Keywords Change this

Art Museum, Site Cast Concrete, Brutalism

Project timeline

1968 – 1973



Location Change this

114 Central Ave
14850 Ithaca, NY

Current state


Also known as Change this

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Architect Change this

Client Change this

The Trustees of Cornell University

The Johnson Museum of Art Change this

Ithaca, NY, USA
by I. M. Pei Change this
1 of 7

Description Change this

The Johnson Museum is an art museum located on the northwest corner of the Arts Quad on the main campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Its collection includes two windows from Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House, and more than 35,000 other works in the permanent collection. It was designed by I. M. Pei and is known for its distinctive concrete facade. It was the largest, most complex one to that date. It is singular as a building type: a museum and teaching facility, one that would function for the University and contribute to the cultural life of the surrounding community.

Site and Context

The design concept is about response to its site: its great expanse, its limitations, its orientation, its relationships, and the resultant accountability. The initial assessment of the site came during a lengthy walk in early summer of 1968 with University officials, Thomas W. Leavitt, the museum director, and Dan Kiley, the noted landscape architect. The site, at the crest of the spectacular 1000’ long sweep of Library Slope before it plummets into Fall Creek Gorge, had been the location of a long-demolished classroom building and was occupied then by two parking lots. But this knoll was, as history has passed on to us, the spot upon which Ezra Cornell had determined the location for his new University. At that time there was a panoramic view of Cayuga Lake from ground level; a similar view was now only possible from the roof of adjacent Tjaden Hall. The site was found to have two distinct aspects, each requiring a unique response; a conundrum, as they were in opposition. The dynamic, upward movement of Library Slope required a building of compact volume to provide visual termination, while the approach to the site through an opening in the wall of buildings forming the west side of the Arts Quadrangle required spatial definition without closing off the view beyond.

The site is open to the sun and to views east, south and west, while trees screen the gorge on the north. The main pedestrian access is from the Arts Quad to the east. The nearby classroom buildings, including the three original University buildings, have a basic similarity of concept: a rectangular, block-like form resting on a basement plinth with the entry several steps above grade. From this kinship each of the Arts Quad buildings develops its distinct personality, defined by the roofline—dome, tower, turrets, gables, mansards, and dormers.

Concept and Form

The design process began by testing the programmed area on a site model which included all of Libe Slope, the gorge, and the Arts Quad, using clusters of volumes representing the main components of the Museum. It was estimated which of the support areas might be placed below grade for convenience, and for the reduction of the building volume. Starting from a scheme with a low, broad massing, the idea evolved quickly into a slim tower: open to the south, perforated east and west, solid to the north. We discovered immediately that engaging the site with a terraced low block was not successful; the actual buildable site area was not large, and terracing required a breadth of surrounding green space to give a sense of the building emerging from the land. Whatever strength and interest it provided was negated by its density at grade, choking the view from the Arts Quad. This exercise revealed that by simply raising and dispersing some of the volumes seen from the Arts Quad, while maintaining the simple, rectangular silhouette seen from the bottom of Libe Slope, transparency could be achieved without losing the bold statement. The fragility of the site, in tandem with the quantity of functional space to be above ground, warranted the tower concept. The development of the scheme was to be a continuation of this testing process, and one of simplification—a joint strategy incumbent upon a building type that allows (and requires) so much design freedom in its creation.

The abstract block being studied on a small scale in the contextual model was a diagram of the program’s components. Functions were grouped into above-grade and below-grade categories; those above grade were further split into gallery (low zone) and “other” (high zone). The areas were compared and the uses assessed for stackability (convenience and appropriateness). This analysis of the program produced a stacking diagram to complement the one in the program illustrating plan relationships.

A scenario was formulated to test the disposition of the program spaces and to define a rough framework for the vertical massing model. From an entry court, one would ascend in gradual levels through the permanent collection galleries, and descend in similar steps through the temporary exhibition galleries. The upward sequence would conclude with the exterior sculpture terrace, and the downward circuit with the experimental gallery and lecture room. The large gallery for temporary exhibits was placed a half-level below the lobby, and the main galleries for the permanent collection were to be a half-level above it. Each of the independent galleries surrounding the lobby court was connected to the next by a narrow bridge with the spaces between capped by a floating glass roof, allowing the transparency to be lateral and vertical. The large storage spaces were located in the lowest basement with various types of work areas, mechanical rooms, and a loading dock accessed by tunnel. The program had considered the administrative areas abstractly as a single grouping, producing a large “footprint”—this was to be the perfect volume to form the upper outline of the overall rectangular shape and to act as canopy for the Sculpture Court. The program provided for semi-public spaces—the study galleries—which would be classrooms, with exhibits designed by professors to accompany their courses. In conjunction with the print room which would have similar student use, these spaces formed the stack of floors which created the tower and visually shaped the five-story high lobby space.

The restriction of natural light in the galleries validated continuing our development of a spatial concept to address “museum fatigue,” which had begun with our addition to the Des Moines Art Center, and had been expanded upon at the Everson Museum in Syracuse: modulating the museum exhibit circuit by creating individual and varied gallery volumes separated by open links. A string of windowless boxes, while archivally conscientious, is one of the contributors to fatigue; orientation is another. These proposed interruptions might be to daylight, to a central court for orientation, to distant landscape, or to all three. This separation gives the visitor a pause, and benefiting from a change of light and view, allows reflection upon what has been seen before proceeding to new riches. For a small museum with diverse collections this device also facilitates a transition between periods and scale of display.

The consequence to the exterior is its potential to articulate parts of the building, giving scale and animating a silent block to welcome the visitor. The facades of classical museum buildings resolved this design issue with stone pilasters or colonnades, empty or statuary-filled niches, and blind windows. This philosophy of movement was to fully evolve in the subsequent design of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Architectural critic Wolf von Eckardt was quoted in an article on the Johnson Museum in Museum News (September 1974) as saying it is “a perfect museum. You don’t suffer museum fatigue, because the gallery spaces vary in size and height. There is always a point of rest—a place to look out the window or some other little ‘intermission’.”

The critical issue was the creation of an engaging, exciting spatial structuring of the vertical gallery sequence. Programmatic requirements assisted the conceptual resolution: at polar ends were the lecture room (total enclosure) and the secure sculpture court (exterior space), each requiring the same public access as the galleries. By linking them to the vari-sized galleries, and spiraling this loose chain of spaces vertically as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of volumetric shapes in a pinwheel around four sides of the central open-space, it would be conceivable to move in gradual increments of quarter- and half-levels through the sequence of exhibition spaces with the desired intricate spatial interpenetration. Placing the lobby platform at the point separating the permanent collection galleries from the experimental and temporary galleries completed the idea. The scheme was to be validated by the forthright circulation system, with a maximum distance of two floors for the visitors to travel up or down from the lobby. The fourth side of the pinwheel became the base of the tower, anchored to the core and counter-weight to the cantilevered galleries. A simple block, its stacked layers of working spaces are the background to the animated elements playing in the sun. From the north its upright form is an extension of the sheer wall of the gorge beyond; from the south it arrests the sweep of Libe Slope. As the tower rises, its engaged core is defined by a long, vertical, recessed glass slot providing glimpses east and west from the upper levels.

The lobby, like an overture, establishes the themes and mood of the building. In this instance the prelude identifies the ambiguity of enclosure: it is both an interior and an exterior space. And it defines the building concept: an articulated assembly of enclosures joined by glass, where the focus alternates between the functional spaces and glimpses of the landscape. It had been established at the outset that the meeting room, along with the lobby, should be a highly glazed space to frame the panoramic view. By capping the tower with a penthouse in the form of a glass-enclosed loggia, it was possible to have Ezra Cornell’s view without any intervening vertical structure; simply tall, broad sheets of glass, stretching wall-to-wall, joined by thin lines of translucent silicone sealant—an outdoor space engaging nature, like the lobby.

In the designing of a complex building form it is crucial to create a framework, or modular grid, for an organized development of the plans. This unit of measure, and armature for planning, is vital for establishing order during the progress of the design. It is also useful for the coordination of plan with elevations, inherently providing a rhythm to the structure. It is an indispensable method for facilitating communication with the builder at the end of the design process, and provides a base for systemization which can significantly reduce cost. All the buildings designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners have been structured by a module, shaped and sized to the particular needs of the building design. For the East Wing of the National Gallery, the module was a triangle. For the Johnson Museum it is a 4’-6” square. For example, the vertical slot window in the tower is 4’-6” wide, the piers supporting the cantilevered fifth floor are 13’-6” wide, and the great opening defining the lobby is 45’ wide.


The first presentation of the conceptual scheme was well-received, and led the client team to propose that the large cantilevered floor was potentially too attractive not to be used for some of the public area components of the program. It was modified to provide for internal galleries ringed by viewing areas and a visitor lounge. Its subsequent evolution into the Rockwell galleries occurred after it was determined that the separate Asian wing would be postponed. The study galleries in the tower levels were relocated to the top and bottom gallery levels, making their exhibits accessible to visitors when not used as classrooms; the administrative offices took their former space. In conjunction with these usage changes, it was possible to remove one tower level, which helped maintain the budget. The displaced program area was recaptured by filling out areas below grade, expanding beyond the building footprint on the east and west sides.

As scheme became building, a series of modifications occurred to simplify and refine the structure, access, and building services. Options were formulated and compared for cost and value. In a small, spare building every gesture had to be considered for its efficiency and benefits. Although initially each gallery defined its own level, this intriguing and spatially exciting scheme had disadvantages stemming from the complicated structure and massing, with accompanying restricted service and handicapped access, and a probable premium for construction cost. The small change of working only to half-levels of vertical movement enabled us to maintain spatial animation without compromising function or a practical structural system, and facilitated the integration of the mechanical systems.

The pinwheel plan was modified by aligning the cantilevered galleries to structurally link their roofs and reduce the extent of skylight. This expanded the area of the sculpture court and increased the light-protected wall surface in the lobby. Incising the grand stair into the core block enabled the introduction of a bold, sculptural vertical link to the first gallery level without loss of lobby area. The building was positioned on its site so that the pathway in front of Tjaden and Sibley Halls would be on axis with the 9’ wide glass slot running through the lobby and framing the view across to West Hill; a transparency dramatized as the sun sets. The north face of the tall concrete notch in the tower aligns with the Arts Quad entry facades of Tjaden and Sibley, linking the three blocks at the north edge of the Quad. The sculpture court is at approximately the same elevation as East Avenue where the street passes Sibley and Lincoln Halls, a view now veiled by new landscaping. Each of these gestures was made to reinforce the initial idea: shaping a landscaped forecourt to the Museum while retaining a sense of the view beyond.


It was hoped that the collection of Asian art would be housed in its own 8,000 square-foot wing; the task was to create an element that could work functionally and visually with the existing building. The proposed solution incorporated underground and above-grade space. Located on the north side of the building and accessed from the lower gallery level, the wing was composed of an independent two-story square block with a sloping skylight roof centered on a Japanese garden surrounded by galleries. The exhibition space then narrowed as it continued under University Avenue, emerging from the rock wall of Fall Creek Gorge as an intimate aerie, much as one sees in Chinese landscape paintings. A “knock-out panel” was formed in the concrete foundation wall near the study galleries on the lower gallery level to accommodate the future connection.

Site Cast Concrete

Poured-in-place architectural concrete was considered uniquely suited to complement the plasticity of the building form and satisfy the technical resolution of the cantilevered volumes and long span of the canopy floor. We had developed considerable experience in the use of architectural concrete as a visually pleasing and economical material for the construction of designs which integrate structure with the building envelope. By this time we had built more than twenty buildings of architectural concrete in many mixes and finishes; some were in upstate New York. An extensive investigation into the sources of concrete mix materials in the Finger Lakes region was undertaken at the onset of the project, in conjunction with on-going concrete research by several of our architects. Test samples and material analyses were produced specifically for the Museum, resulting in the selection of the buff-colored mix for all exposed concrete surfaces to complement the surrounding masonry buildings. The hidden floor slabs and below-grade walls were constructed of a normal structural concrete.

The modifying term architectural defines a form of finished concrete with a more controlled mix, a more refined surface, and a more exacting tolerance than structural concrete. The construction key words are cleanliness, consistency, control, and precision—a challenge for a material composed of several components and subject to many variables. Concrete is a combination of sand and small coarse stone aggregate mixed with cement and water. Architectural concrete stresses the color and texture of the finished surface, and the stone, sand, and cement types are selected and balanced to achieve that goal. The method of mixing and pouring the batter-like concrete must be highly controlled as color and value may change in each pour sequence. Water must be pure. Temperature and humidity changes can affect the results unless considered in advance. Architectural concrete is poured into special formwork, constructed of fine boards or specifically sized panels used to create a surface pattern, and held together by steel “ties,” whose placement is visible on the concrete surface as a residual grid of small circular recesses.

A system of narrow (three-inch) tongue-and-groove boards of Douglas fir was used for the Museum formwork to create a light pattern which would not compete with the building form or details. The individual boards were assembled into units (typically in nine-foot wide segments) relating to the 4’-6” building module, and stretching from floor to floor. This systematic and practical approach allowed for the re-use of the forms. Several nine-foot units would be ganged together to form one pour; in the case of the north and south walls of the tower this meant a form almost the full width of the building and 12’-6” or 20’-5” feet in height, to make certain the full expanse of each floor would be of the same color and tone of concrete. The strong reveal line at each floor provides a visual break to minimize the variation between the consecutive vertical pours; architecturally, it is a rhythmic scaling device giving order to the wall. The board pattern helps to mitigate small imperfections in the concrete, and also provides for visually splicing adjacent pours. The location of the pour joints, determined by the building design in conjunction with a concrete pour of reasonable size and configuration, was an extensive study in itself and was worked out with the contractor.

Our concrete experts maintained their involvement during the construction phase, and were present on site as necessary for assistance. The surface of the concrete was left without any further finish after the forms were removed, and it appears today much the same as it did then. It was of benefit to the process and the result that the contractor who had built the Everson Museum in bush-hammered concrete, William C. Pahl Construction Company, was the contractor for the Johnson Museum. Harold Uris, University trustee, and builder, commented during a building tour with Sam Johnson that the concrete was the best he had ever seen.

Finishes and Systems

The building was conceived as having one continuous, flowing surface of board-formed concrete, wrapping from outside to inside without distinction between the two. The lobby is designed as an exterior space—a pavilion, or viewing platform, at the apex of Libe Slope—and the sculpture court above is just another level of the lobby, reached by stairs and bridges. Thus, the clear, polished plate glass, required to provide protection from the elements, was inserted directly into the concrete shell to further the ambiguity. This detail is maintained everywhere except at the lobby skylight and its contiguous vertical glass slots; these are framed in bronze-finished aluminum to handle drainage.

The concrete of the outer walls and core turns inward to frame the entrances of the main galleries, continuing the idea of the galleries as a series of rooms linked by exterior spaces. The interior finishes and their palette were established to provide a neutral, and easily maintained, backdrop for the diverse range of the Museum’s collections. Detailing was kept simple, but precise and refined, to frame the art without intrusion. The galleries were all originally lined with a neutral-colored linen fabric stretched over plywood walls. This warm, textured surface had the advantage of closing its weave after the nails of one exhibit were removed for another. It was a practical move which provided an always-finished space; each new exhibit would not have to consider re-painting the walls of the previous exhibit. After the wear of many years, the linen in several of the galleries was removed, giving the opportunity to vary the “lining” color to specifically complement a particular exhibit.

The floor surfaces are transformed as one moves from lobby through the building, the material changing to complement the space and its use. The lobby is paved in tile with concrete borders; the grand stair and bridge links are the same concrete as the walls but with a hard-trowelled finish; the galleries have oak floors, using boards the same width as the concrete formwork; and the lecture room and the Asian galleries are carpeted for a sense of quiet.

The Museum has a combination of mechanical systems for ventilation, supplying air with humidity to the areas where art is displayed and stored, and providing normally heated or cooled air for the offices and at all the glass surfaces. The building, like an office tower, is fed from fan rooms in the basement and in the penthouse through ductwork rising through the elevator/stair core. The heat generated by lighting and people in the galleries requires those spaces to be supplied with cool air for most of the year. The air is introduced into the galleries through a slotted band at the top of the wall and extracted through a continuous slot just above the oak baseboard. By locating the thermostatic sensors and lines of electrical outlets in this slot, we were able to remove these usual distractions from the walls, leaving an unencumbered display surface.


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