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Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Ithaca, United States of America
1 of 17

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. 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.

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.


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.


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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  1. Wikipedia
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ofuerst, May 25th, 2019
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