it’s entirely fitting that the college’s Spring 2024 events postcard would feature an image of the Rand roof deck with all egress information Photoshopped away!

Free open-access books on architecture

All three of my books are now available in free, open-access, digital versions — as well as low-cost paperback editions.

Read on the web, download free ePubs or PDFs, or buy a low-cost paperback:

The path to open-access wasn’t particularly easy. In the case of Structural Elements, I started with Elsevier (publisher of the first hardcover edition), then found a less onerous publisher (Common Ground) for a paperback second edition, and then took control myself for the third edition by self-publishing an inexpensive paperback ($19.95) and creating a free web version and PDF.

For OMA’s Milstein Hall, I had some preliminary conversations with the publisher, Routledge, but they seemed reluctant to publish a book critical of OMA without some sort of “reassurance” from OMA, which—naturally—wasn’t forthcoming. So I self-published the book ($19.95), also providing a free web version as well as free ePub and PDF versions.

My book, Building Bad, was initially published by Lund Humphries in 2021. I had some professional development funds in my Cornell account, partly from my status as professor emeritus at Cornell, and partly from my work as Speaker of the Cornell University Faculty Senate, and asked Lund Humphries if they would consider allowing me to create an open-access (free) version, with a subvention from these available funds. Apparently, they had no experience with such things, but eventually decided to place their hardcover edition “out of print,” disable their eBook edition as well, and revert all publishing rights back to me, for a modest sum of money. This allowed me to create a free web version as well as a free ePub, a free PDF, and a low-cost paperback version (only $14.95).

OMA’s Milstein Hall: A Case Study of Architectural Failure

I’ve written a new a book about architectural failure. In addition to some general observations and an occasional digression, the heart of the book is a rather detailed examination of dysfunction, inflexibility, fire hazard, nonstructural failure, and unsustainable design in Milstein Hall at Cornell University, the flagship building designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. See my website to read the 412-page book for free (on the web, or as a free pdf or ePub) or click on the “Amazon” link to buy an inexpensive paperback version ($19.95).

There are 26 chapters in the book organized into four parts—with each part corresponding to one category of architectural failure:

  • Part I (Dysfunction and Inflexibility) includes detailed discussions of function, flexibility, privacy, lighting, acoustics, circulation, orientation, and access.
  • Part II (Nonstructural Failure) offers an examination of thermal control, rainwater control, and sloppy, dysfunctional, and dangerous details in Milstein Hall.
  • Part III (Fire Hazard) discusses the many ways in which Milstein Hall contravenes normative fire safety standards.
  • Part IV (Unsustainable Design) is in equal part a critique of Milstein Hall’s sustainability and the cynical use of the LEED Reference Guide as validation for Milstein Hall’s “green” credentials.

Writing and researching my monograph, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021), provided a useful theoretical base for the present work, which is, in effect, a case study in “building bad.” The competition driving dysfunctional modes of expression and the political calculations that effectively constrain durability and safety—both of which increase the probability of building failure—are theorized in Building Bad. And this theory applies to most avant-garde architecture, including the architecture of Milstein Hall. The present book does not rehash the underlying theoretical arguments for nonstructural failure that appeared in Building Bad; instead, it examines what such failure looks like in a single building—as a case study.

Pritzker-plus redux

I led a second walking tour of the Cornell campus on August 28, 2023, focusing on Cornell’s six Pritzker-laureate-designed buildings: Milstein Hall (Rem Koolhaas), the Johnson Museum of Art (I.M. Pei), the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts (James Stirling), Gates Hall (Thom Mayne), Weill Hall (Richard Meier), and Uris Hall (Gordon Bunshaft).

Jonathan Ochshorn addresses tour group prior to entering Bunshaft’s Uris Hall (photo by Max Rodencal)

We also visited Uris Library (William Henry Miller), Thurston Hall (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon), Upson Hall (original design by Perkins & Will, renovation by Perkins & Will with Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis), Duffield Hall (Zimmer Gunsul Frasca), Bradfield Hall (Ulrich Franzen), and Minns Garden. A map of the tour can be found in my blog post for the first Pritzker-plus iteration.

The following images and commentary are intended to provide context for some of my remarks on the tour, in the order of the buildings that we visited:

We started at the “bubbles” at Milstein Hall; a comparison with the arcade (atrium) at Duffield Hall is discussed later.

Next, we walked west to the Johnson Museum of Art and I talked about why, in the early 1970s, certain Cornell architecture faculty hated the building. Here’s an except and image from my book, Building Bad, explaining the controversy: “That the spatial logic of interior spaces should be ‘transparently’ revealed (expressed) on a building’s exterior surfaces was also a tenet of 20th-century modernism. This can be seen, for example, in the argument made by Alan Chimacoff and Klaus Herdeg in their scathing criticism of I.M. Pei’s Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, published in Cornell’s student-run newspaper in 1973 (and, in slightly revised form, in Herdeg’s The Decorated Diagram: Harvard Architecture and the Failure of the Bauhaus Legacy, ten years later):

Hypothetically, meaning could exist in two spheres. First, the physical expression of the building’s functional organization (the famous shibboleth of Modern Architecture); second, the manifestation of an aesthetic and intellectual argument addressing itself to a range of historical and cultural issues which attach themselves to the project at hand. The Johnson Museum addresses itself to neither. With respect to the first sphere of meaning, it presents schizophrenic inconsistencies, the most blatant of which is the disposition of the gallery spaces themselves. The form of the building would suggest that the ‘great north slab’ contained spaces of similar and perhaps repetitive use, while the spaces assembled to the south of ‘the slab’ connote a contrasting, perhaps unique, set of uses. It appears contradictory that the gallery boxes are buried in ‘the north slab’ and sculpturally expressed within ‘the great void.’

“In other words, the museum’s great crime was to have been designed from the outside, on the one hand, so that its ‘great north slab’ would, through its massing, align with historic academic buildings on the north side of Cornell’s arts quad, and, on the other hand, designed from the inside so that its complex, and somewhat contradictory, programmatic requirements could be met. Since there were not enough administrative spaces to fill the ‘great north slab’—which would have, per Chimacoff and Herdeg’s logic, given it conceptual consistency by reconciling internal programming with external form—and since the form of the ‘great north slab’ was nevertheless desired because its external massing was considered of paramount importance, per the architect’s logic, in relation to spatial patterns prevailing on Cornell’s historic arts quad, I.M. Pei employed a design strategy which allowed the exterior form to ‘respond’ to exterior conditions while allowing the interior spaces to independently ‘respond’ to programmatic requirements [see fig. 1]. Of course, it is possible that both criteria could have been met in a manner that reconciled the two imperatives. But, even so, the stipulation for such metaphorical ‘transparency’ is quite arbitrary; one could just as easily praise the museum’s design for eschewing such facile expression and, instead, embracing the contradictions of its site and program. In the final analysis, the contentiousness of arguments about the appropriateness—some might say the truthfulness—of such subjective determinations of expression is inversely proportional to the objective basis underlying the claims: nothing elicits more passionate and cut-throat criticism than arbitrary, subjective, and fleeting expressions of taste.” [Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression, London (Lund Humphries, 2021), 107–108]

Fig. 1. Johnson museum analysis from Building Bad, p. 109.

We then walked along the edge of Libe Slope to Uris Library (to see the A.D. White Reading Room). I mentioned that William Henry Miller also designed a companion building, Boardman Hall, which was torn down in the late 1950s and replaced with Olin Library. I’ve written about this disastrous decision in a prior blog post. Some images from that post are reproduced below, to give you an idea of what was lost:

Fig. 2. Boardman-Olin comparison.

Fig. 3. Boardman Hall arcade.

We then walked through the library (since the normal path was blocked by a construction fence), checked out the former “Cocktail Lounge” library addition designed by Gunnar Birkerts that was recently renovated by HOLT Architects, a local Ithaca firm, and made our way to the Schwartz Center in Collegetown. I mentioned that Stirling’s design had numerous historical references, the most important of which was Brunelleschi’s Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence:

Fig. 4. Schwartz Center – San Lorenzo comparison.

From Collegetown, we re-entered campus via the pedestrian bridge over Cascadilla Gorge and made our way into the Engineering Quad, climbing up my favorite example of a terribly designed exterior stair. We paid our respects to some rammed-earth columns (thank you Max) and then entered Thurston by way of Bard Hall, where we stopped in front of the axially-placed structures lab. From there, we entered Upson Hall, first examining the new terra cotta facade panels.

Fig. 5. Terra cotta panels, part of Upson Hall recladding.

Upson took us directly into the aracde/atrium of Duffield Hall, where I speculated about a different ideological framework that informed the design of Milstein Hall’s arcade. I’ve written about this in a soon-to-be-published book: “It is instructive to compare Milstein Hall’s underutilized outdoor arcade with that of Duffield Hall, a nearby and heavily used enclosed arcade that was created between two campus building on the Engineering Quad. Both Milstein Hall and Duffield Hall were additions to existing buildings and, as such, had similar design challenges in joining a new with an existing building. Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF), the architects for Duffield Hall, activated the connection to the existing building (Phillips Hall) by creating a covered arcade bounded by Phillips Hall on one side and the new Duffield Hall on the other side. In this space, they designed useful seating areas in which students can study or collaborate in relative privacy, but with visual connections back to the main circulation spine of the arcade, so that both those seated along the perimeter of the arcade and those circulating down the middle feel active and engaged. Naturally, there is also food available, and plenty of places to sit, eat, and drink. The architects for Milstein Hall, in contrast, left the arcade space between Sibley Hall and Milstein Hall unenclosed and unpleasant, with no collaborative seating, no ability to see and be seen, no compelling activities visible in the adjacent buildings, and—as a result—with no particular reason for anyone to enter. The images in [fig. 6] show the two arcades at the same time on the same day (Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at noon), but this contrast in functionality could be demonstrated on virtually any day and any time when students are on campus.

“Koolhaas’s ‘Junkspace,’ written just a few years before OMA began the Milstein Hall project, may provide some insight into the origin of the arcade’s dysfunction, although it is risky to allege such links between the office’s theory and practice. In this article, a brilliant 7,500-word rant formatted into a single, continuous paragraph, the enclosed mall (aka Junkspace) comes under withering attack:

Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing… the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain… It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo)…

“This hyperbolic descriptive text soon turns into an explicitly anti-atrium warning: “Note to architects: You thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously… […] But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden…” And not only that, this atrium-culture fosters complacency and destroys our ability to think: “Junkspace is political. It depends on the central removal of the critical facility in the name of comfort and pleasure.” So it’s possible that this ideological posturing had some influence on the decision to leave Milstein Hall’s arcade unconditioned, uncovered, and—most importantly—without any formal or functional references to the despised prototype of the atrium/mall.”

Fig. 6. Comparison of arcades in Milstein Hall (left) and Duffield Hall (right).

Leaving the engineering quad, we walked east to Gates Hall. I talked about the use of stone or precast panels placed around normative steel columns to create a “fictional” narrative about support (in the case of Uris Hall, which we’ll see at the end of the tour) or to create an illusion of non-support (in the case of Gates Hall — see figure 7).

Fig. 7. “Fictional” support conditions at Uris Hall (left) and Gates Hall (right).

We then walked past Cornell’s Lynah skating rink (where some “snow” from the Zamboni machine had been deposited in the parking lot), and looked around Weill Hall, paying close attention to the articulated reveals between drywall, door frames, and wall tile in the first-floor bathrooms.

From there, we crossed Tower Road and went into what is apparently the most-hated lab building at Cornell (and one of my favorite campus buildings): Bradfield Hall. I talked about the similarity to Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Lab — see figure 8.

Fig. 8. Comparison of Richards Medical Research Lab (left) and Bradfield Hall (right).

On the way to our final Pritzker building, we stopped at Minns Garden, off of Tower Road. I talked about the danger of certain forms of abstraction, comparing the vapid circles of Milstein Hall’s green roof to this garden’s rich and bio-diverse landscape design.

Fig. 9. Minns Garden at Cornell.

Walking west on Tower Road, we visited Uris Hall, whose exposed and expressed structure of corrosion-resistant, weathering (aka “COR-TEN”) steel is similar in its outward geometry to Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, which opened about 10 years earlier (see figure 10). I mentioned that where Bunshaft’s earlier building had a more integrated design idea — i.e., the interior and exterior form had a clear relationship — see figure 11), Uris Hall’s interior was just a maze of corridors and windowless offices.

Fig. 10. Comparison of Beinecke Library and Uris Hall.


Fig. 11. Interior of Beinecke Library.

I also mentioned that the parti of Uris Hall was similar to that of Milstein Hall. As I wrote in a blog post from 2011: “Both buildings consist of  large, essentially square, floor plates supported by rigid frames (vierendeel trusses) lifted off the ground and cantilevered in dramatic fashion from their points of support. Both buildings also hover over large, below-grade, auditoriums: in the case of Uris Hall, the auditorium sits politely under the podium; in Milstein Hall, the auditorium rides a reinforced concrete dome that seems to burst through the ground plane. Both buildings mediate their cantilevered steel superstructures and highly-articulated bases with a glass wrapper designed to enclose space and provide an entry at grade without compromising the visual articulation of superstructure and base.”

To prove my point, I photoshopped a portion of Uris Hall onto a photo of Milstein Hall (see figure 12).

Fig. 12. Milstein Hall (left) and a portion of Uris Hall photoshopped onto the same image (right).

We dutifully examined the maze of corridors and windowless offices in Uris Hall, after which I headed home via Collegetown while the students went to … well, wherever students go.

Response to SARG “Reflections”

An email solicitation from a group called SARG (Spatial Analytics Research Group) ended up in my junk folder. I retrieved it on the same day of their Zoom meeting in which they asked to distinguish between architecture and building, i.e., they asked: “What is (not) architecture?” So I quickly sent off the following response:

The idea that architecture is something “added” to mere building presumes that the two terms (architecture and building) are different instances of the same class of objects, where, per Ruskin, architecture “impresses on [the form of the mere building] certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary.”

But this formulation is wrong, for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: Ruskin was thinking of literal decorative or sculptural “additions” to a structure’s masonry shell, so that the notion that such things were “otherwise unnecessary” could be sustained — the utilitarian functionality of such structures would certainly survive without such embellishment. But what of architecture without decorative embellishment? Ruskin’s argument falls apart when confronted with modernist aesthetics.

The second problem with the formulation, even abstracting from the requirement that what is added be “unnecessary,” is that manipulating formal constituent elements of buildings is ubiquitous, albeit within wide range of aesthetic formulations corresponding to the various class-based social and cultural strata within modern societies.

In other words, the distinction between building and architecture is simply the snobbery of connoisseurship, no different from the condemnation of any number of working-class preferences by elite tastemakers. Like Adorno’s condemnation of jazz.

Planetizen course based on Building Bad

I’ve created two 1-hour courses for Planetizen, a “planning-related news website and e-learning platform based in Los Angeles” (Wikipedia) — or, in their own words, “the independent voice of the planning community, free from institutional or financial interests” — based on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries 2021). The first course in this 2-part series, explaining how architectural utility is constrained by politics, can be watched or previewed at The second course, on utility and architectural expression, will be available sometime next week. [Update June 22, 2023: Part 2 can be viewed or previewed here.]

Building Bad Part 1