Roosevelt Island, a paradoxical landmass, is an elusive ingénue in the waters of the East River. Named Welfare Island until 1973, its two mile long, 800 foot wide form has been home to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, a penitentiary hospital, and countless utopian speculations since then. Today, a new vision for the southern half of the island is unfolding, fusing entrepreneurial and academic ambitions.
In 2011, New York City announced its partnership with Cornell University and Israel’s Technion University, to create “Cornell Tech”, a pioneering plunge intended to recast New York City as a global technology hub. This two million square foot campus, an island incubator, is intended to forge vital connections between research and innovation and redefine Roosevelt Island as a vital urban character within the borough of Manhattan.
Without predetermined answers, the creation of this new campus raises critical questions: How can we recast prior academic and corporate models to create a new academic/entrepreneurial ecosystem? What design strategies effectively resist or submit to predicted rising water levels and storm surges that could leave the land underwater by 2050? How can ecological aspirations inform the invention of a new academic infrastructure dedicated to catalyzing innovation?
Isolated utopia or networked centers:
With river to river views, Roosevelt Island is an isolated landmass in the East River. The University occupies a finite footprint bounded by the elevated Queensboro Bridge and the earthbound Four Freedoms Park. The new campus is envisioned as an island incubator, charged with disrupting the equilibrium of the traditional research university with the real-time volatility of technical start-up companies.
While Silicon Valley’s success has benefited from the sprawling territory of research institutions and corporations, Cornell Tech is betting on the combustible potential of co-locating their research university with city centric start-up companies.
Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley
To understand the distinctions and common ground of innovation emerging from Silicon Valley in California and Silicon Alley in New York City, the studio travel week will begin in San Francisco and conclude in New York.
In California, the studio will visit Stanford University’s D School, the Design Lab, IDEO, Autodesk, Google and other tech related companies to understand the evolution of research based academic and office culture. The trip will conclude in New York with tours Google NYC, We Work, Roosevelt Island, and meetings with the academic leadership team of Cornell Tech responsible for the invention of the campus.
Building on the research, the studio will develop a framework plan for the campus that leverages the latent ecologies of the site while creating a place that connects talent with technology, research with practice, and academia with enterprise. This studio will also be informed by conversations with ecologists, planners, and academic leaders.
Following the research and site strategy phase, students will develop in detail the pilot first phase building, an R and D (Research and Development) center with live/work space, dry labs, classrooms, conference center, and incubator space for start-up tech companies. This hybrid petri dish of programs and spaces is intended to concentrate in 250,000 square feet what has otherwise been distributed across Silicon Valley’s more than 1,500 square miles.
The studio will challenge accepted standards of urban planning and instead propose a more resilient and synthetic vision for development, where the reciprocity between constructed and natural systems can create new ground for utopian aspirations, academic enterprise and entrepreneurial innovation.