Location Ithaca, NY
Size 6,239 ft²
Completed 2011
Program Visitor services (including retail), classrooms, entertainment
Awards Canadian Architecture Award of Excellence; AIA NYS Chapter Award of Excellence

The earliest American landscape-design theorists in the 19th century—Frederick Law Olmstead and A.J. Downing among them—argued that landscape design be included among the fine arts. In contrast, modern practitioners fight to establish their role as architectural functionalists. Such has been the push and pull of managed exterior environments, where some consider the goal to be about beauty and form while others think landscapes are about fashioning vegetation, topography, and water to meet needs and accomplish objectives. The latter category includes environmental and economic sustainability, including how each serves practical human imperatives.

Cornell Plantations’ new Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center provides its own response to this debate, its design—how it functions and what it brings to the plantations—proving that the balance between inside and outside can be blurred. With a sprawling mix of natural and constructed landscapes encompassing 4,500 acres near Cornell University (the facility is a unit of the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) in Ithaca, New York, the answer is that both landscape ideologies can merge in this one building, and many others. And it’s not without precedent—the region is known for river-cut gorges and waterfalls, and the nearby Finger Lakes make the area a perfect microclimate for vineyards and winemaking enterprises; here, man and nature coexist peacefully and productively.

Since the plantations’ founding in 1944, it existed without a built structure for several generations, but it always had landscape designers to ensure the beauty and environmental responsibility of the land. Support for the plantations picked up in the late seventies, and landscape development accelerated. “Strong alumni support, progressive leadership, and a resurgent interest in gardening and the environment have contributed to our growth,” says Don Rakow, who serves as the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director at the Plantations.

Guests entering the Nevin Welcome Center first walk into a two-story atrium that has a reception desk and gift shop. The second floor has a 100-seat auditorium that is used for education and outreach programs.


Client Cornell Plantations/Cornell University
Architect Baird Sampson Neuert
Landscape Architect David Cutter, Cornell University
General Contractor Welliver

Cornell Plantations needed a building for all the visitors it was receiving, and in 2011, it added the LEED Gold-certified welcome center, designed by Baird Sampson Neuert. Nestled within well-established botanical gardens, an arboretum, natural forest, and agricultural research facilities, the 6,239-square-foot facility, which greets up to a half-million visitors each year, was created to accomplish four goals. The first of these was to establish a nexus for the complex, a single gathering place for visitors to the plantations. Indeed, this is where form and function blend quite well; the building includes a reception area, gift shop, accessible restrooms, café, 100-seat multipurpose room, conference rooms, and kitchenette that all work in unison to enable learning and social functions. “It’s now become a place for faculty retreats, for local corporate board meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and graduation parties,” he says.


Certification LEED Gold
Materials 100% locally sourced stone, ipe, recycled steel
Water Green roof to trap and hold rainwater
Energy 50% of heat from solar collectors, passive cooling, sun-shield louvers, double insulated windows
Landscape Bioswales, native plantings, educational programs

The reason for such popularity might lay in the second goal, which was making sure the building easily blended into the botanical landscape. A dozen gardens already dotted the plantations’ botanical garden and several more were added around the center, including a tropical plants bed. All these landscape and garden features help the building blend seamlessly with its surrounding terrain. One of the new gardens is the “Six Friends” East Asian Garden, which is still being planned. When completed, it will be a 7,500-square-foot garden with pine, willow, and Japanese maple trees, plus bamboo, lotus, and large stones, which are all symbolic references to East Asian traditions. This garden, designed by Marc Peter Keane, faces the building’s second-floor classrooms.

New bioswale gardens also blend aesthetics and environmental strategy. Any rainwater runoff from the parking areas drains into the bioswales, and a full-time gardener tends to the plantings throughout the growing season, producing a backdrop of sneezeweed, milkweed, Joe Pye weed, winterberry, American hornbeam, and seven cultivars of native switchgrass, all of which can tolerate flooding and drought periods.

The third goal was to blur the lines between indoors and outdoors, achieved by embedding the two-story structure into a hillside, and construction materials, primarily stone and wood, were chosen to blend the built and natural environments.

Bioswales can be far more than function. Those shown above and right add to the overall landscaping but also control storm water.

The fourth goal was to be a model of green building design. The welcome center does this with polyethylene glycol-filled rooftop solar collectors that provide about half the building’s heat in winter via floor-embedded coils, as well as with a natural ventilation system that in the summer incorporates thermostatically controlled vents that open to pull in air from the north side of the building while warm air exits via rooftop vents. Plus, fixed louvers made of ipe wood cover the exterior on the south and east sides to limit solar heat gain in summer and allow natural light penetration from a low-on-the-horizon sun during the winter while its green sedum rooftop adds extra insulation.

This melding of form and function expands the plantations’ impact. “The center has had a transformative impact on Cornell Plantations,” Rakow says. “Many of the groups now using the facility had never been here before. It’s become a hub for local organizations, continuing education classes, and a place for students with laptops.” In other words, the new space attracts people who might be stressed about board reports or economics midterms and plops them into a peaceful, beautiful environment they might not have experienced before, and even the most time-pressed visitor who glances at the bioswales and gardens cannot help but pause for an impractical moment to take in its well-tended beauty.