In an exhibition he organized at the New Museum in New York City last year, Rem Koolhaas took the preservation movement to task, arguing that it had become an “empire” all too successful at tying the hands of architects and suffocating daring thinking. Entitled Cronocaos and co-curated by Shohei Shigematsu, his partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the exhibition displayed projects from the past 35 years, in which the firm has wrestled with issues of preservation, particularly with its unbuilt addition to the Whitney Museum in New York and its ongoing plan for the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. If you saw the show (or its earlier incarnation at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010), you might expect to find OMA's ideas put into action at Milstein Hall, the firm's addition to Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP). But the building lacks the intellectual heat of the exhibition, and turns out to be more polite and less polemical than you would think.
Asked to add 47,000 square feet to the architecture school—which already sprawled among an iconic 19th-century pile (Sibley Hall), an early-20th-century industrial building (Rand Hall), and the simple Foundry—OMA had to decide what to keep and what to erase. In typical OMA fashion, the firm did the opposite of what other architects had proposed. Instead of razing Rand, the school's ugly duckling, and creating a glowing Modernist cube for design studios in its place, as Steven Holl envisioned in his competition-winning scheme from 2001, OMA kept both old and new. The Berlin-based firm Barkow Leibinger, hired by Cornell in 2002 after the school split ways with Holl, also called for tearing down Rand while slipping in a long, bar-shaped building behind Sibley. That plan didn't go forward, either, and the school's dean at the time, Mohsen Mostafavi, helped bring in Koolhaas in 2006.