Since the first crop of engineering graduate students arrived last month at the brand-new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, many have been busy decoding the diagrams in Matthew Ritchie’s dynamic mural rising up four stories in the atrium of the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, the main academic building.
This is not lobby decoration tacked on as an afterthought. From the early design stages, Thom Mayne, the founder of Morphosis Architects, and his team integrated the mural and four other immersive installations in the cafe and unexpected “discovery rooms” throughout the new building: an art program engineered to provoke creative thinking. “The entire building is designed to spur imagination and innovation and sometimes unintentional interactions,” said Patricia Harris, chief executive of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
More than 1 percent of the building’s overall budget of $130 million (funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the city) was invested in new artworks by Mr. Ritchie, Michael Riedel, Matthew Day Jackson and Alison Elizabeth Taylor, as well as in the restoration and relocation of a historic 50-foot-long mural by Ilya Bolotowsky. This canvas had hung in the Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital razed to make way for the Cornell Tech campus.
Cornell University and Technion — Israel Institute of Technology formed the partnership of Cornell Tech in 2011 and won New York City’s competition to develop an applied-sciences campus. As part of the deal, in which the city provided funding and land, Cornell Tech agreed to preserve three large-scale paintings in the derelict W.P.A.-era hospital. An Albert Swinden mural has been installed in the new Bridge building adjacent to the Bloomberg Center, and a Joseph Rugolo work will find a home in the next construction phase.
The Bolotowsky canvas — an abstract composition of geometric shapes in a soothing palette of blues, pinks and beiges — had wrapped around a circular room in the hospital and required Mr. Mayne to accommodate a similar space in his floor plan. “This helped us think about how we could have other hidden rooms as an element of surprise,” Ms. Harris explained.
These enigmatic spaces include Mr. Jackson’s “Ordinary Objects of Extraordinary Beauty,” a continuation of his series called “Study Collections.” The small trapezoidal meeting room is lined with shelves displaying natural and found objects — like bones, ceramics and branches — as specimens. “The things these students will dream up are at the cutting edge of the application of new science,” Mr. Jackson said. “I wanted to present a room where they could sit and think about the material resources available on earth and what they’ll do with them.”
The students will be unplugged while they’re contemplating. Andrew Winters, senior director for capital projects at Cornell Tech, said there are no outlets or wiring for electronic devices in the room, to encourage people to sit and talk. Part of the art program is to help students, faculty and researchers “get away from what they’re doing day to day,” Mr. Winters said. “Facebook and Pixar offices have secret rooms for people to go do yoga or sleep. We tried to elevate that a little bit.”
In another room, Ms. Taylor — whose work updates the age-old decorative inlay technique called marquetry — has imagined what Roosevelt Island might have looked like in the 19th century. Using more than 10,000 cut-and-painted pieces of wood, she has pieced together vivid panoramic scenes covering the walls of the triangular room. One side depicts a dense thicket of tree trunks. The other two walls portray an abandoned interior caving in at the corners, with vines creeping in, like tentacles, through a window.
Interested in the constant battle between human innovation and nature’s overwhelming force, Ms. Taylor hopes that her piece, titled “Reclamation,” gives students “perspective in this period of rapid technological change on how we’ve always adapted as a species.”
While these three rooms are intended as intimate spaces for students to meet or retreat, the other two artist installations are meant to animate the busier areas.
Known for using text as raw material, Mr. Riedel has created a black-and-white inkjet print on ceiling panels, titled “Cornell Tech Mag,” flowing overhead from the building’s entrance through the cafe and then across the tabletops. Using what he calls “the bible for computer technology,” he rearranged every word in the first four volumes of Donald Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming” into alphabetical order, then enlarged all the letters “o” and “l.” “You can imagine it’s like one and zero, or open and closed, or a circle and a line,” explained Mr. Riedel, who was interested in the resulting abstracted pattern covering some 5,000 square feet.
The cafe is open to the public and visible through glass walls lining one side of the boomerang-shaped building. A regular schedule of tours throughout the rest of the building is being planned.
Mr. Ritchie’s atrium piece, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” is printed on an 80-foot-high resin wall and three adjoining glass walls ascending through the core of the building and visible from each landing. It was conceived as a kind of “history of logical thinking,” said the artist, who has often tackled epic themes. He wove together clouds of yellows and oranges with all manner of diagrams — prototypes of the compass and the printing press, Charles Darwin’s first sketch of the evolutionary tree of life, the first drawing of the internet — superimposed with calligraphic markings that refer to an early experiment by Eratosthenes measuring the diameter of the earth.
Mr. Ritchie asked the faculty to contribute ideas for diagrams, reproducing a currently unsolved mathematical problem in computer science called the “P versus NP problem.”
Mr. Ritchie was warned that it is part of the culture at the Cornell campus in Ithaca to scrawl problems on glass walls as though they were whiteboards. The artist said he would welcome additions and thinks packets of pens should be left out.
“We write on the walls a lot,” Mr. Winters said. “Our engineering students like puzzles.”
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