Keywords Change this

Concrete, Brutalism

Project timeline

March 12th 1989 – July 19th 1992



Location Change this

Central & University Avenues
14853-4001 Ithaca

Current state


Also known as Change this

Johnson Museum of Art

Architect Change this


I. M. Pei, John L. Sullivan III

Client Change this

Cornell University

Cost Change this

€19 million

Gross floor area Change this



Article last edited by Bostjan on
April 27th, 2017

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art Change this

Ithaca, USA
by I. M. Pei Change this
1 of 17

Description Change this

In 1973, the Museum moved into its present building, designed by I. M. Pei; it is a small masterpiece, with stunning views of Cayuga Lake, the campus, and Ithaca.
Herbert F. Johnson, a graduate of Cornell's Class of 1922, was chairman of S.C. Johnson & Sons of Racine, Wisconsin, and a lifelong enthusiast of art and great architecture.


This museum, the third executed by the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP, was designed to fulfill a complex mixed-use program for an expandable teaching facility and quasi-public museum. The building responds to its location at the crest of a 1,000-foot long slope where, overlooking Lake Cayuga, Ezra Cornell announced his intention to found a university in 1865. A strong building form was necessary for visual termination. Equally important was the need for spatial closure of the adjacent historic Arts Quadrangle — without, however, blocking the view.

In solution, the required programmatic spaces were stacked in a nine-level tower designed to maximize both setting and views through a sculptural balance of transparency and bold architectural form. Visitors enter the broadly glazed entry court and either descend to temporary exhibitions/museum support on three (expandable) levels below, or ascend through the permanent collection up to an outdoor terrace where sculpture is viewed against the sprawling mountain panorama. Similar views are enjoyed from the lounges and other university facilities housed in the long-span penthouse above. The galleries themselves are all carefully light-controlled but include strategically located windows to add interest and aid orientation.

Inseparable from its site, the building was constructed in buff-colored poured-in-place concrete to complement its masonry neighbors while resolving the technical requirements of its long span and cantilevered volumes.

The Johnson Museum can be characterized by its top two floors, which cantilever over the open aired sculpture garden. It was designed so that it would not block the view of Cayuga Lake, and offers a panoramic view of the same from its fifth floor. It also houses a room for meetings.The unique location of the museum presented several architectural challenges; building space was limited, and it could not overwhelm the view of Cayuga Lake or the nearby Arts Quad. Moreover, it would sit atop the knoll where tradition said Ezra Cornell chose the site for his university, at the north end of the Stone Row of McGraw, Morrill, and White Halls.

The resulting design was a narrow tower and a bridge, which critics have likened to a giant sewing machine.One element of the original design, which was never constructed, was an underground Asian art gallery which would have included windows breaching the Southern face of Fall Creek Gorge.


The Johnson Museum has one of the finest collections of art in New York State and is recognized as one of the most important university museums in the country. Metered parking is available adjacent to the building, which is located on the corner of Central and University Avenues. The building is available for rental for special occasions; priority is given to Cornell events.

The permanent collection consists of more than 30,000 works of art. Aside from the outstanding Asian collection, its greatest strength is in European and American prints, drawings, and photographs, presenting the history of graphic art from the fifteenth century to the present, American painting and sculpture, European art from ancient Greece to the present, African sculpture and textiles, and pre-Columbian sculpture and ceramics are also well represented. We are in the process of digitizing the entire collection to make it available online for study and research.


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