All posts by Peter Cornell

About Peter Cornell

Peter is a Centerbrook Associate and earned his Masters and Bachelors in Architecture from Columbia University and the University of Virginia respectively.

Visualizing the Future

Ted Tolis (right, standing) and Aaron Emma (seated) take The Country School students through the master plan animation for their campus.

With many connections to our surrounding community, we often welcome visitors to our offices for tours and learning experiences. We’re especially excited when student groups come to visit with their fresh perspectives and interests.

I recently welcomed a 6th grade science class from The Country School in Madison to the office. I gave the class and teachers Beth Coyne, Stephanie Johnson, and Stephanie Smelser, a thorough tour of the office, letting them see how we work. My wife, Amy, who also teaches at The Country School, came along as well. I was going to summarize the things that seemed to excite them the most, but they did it for me in this great poster they sent as a thank you.

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Centerbrook principal (and a Country School alumnus parent) Ted Tolis then took the students on a virtual tour of the master plan that Centerbrook has designed for their campus, to excited oohs and ahhs. Aaron Emma also helped by navigating the model.

The students were engaged in a “Shake, Rattle and Roll” learning unit that challenged them to design a building in a seismically active part of the world, combining local architecture with the structural principles they have studied. I gave them a brief presentation on creative ways architects have responded to those same challenges. The lively class had many interesting questions from students and teachers alike, and I was able to share my experience of designing in San Francisco to the most stringent codes.

The students left excited and full of ideas, and maybe even with the notion of becoming an architect in the future, as evidenced by some of the comments on the poster they sent.

Too Much of a Good Thing


I recently attended a screening of The City Dark, a documentary on light pollution and its effect on the environment; it was sponsored by the Connecticut Green Building Council. It is something of an impressionistic treatment featuring the author’s own experiences, but it also includes interviews with everyone from city kids exposed to a starry sky for the first time, to scientists, including that “wallflower” Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are some compelling points made about the effects of excess light on human health and on animals. Interestingly, the detrimental effect of light pollution is not just due to the constant light but also to the absence of stars. Migrating birds and other animals depend on being able to see star patterns as part of their innate navigation system.

For humans, a starry sky encourages a sense of humility and context that’s disappears when the stars are (firmament is? I’ve always wanted to use that word…) broken into patches or obscured completely. There also are an increasing number of studies that correlate nighttime ambient light levels with sleep disorders and, less definitively, with some chronic diseases. The film strikes a good balance between the costs of light pollution and the human need to banish the dark, for both security and social reasons. Times Square is used as an effective, if predictable, model of a cultural expression of our need for light.


While the documentary is not a technical treatment by any means, and doesn’t address specific solutions or strategies, it does a good job of outlining the profound changes that have affected our relationship with the sky, and how they can influence our health and culture. Chad Groshart, Associate Director and Lighting Designer at Atelier Ten and Leo Smith, Regional Officer of International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Northeast USA, were panelists for a wide ranging conversation at the end of the screening.

As a firm we have been aware for some time of the need to limit light pollution. As part of our best practice efforts, we try to choose full-cutoff exterior fixtures that direct all light downward. As this issue has become more important, the Illuminating Engineering Society and IDA have developed a Model Lighting Ordinance, which many communities have adopted. It sets limits on the amount and direction of night lighting that can be used, although an exception can be made for security.


As the head of Centerbrook’s lighting science efforts, I try to keep current and informed about all of the things that we architects can do to use light more efficiently and beautifully. The City Dark is a welcome reminder of what’s at stake.

Finding Your Place in History

Helping visitors find their place in history is part of the mission of Lancaster’s Museum and Library, and actress Zooey Deschanel is one of many who have taken full advantage. Earlier this year, the star of “Elf” and “(500) Days of Summer” paid a visit to Lancaster to research one of her ancestors who supported the 19th century Abolition Movement. And she did it on national television for an episode of The Learning Channel program “Who Do You Think You Are?”

2013A46.453 Following celebrities as they delve into their genealogy, the show provides a compelling and personal window into history and often delivers surprising revelations for the researchers and viewers alike. Part of a Campus of History that includes the home of President James Buchanan, Lancaster (LHO) has a national reputation for its museum exhibits, library, and archives that document, among other things, the genealogy of early settlers heading west. Lancaster was the end of the road during the early 1800s for many pioneers before trekking beyond the frontier. In fact, they often rolled west in Conestoga wagons built in Lancaster County.

Centerbrook recently completed a new building for LHO, and I was a member of the design team led by Partner Mark Simon, FAIA. Previously we had developed a Master Plan for the campus, which also encompasses an arboretum. The organization’s president, Tom Ryan, Ph.D., emphasized from the beginning his wish to create a contemporary, dramatic building as a way of communicating the excitement and relevancy of history. The curved lines of the roof recall the Conestoga wagon, while the stepped series of north clerestory windows are a nod to Lancaster’s significant industrial history.


The building – which features a number of large exhibit spaces, a dramatic lobby, and an auditorium – allows more of the collection to be shown and enables LHO to host major events and lectures. Many of the artifacts not formally on display are located in a glass-walled archive that presents glimpses of individual items as well as a sense of the breadth of the collection.

Television audiences across the country got to see the building for themselves during the episode, which featured an extended discussion with Ms. Deschanel in the new Rare Book Room, bookended by exterior footage of the building. LHO even arranged for a live screening in the new 225-seat auditorium. They already have received calls from Genealogy and Presidential buffs across the country, expressing interest in visiting.

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Ms. Deschanel also appears to have an affinity for another Centerbrook project. In the TV show she currently stars in, “New Girl,” the refrigerator in her apartment is adorned with a photograph of the Seneca Lake Pier at Watkins Glen. It was designed by partner Chad Floyd, FAIA.