At Cornell’s New NYC Campus, a Unique Grad School Gets a Unique Home

September 13, 2017

Iwan Baan
The architecture of Cornell Tech, the applied-sciences campus that formally opens Wednesday on New York’s Roosevelt Island, is designed to encourage collaboration.

From the outset, Cornell Tech, Cornell University’s applied-sciences campus in New York City, aimed to be a different kind of graduate school: more interdisciplinary in its teaching, more applied in its research focus, and perhaps most notably, more accommodating and open to the private companies and organizations across the city with which it collaborates.

The school makes a point of getting its students "in front of customers, in front of early-stage investors," says its founding dean, Daniel P. Huttenlocher. "We wanted to have companies on the campus."

This month, with the opening of its first three buildings on Roosevelt Island — on a 12-acre campus that features sleek architecture, lush outdoor spaces, and killer views of the East River and the Manhattan skyline — those ambitions become more of a reality.

The campus opening is a milestone for New York City, for Cornell University and its academic partner, the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, and arguably for higher education.

Cornell Tech is also hoping the campus will be a boon to the special character of the school, and particularly to the signature piece of the master’s-degree curriculum known as Studio, which blends teaching techniques borrowed from arts and architecture programs with R&D approaches typical of tech start-ups. The Studio makes up about one-third of the curriculum for all seven of the master’s programs here. Greg Pass, a former chief technology officer at Twitter who oversees the Studio program, says the master’s offerings are oriented toward making the academic work "matter to real people."

The new Cornell Tech campus arose from a heated 2011 competition sponsored by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to bring a new applied-sciences campus to the city to give a boost to the region’s tech economy. (The city offered land and $100 million toward infrastructure; private donations of $400 million, including $100 million from Mr. Bloomberg’s own philanthropy, helped Cornell build twice the campus space it had originally promised by 2017.) The campus formally opens on Wednesday. Construction on a hotel and executive-education center that will complete the $1-billion first phase is slated to begin later this year.

Each of the first buildings — an airy, low-slung academic building called the Bloomberg Center; a 26-story apartment building for students and faculty members that is designed to meet "passive house" standards for energy efficiency; and a six-story, mixed-use structure called the Bridge, which includes spaces for companies, robotics labs, and instruction — feature elements designed to promote the school’s collaborative pedagogical style.

In the Bloomberg Center, designed by the architectural firm Morphosis, those elements include three floors of long spaces with open-plan desks instead of private offices for the faculty and staff members and the school’s 50 Ph.D. students. It also features spaces for small-group meetings in five glass-enclosed "huddles" that appear like floating boxes off the main stairwell. Those are the "extrovert spaces," says the founder of Morphosis, Thom Mayne, who says the building — where "everything is exposed" — is "a critique of the ivory tower."

The 500-bed apartment-style residence, designed by Handel Architects and now known as the House, has no formal spaces dedicated to teaching but it, too, is oriented toward collaboration. It boasts twice as much common amenity space as is typical in a commercial project of its size, including two rooftop terraces and a glass-walled lounge, all of which offer, in the words of one of its developers, "insane views of Manhattan."

‘You Create Your Own Space’

But if there’s any merit to Mr. Huttenlocher’s claim that Cornell Tech is "different from any master’s program in the world," the Bridge is where that will probably play out. It’s where Cornell expects most of the formal and informal connections to take place between the academics and companies that have begun to call the campus home. It’s also home base for the Studio curriculum, which deploys a variety of teaching formats — the critique, the "scrum," and the "sprint" among them. In the Bridge, Mr. Pass says, "we actually have maps of the different formats" so that instructors know how to reconfigure the furniture for the different exercises and approaches.

The Bridge is a 230,000-square-foot structure in the shape of two connected prisms; the architects, from the firm of Weiss/Manfredi, call it a bow-tie design. That design creates twice as many corner spaces as in a regular rectangular building, which makes it especially desirable for the companies expected to occupy 70 percent of the space.

Iwan Baan
The Bridge, a 230,000-square-foot structure in the shape of two connected prisms, is designed as a space for academics and companies to make formal and informal connections.

The first three floors are connected by a "grand stairway" meant, as the firm’s Marion Weiss says, to invoke the feeling of the Spanish Steps in Rome, "where everybody can see and be seen."

Her partner, Michael Manfredi, says that’s important pedagogically, too, because the space can encourage students "to learn laterally."

To further that, the architects created three landings on the staircase (Ms. Weiss describes them as "about the size of New York studio apartments") where they hope building occupants from both Cornell and the companies will gather for impromptu chats.

For the Studio, the architects created two main spaces. One is an informal two-story-high "master studio" with room for movable tables and chairs at the lower levels and an upper platform that has the feel of a ship’s prow. Mr. Pass says that room will be left to students to configure it as they want.

On the east side of the building, the architects created an East Amphitheater that connects to two smaller rooms. Each of those rooms can be configured for a Studio activity, like the Tuesday evening "crit," when teams of students take turns presenting their ideas and prototypes to chief executives or product managers from outside companies. ("We call them critters," says Mr. Pass, of the practitioner guests.) For the sprints, when classes are canceled for 24 hours so students can do a full-court press on their projects, "you create your own space," he notes.

The master studio offers a glimpse into the northern prism, which is home to a robotics lab and a fully-equipped maker space, among other uses.

The Bridge isn’t a typical university incubator, but Cornell’s deal with the building’s developer calls for it to vet all potential corporate tenants to ensure it has lined up a mix of companies at various stages of their development. The expectation is that companies will tap into the expertise at Cornell Tech, and vice versa.

One of the biggest tenants, for example, is a New York City hedge fund called Two Sigma, a firm that employs more than 500 engineers and plans to use its 10,000-square-foot outpost on the top floor of the Bridge to work with Cornell Tech professors who specialize in cybersecurity and machine learning. Two Sigma is also moving its venture-capital division into the space, which could give it first crack at some commercially promising ideas being developed by Cornell Tech grad students. Citi Ventures and a chocolate company are also among the corporate tenants.

And then there’s 24-year-old Gabriel Ruttner. A May graduate of Cornell Tech with a master’s in computer science, Mr. Ruttner and others from his first-semester Product Studio team are the founders of a company called Ursa, which makes a software tool that lets groups annotate transcripts of conversations in real time to collectively identify key themes. Ursa won one of four Cornell Tech Startup Awards in May, a prize that includes $80,000 in cash and a year of shared space in the Bridge, valued at $20,000. After spending a few months in temporary space in the New York Times Building, Ursa moved into Cornell space on the third floor a few weeks ago, joining the other winners in an office that looks onto Queens. Mr. Ruttner has also begun seeking investment capital for the company.

He says Ursa owes a lot to the Studio model. When his team got started, he said, it had the right mix of design and technology expertise because Cornell Tech forces students to work with classmates from other disciplines. (In fact it uses an algorithm called Dream Team to form those teams.) More to the point, the Studio approach allowed the team to pivot away from the original assignment, which was to find new uses for wearables and others sensors, once members realized that most companies weren’t looking for more information; they actually needed better ways to keep from being overwhelmed by it.

"Changing things along the way was valued," says Mr. Ruttner. who calls it a "weird and awesome way to do engineering."

Now Mr. Ruttner is eager to make the most of his opportunity in the Bridge, where he’ll spend the next nine months mingling with financiers, fellow entrepreneurs, grad students working on cutting-edge products, and professors, including some of the same experts in machine learning who advised his team as students.

Interactions like that are what Mr. Huttenlocher calls "the culture of the whole program" at Cornell Tech. And finally, after years of competition, negotiation, planning, and construction, it has the campus to foster it.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.