History of the Department of Architecture

In 1871, Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, proposed to give his architectural library, the largest collection in the country at that time, to the university in return for the creation of a Department of Architecture. The trustees approved and appointed Charles Babcock as the first professor of architecture in the United States. White retained his passion for architecture throughout his life and played a crucial role in the growth of the architecture program and in the development of the Cornell campus. The new architecture program was immediately popular, registering 32 students by 1876, and enrolled its first international student, Noriyuki Kozima of Japan, in 1879. Margaret Hicks (A.B. 1878, B.Arch. 1880) was the first woman to graduate from an architecture program at an American university.

The College of Architecture was formed in 1896. For many years it was strongly influenced by Beaux-Arts principles, in which design was seen as an art form. As the program grew so did its library, which acquired the working drawings of leading architects. By 1920, enrollment reached 130. The course was divided into four parts including construction and practice; architectural composition; history of architecture; and expression that encompassed visual arts such as drawing, watercolor, and sculpture.

Under Francke Huntington Bosworth Jr., who came to Cornell in 1919 as professor of design and dean of the College of Architecture, Cornell became the first architecture school to expand its curriculum to five years. A substantial thesis was required. Bosworth had a Beaux-Arts background, though in practice he emphasized an interest in human needs in the practice of designing and enclosing space. Cornell dropped out of the program of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects in New York and developed a new approach and program with a practical curriculum found more commonly in a Polytechnique philosophy.

In the 1920s, the college offered three five-year programs, with undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, landscape architecture, and fine arts and supported collaboration across the disciplines. In 1952, a new department, city and regional planning, was formed within the college and chaired by John Reps

Under the leadership of Dean Thomas Mackasey, the visiting critic program in architecture was founded in 1947 expanded over the 1950s. Among the prominent figures visiting as lecturers or critics in this era were Walter Gropius in 1947, Philip Johnson in 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953, and Buckminster Fuller in 1954. 

In 1956, the degrees were revised to include a five-year bachelor of architecture, a four-year bachelor of fine arts, and master's degrees in architecture, fine arts, regional planning, and landscape architecture. M.A. and Ph.D. programs in architectural history and a graduate program in urban design jointly administered by architecture and city and regional planning were added in the 1960s. In 1967, the college was officially established as the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP).

As the college was established as it is known today, architectural historian and theorist Colin Rowe, named the most significant architecture teacher of the second half of the 20th century, had begun nearly three decades of teaching at Cornell. From 1969 to 1974, the Department of Architecture was headed by Oswald Mathias Ungers. The intellectual friction between Rowe and Ungers generated a distinctive pedagogy and work focused on urban morphology, influencing generations of practitioners and teachers.

Today, the five-year bachelor of architecture program remains the largest in the department, and continues to rank as the premiere program of its kind in the United States. The History of Architecture and Urban Development (HAUD) program continues to a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), and represents a sophisticated blend of interdisciplinary research and scholarship. The program of Computer Graphics offers an M.S. degree and draws upon faculty primarily from Computer Science and Architecture — a Cornell tradition dating back to the 1970s under the leadership of cross-disciplinary faculty member Donald Greenburg.

The professional Master of Architecture program was added in 2004. The first entering class for this three and one-half year program was admitted in the fall, following an initial candidacy review by NAAB in the spring of that year. The professional Master of Architecture program was formally granted accreditation effective January 1, 2009.

The post-professional Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design (M.S. AAD), (formerly known as M.Arch. II) program was reinvented as an intensive advanced design research program in 2007. Open to students holding professional B.Arch. and M.Arch. degrees (or the international equivalent), the program offers a critical framework for investigating design concerns, practices, and technologies in 21st-century architecture and urbanism. Three- and four-semester options are available, both starting with a summer semester in New York City and continuing at the Ithaca campus.

The Matter Design Computation (MDC) program was launched in 2017. This is a two-year research degree culminating in a master of science. Students pursue architectural research in areas of material computation, adaptive architecture, and digital fabrication. The MDC program aims to engage and develop a new material practice in architecture through nonlinear generative fabrication of material and form across disciplines. 

All of the above programs are now designated as a STEM program in Architectural and Building Sciences/Technology (CIP code 04.0902) making international graduates eligible to extend their F-1 visas for up to three years in order to work in the United States. Cornell's graduate programs consistently rank very highly among their peers in the annual Design IntelligenceSurvey.

The Cornell in Rome Program began in 1987 and continues to offer undergraduate architecture students an exceptional opportunity to study on-site some of the world's greatest works of art and architecture, with extensive studio work, lectures, and field trips. Bachelor of architecture students spend one semester in Rome. AAP's New York City program, located at the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center in lower Manhattan was initiated in 2006 by alumnus Art Gensler and then AAP dean Moshen Mostafavi to offer students an opportunity to focus on contemporary leading practitioners and scholars in architecture, art, and planning. 

With the growth of the college and the establishment of its name, the departments moved to their current location at the north end of Cornell's Arts Quad in what are now Rand, Sibley, and Tjaden halls by the 1970s. In response to a growing student body and the need for competitive and contemporary facilities,  Milstein Hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, was built and it opened in August 2011. The new building provides a versatile pedagogical space for the department's architecture programs. The 47,000-square-foot building includes 25,000 square feet of flexible studio space that connects to both Rand and Sibley halls. A 250-seat, state-of-the-art auditorium functions as a central large event facility within the college. Milstein Hall provides an expansion of special resources and offers opportunities for development and experimentation for students and faculty alike. In 2019, the historic Rand Hall (1911) was renovated to house the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, home to one of the most unique circulating collections of fine arts and design materials in the country. The new library was designed by architect Wolfgang Tschapeller (M.Arch. '87), whose goal for the project was a 21st-century interpretation of the grand reading rooms associated with great research collections. Below the library, on the building's ground level, is the fabrication facility, which includes a fully equipped digital fabrication lab, wood shop, metal shop, and work area. 

Today, the Department of Architecture enrolls about 300 students in its Bachelor of Architecture program and approximately 135 students in its graduate programs, roughly 100 of whom are in the professional master's degree program, and 35 are M.S. AAD students. The 2021–22 academic year marked the department's 150th anniversary, a testament to the strength of Cornell's community of talented and dedicated students and internationally renowned faculty who work together to push the boundaries of the discipline toward a more just, sustainable, and meaningful future.

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