Growing a Future

PROJECT Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center, Cornell Plantations, Ithaca, New York
ARCHITECT Baird Sampson Neuert Architects
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Located in Ithaca, New York, Cornell University has long held an esteemed reputation as an Ivy League academic institution, and its impressive Plantations is no less respected, as it has functioned for well over a century as an important entity for academic research in botany and landscape architecture. Its roots can be traced as far back as 1875, when Cornell’s campus plan specified construction of an arboretum and a conservatory for teaching botany. Nobel Prize-winning research has been conducted on the grounds of the Plantations; cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock conducted groundbreaking research through her genetic experiments in hybridizing maize. To this day, the Barbara McClintock Shed still stands in the southeast corner of the site as a historical testament to the important academic and scientific advances that were made here many decades ago.

By 2003, the time had come for the University to augment and enhance Cornell Plantations, and funding from private donors helped make this a real possibility. Baird Sampson Neuert Architects (BSN) were retained, based on their award-winning design of the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory (CA, November 1996), located just north of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Initially, Cornell University wanted a similarly sized building for the campus–a large public conservatory for tropical plants, including visitor services and educational functions that would facilitate its goal of expanding Plantations stewardship and educational programming while enhancing its visitation and visibility from the surrounding campus.

However, a reassessment of the budget and ongoing maintenance costs along with a refocused strategy centering on a more sustainable alternative resulted in a modestly sized independent Welcome Center–the result of which is a 6,000-square-foot two-storey structure. In addition to providing general visitor services, the facility also has an educational component, for both guests and students in the Graduate Fellowship program in Public Garden Leadership. The client was explicit in articulating the importance of respecting the “intimate place” of the Botanical Garden, something the architects took to heart and which is clearly evident in the sensitive insertion into this most unique landscape.

The Cornell campus possesses a fairly striking topography defined by the glacial history of the area. This part of the state is known as the Finger Lakes region, named for 11 long and narrow parallel lakes running north-south, all carved by the advances and retreats of glaciers during the Ice Age. Glacial motion powerfully sculpted the distinctive landscape and topography of this region incised by gorges, evidence of which can be found on the University campus. 

Beebe Lake and its Fall Creek extensions divide the campus laterally into north and south; the Plantations site lies just southeast of the lake. Conceptually, the design team led by principal in charge Jon Neuert and project architect Yves Bonnardeaux defined the site in terms of the bowl and the knoll. Glacial advances carved out a massive depression in the landscape, its path gently curving, leaving an aggregation of glacial deposits which formed an elevated knoll within the larger bowl. At the base of the knoll spreading out to the perimeter of the bowl is an expansive flatland where a wide variety of organized gardens have been planted over the years.

Siting of the Welcome Center within this bowl was critical to the architects’ design process. Initially, four distinct sites and strategies were proposed for the built structure within the garden, but Neuert and Bonnardeaux’s preferred site was the one the client eventually agreed to. As well as minimizing site disturbance, Neuert maintains that the building’s nesting into the base of the knoll as it transitions to flatland results in the structure becoming a real part of the landscape rather than just operating as a mediating device. Furthermore, unlike the other three options, this particular site has the advantage of being visible from the precipice above, providing an important sightline for the project.

A most curious incident perhaps cemented this decision: shortly after an early-stage concept-phase meeting with the client, the two architects set out to further investigate and photograph these potential sites when a sudden intense lightning storm forced them to seek refuge in their car. As they were driving away, they heard a loud crack and spun around to see a giant tree that had just been struck by lightning–now split in half–come crashing down to the ground. The storm stopped as abruptly as it began, and the pair drove back in amazement to find the felled tree, still steaming, immediately adjacent to their favoured site. According to Bonnardeaux, they needed no further encouragement to proceed with their selection.

With respect to site preparation, the architects removed a motley array of sheds and other utilitarian structures that had been constructed in the 1950s–and restored the physical condition of the knoll, part of which had been bulldozed to accommodate these crude structures. Because of its considered siting, the building nests itself comfortably into the landscape, creating an interesting sectional dynamic. As the design accentuates the transition between flatland and knoll, the building’s two levels engage two separate topographic conditions. The ground floor functions as an extension of the flatland and meadow, forming a very direct connection with the public gardens, particularly since the chosen site benefits from the adjacency to a series of existing convergent pathways. A second condition is experienced from the Welcome Center’s upper level, where the gentle slope of the grassy knoll can be appreciated, particularly from the large multi-purpose room which opens directly onto a generous outdoor events terrace on a plateau. Additional sectional variation is apparent in the interior, with a central two-storey space comprising the exhibition hall, café and gift shop, which can be viewed from the multi-purpose room and bridge above.

As the project is really about the gardens forming the heart of the Cornell Plantations rather than the building itself, the parking lot is located a short distance away at the perimeter of the site, encouraging visitors to engage in a pleasant stroll through the gardens towards the Welcome Center’s entry court. In so doing, the transition from natural to built form is subtly manipulated through the choice of materials for the project. Dry-laid stone retaining walls extend from the exterior entry court into the interior, penetrating through the fully glazed walls into the exhibition hall lobby, forming a base for the exhibition cases on one side, and on the other, a screening wall concealing the more prosaic functions of mechanical, electrical and washrooms. The dramatic and unified south façade comprised of an expansive screen of deep ipe wood louvres further communicates warmth and a certain organic quality, while also providing passive solar shading in summer and maximizing solar heat gain in winter.

It is important to note that as the facility is seasonal, two cycles of use are addressed in accommodating distinct user groups. As expected, the Welcome Center operates during the academic year as a teaching facility and educational institution, but during the summer season, tourists and other visitors make up the bulk of those entering its doors. Additionally, horticultural experts and researchers use the building year-round. This is why the large multi-purpose room was designed for maximum flexibility: in addition to its function as one large classroom or two smaller classrooms when the dividing wall is slid into position, it can also be utilized as a conference or lecture facility. Furthe
rmore, the Welcome Center facilitates revenue potential as a venue for weddings, as it provides an idyllic setting for such occasions given the natural beauty of the surrounding gardens.

As sustainability is an integral part of BSN’s practice, significant advances were made by the firm in addressing environmental and green initiatives. The orientation of the building on an east-west axis maximizes opportunities for passive solar gain, while existing vegetation and deep overhangs provide shade and prevent excessive solar gain at certain times of the day. An in-floor hydronic heating system is connected to a rooftop solar vacuum tube system, while hotwater storage tanks are bermed into the hillside of the knoll. To further reduce energy consumption, passive ventilation and natural cooling strategies are employed on the lower level, with motorized operable vents promoting the stack effect. The Welcome Center has done away with air-conditioning, with the exception of the upper-level multi-purpose space which regularly experiences high occupancy levels, thus necessitating extra cooling. Moreover, the use of super-insulated exterior wood walls and high-performance double glazing also aids in reaching sustainability targets.

Neuert is particularly proud of the bioswale system the firm developed, as it serves a multitude of functions. As a “rain garden” sited next to the parking lot, it forms a critical part of the arrival sequence, introducing the site to visitors through an environmentally based garden theme. On a conceptual level, it acknowledges and demarcates the route of an ancient glacial river, which sculpted the topography of the garden and the larger landscape. And in receiving and cleansing stormwater from the upper campus and the parking lot, the bioswale also addresses stormwater management considerations and demonstrates the continued interdependence between plants and people.

Although only LEED Silver was mandated by the client, the firm believes they have achieved the requirements for LEED Platinum status, and are currently awaiting word from the US Green Building Council on their submission.

The Welcome Center at Cornell Plantations has clearly been well received. In 2011, the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects honoured the project with an Award of Excellence, as did the Ontario Association of Architects. And in 2010, prior to its completion, the project received an Award of Excellence from this very magazine. As the Welcome Center was considered only the first phase of an ongoing process, BSN is engaged in a review capacity for Phase 2, which principally concerns an expansion within the flatlands, with the planned inclusion of a number of environmentally based gardens such as a new biofuel garden as well as an international crop and weed garden. Respected local Ithaca-based landscape architecture firm Trowbridge & Wolf are leading this second phase. But Cornell is not done with BSN yet: they are currently in the schematic design phase of a training facility for the University’s marching band.

From Cloud Gardens Park (CA, August 1994) in Toronto nearly 20 years ago, to the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory (CA, November 1996), to the French River Visitor Centre (CA, April 2007), and now the Welcome Center at Cornell, “there is indeed a trajectory in the ongoing evolution of BSN’s work with respect to armatures and linkages amongst the projects,” says Neuert. From site response to architectural innovation and environmental sustainability, the firm’s level of sophistication and finesse is clearly blooming in every possible way. CA

Architect Team Jon Neuert (principal in charge), Yves Bonnardeaux (project architect), Harvey Wu, Andrea Macecek, Jesse Dormody, Mauro Carreno, Cyril Charron, Winda Lau, Ian Douglas, Teddy Benedicto
Structural Blackwell Bowick Engineering (Toronto)
Mechanical/Electrical M/E Engineering (Rochester)
Civil T.G. Miller P.C. (Ithaca)
Landscape Halvorson Design Partnership (Boston)
Interiors Baird Sampson Neuert Architects
LEED/Sustainability Baird Sampson Neuert Architects
Contractor Welliver McGuire Inc. (Montour Falls)
Executive Project Manager Norm Aidun
Project Manager Luke Brown
Area 6,000 ft2 building; 3.2 acres of grounds on a 25-acre site
Budget $5.5 M
Completion January 2011