Opinion

Grate Job, Guys: Cornell Fine Arts Library Privileges Architecture Over People

Architect Wolfgang Tschapeller says the library was designed with books in mind — but the grated floors fail to account for slushy snow boots, skirts, assisted mobility devices, and more.

Grate job, guys! The open-air flooring of the new Cornell Fine Arts Library has traded sightlines for privacy issues. (image by and courtesy of © Lukas Schaller)

The conceptual foundation for the long-anticipated redesign of the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, executed by Wolfgang Tschapeller, is a space that is, in the words of the architect, “scaled to the book.”

“As a human, you are not the main character, you are a guest between the books,” Tschapeller told Metropolis. And yet, the end-users, especially those inclined to wear skirts, are feeling even more on display than the 100,000 books arranged on floating shelves, due to the open sightlines afforded by slatted gratings that allow air and light to circulate between the levels of the open-concept library. Not only are these grates an open invitation to perv, they present fairly treacherous terrain for anyone wearing heels, as well as a potential access problem for people who require assisted mobility devices.

As noted by Twitter user Marie Kennedy, women who were interviewed for the Metropolis article were apprehensive about using the library, after having a first encounter with the see-through flooring.

“Knowing that I have to think about what I’m wearing as I enter the library is off-putting to me. What was Cornell thinking?” said second-year graduate Nicole Nomura, to Metropolis. One might almost think that the five-year design process of the library involved male architects thinking harder about how to make the space accommodating to books and air rather than females and disabled bodies. It’s like architecture is a historically sexist profession that is incredibly slow to incorporate the contributions of women.

The library’s beautiful, soaring architecture will be a perfect venue to have slush rained upon you! Majestic! (image by and courtesy of © Lukas Schaller)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: the only women who know how to read are dowdy matrons who wear tweedy trousers and vests and have unkempt frizzy hair. Guilty as charged! But even if I didn’t have to worry about accidentally revealing my appendices or cracking a spine on the slatted floors, this bookworm can tell you that the last thing I want at the library is people looking at me! I go to the library to invisibly revel in my advancing spinsterhood, and the last thing I need is some dashing architecture student trying to make eye contact through the floor while I subtly press flowers between the pages of Jane Austen books. Plus I don’t want my tears of loneliness to fall onto his wavy chestnut hair.

Speaking of falling debris, Tschapellar is a Cornell alumnus, and designed the wide-open space with his firsthand knowledge of the low-light months in upstate New York, but declined to consider how the slush of the inclement weather seasons might be transmitted through open-grate flooring onto library patrons OR the precious, precious books for whom the space was expressly designed. Or maybe he just assumed that all $21.6 million buildings have a compulsory boot-washing station as a matter of course.

One thinks any alumna would have made sure the library contained some areas for its two primary functions: crying quietly and having panic attacks. Maybe there’s a little privacy corner over by the romance novel shelves.

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