‹ About the Building

Site and Context

by John Sullivan III

The design concept of the Johnson Museum is first 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—and by a subtle play of receding and projecting facade planes.

continues with Concept and Form

Originally published in A Handbook of the Collection (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1998), 29–40.