I was pretty impressed with the sustainable design elements in the recently unveiled plans for the new Cornell technology campus on Roosevelt Island. SOM has proposed systems like under-floor air distribution, radiant heating panels, operable windows and a roofscape of PV panels. There are rainwater cisterns, a cogen plant and a geothermal system. Most striking, though, is the site planning of the structures- which are laid out almost entirely in relation to the sun. As such, the orientation and massing of many of the buildings naturally provide access to useful north light, easily deal with the high southern sun, and present limited exposure to the harsh, low angled rays of sunrise and sunset. Though wrapped in the cool glass of fashionable contemporary design, the SOM proposal is a model of solar architecture- minus earth berms and banana tree greenhouses.
Interestingly, there is a remarkably illuminating counter-example right across the water from the Cornell site–the United Nations building. The UN project is designed not to ignore the sun- but to boldly and aggressively court the most debilitating aspects of it. The UN building shows its massive glass façades to the east and west horizons, and a narrow, completely solid stone façade to the south and north. If rotated 90 degrees in plan and if some simple exterior shades and interior light shelves were provided the project would be a model of contextual sensitivity. Instead, it is a nightmare. Low-angled sun slams into the east façade in the morning and the west façade in the afternoon- requiring the deployment of interior blinds, blinds that are rarely raised when the sun isn’t present, effectively eliminating the one positive aspect of this design, the view. In addition to the glare problems, the morning and afternoon sun heats up the respective facades creating a situation where the building is cooling one side of the building while it heats the other, and then vice versa, throughout the entire day. It’s a grim situation that could easily have been avoided by rotating the plan 90 degrees.
So it’s inspiring to see SOM, the heirs to the high modernism practiced at the UN, proposing a design so sensitive to its site, a design that won’t be fighting against the sun but working with it, in perpetuity.