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HomeWorksHerbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University

Herbert F. Johnson Museum,
Cornell University

Matt Hintsa

This teaching museum occupies a key campus location where, according to tradition, Ezra Cornell determined to build a great university in 1865. Evolving from Pei’s two earlier museums (Everson in Syracuse, NY and the Des Moines Art Center Addition in Idaho), the sculptural building, like a 3-D puzzle, responds point for point to a complex program of diverse functional requirements and formal demands for transparency and closure.


The small building (60,000 square feet) stands at the crest of a 1,000-foot slope. It had to be strong enough to terminate the long view but not so wide as to block it. It also needed to anchor the building on the opposite side where the site drops off into a deep gorge, and simultaneously respond to the adjacent quadrangle of historic university buildings.

The complex needs led to a compact vertical tower, 8 stories above ground, 3 below, to house exhibition galleries, classrooms, a lecture hall, work areas, and at top, a lounge and meeting room for the university’s trustees. The architectural concrete building responds to its masonry neighbors with bush-hammered walls on both the interior and exterior for seamless integration of the monolithic whole. The continuity of indoors and out is further achieved with a raised sculpture terrace and great butt-jointed windows that offer sprawling views in all directions.

Section / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Plans for the Johnson Museum had envisioned an expansion building from the beginning, and a break-out panel was included in the concrete foundation walls to enable the future connection. In 2006 – 2011, a compatible new wing was realized according to designs by John L. Sullivan, III, a Cornell graduate who had worked with I.M. Pei on the original building some four decades earlier.

Johnson Museum received the Grand Award of the American Concrete Institute, Central New York Chapter in 1974, and in the following year, a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; John L. Sullivan III, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners