Brick Adds High Art On a Low Budget

Three simple brick patterns imbue Cornell University's Africana Studies and Research Center with a striking new identity despite a budget with little room for architectural extravagance.
August 11, 2010

Founded in 1969, the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University spent 35 years growing enrollment, building a notable library collection, and developing an innovative curriculum—and yet the school remained nearly invisible to the campus community, mainly because it lacked a defining physical presence. Its home for more than three decades on the edge of the university's Ithaca, N.Y., campus was a nondescript, 1950s former fraternity house into which were stuffed the center's administrative offices, classrooms, and John Henrik Clarke Africana Library.

Languishing in anonymity and having outgrown its charmless 11,600-sf frat house years ago, the center hired Boston-based architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott to design a renovation and expansion that not only improved the center's functionality but greatly boosted its too-low profile. “They wanted a strong identity, a clear identity, so the idea was to create a program that would give them significance and scale,” says Ralph T. Jackson, FAIA, principal at Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott.

However, an extremely small project budget of just $2.68 million dictated how large a statement the project could make and forced the Building Team to innovate in its effort to imbue the institution with gravitas.

It was quickly determined that razing and replacing the existing two-story structure was not financially feasible. Instead, Jackson's team chose extensive renovation, infrastructure upgrading, and new construction that added two single-story brick pavilions. Each pavilion has about 3,000 sf and double-height ceilings that match the scale of the existing house but successfully transition the center's aesthetic from residential to civic. The pavilions house a 19,000-volume library and the 150-seat multipurpose auditorium and serve as the center's striking new face.

But the budget left little room for fancy features. “We had to jettison all those easy visual elements for something that was more basic in order to stay within the cost constraints,” says Jackson. “We had to find a way to use the brick texture and its inherent qualities to create a strong identity and avoid the creation of little red brick boxes.”

During the design phase, Jackson recalled an essay he read where a building's exterior walls had been compared to textiles, so he started to envision how the center's new exterior walls would look like if draped in African fabrics. He saw construction that suggested craft, simple geometric patterns, and warm earth tones. “There was a natural marriage between brick and its possibilities in terms of the color and pattern of African textiles,” says Jackson. Sealing the deal was how easily brick could solve the dilemma of how to create a bold visual identity for the center while also unifying the facility with Cornell's numerous brick buildings. If done right, the center would, for the first time, appear to be an integral part of the university setting.

Mindful of the budget, Jackson specified bricks in standard sizes and colors to create three simple patterns. The library pavilion is clad in red brick with sand-colored accents. This pattern is reversed for the auditorium pavilion, which is clad in sand-colored brick with red accents. The third pattern, an abstract checkerboard, is used on the courtyard columns and trellis supports as well as on the lintels above the windows. “The way they look changes with the light of the day,” says Jackson. “You get a lot for your money.”

The patterns are purposefully non-Eurocentric, but Jackson made sure they wouldn't unduly challenge the masons who would be constructing the low-maintenance, vented rain screen walls. Another nod to fiscal prudence: Jackson nixed the idea of a traditional granite base and instead brought the brick to the ground. “It makes the building less pretentious and more approachable,” says Jackson. Minimal perimeter landscaping—another budgetary consideration—allows the façade to remain uncluttered so the brick patterns take center stage.