The professor leading New York City’s answer to MIT
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A steep and winding private driveway snakes through dense trees leading to Daniel Huttenlocher’s craftsman-style house on Cayuga Lake. It’s a short drive from Cornell University, where he’s been a computer science professor on and off since 1988, and a much longer one from the school’s future New York City tech campus, of which he is the founding dean. Outside, the wood-sided house with earth-green window frames sits low on the land, blending into the surrounding forestry. From inside, you can watch the lake through large windows in the living and dining rooms.
“When I first built this house, I literally couldn’t work here because I would find myself staring out at the lake for three hours and not doing anything,” Huttenlocher, 56, says of the first six months, back in 2006.
Ever since Huttenlocher joined the Cornell faculty he has juggled teaching with research, and he currently holds 24 US patents for his work in computer vision — the field of turning images into numerical and symbolic information. In the early days he took a job at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto during the summer months and winter breaks, and during his eight years there, he helped write the code for the ISO JBIG2 image-compression standard software that’s still used in the company’s digital copiers and printers.
“There were these very heavyweight ways of designing software called waterfall processes where you finish the whole design and hand it off to these guys to code. Now there are very agile techniques with iterative design, where you build a quick and dirty version, and get it in front of customers,” he says.
Huttenlocher’s attention to detail is clear throughout his home. In the dining room, cherry wood crown mouldings, custom-made by his architect, trace the walls and frame the windows. The post caps on the stairway were also specially designed. “They’re the same as the angles of the roof,” he notes, taking pleasure in the obscure symmetry.
He is now focusing his interest and energies on the tech campus. “I pinch myself regularly in this job,” he says excitedly of Cornell’s newest school (and its second in New York City after their medical school and research hospital). The project began in 2010 as a competition set up by the then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in an effort to give New York a technology-focused institution that would rival Caltech, Stanford and MIT, Huttenlocher’s alma mater. The ambitious $2bn project will stretch across 12 acres by 2043 — the first phase, covering 2.5 acres across three buildings, will be unveiled in 2017.
As Huttenlocher explains the scope of the project, he walks towards his sitting room fireplace, which is made from a local bluestone called Llenroc (“Cornell” spelt backwards), and picks up a clear glass cube from the mantelpiece. Inside, the glass reflects a 3D model of Gates Hall, the Computing and Information Science school at Cornell that opened in 2014. The building was designed by Thom Mayne, who is also designing Cornell Tech’s first building (named The Bloomberg Center), and it stands as a reminder to Huttenlocher of the parallels between constructing buildings and software, particularly iterative design. “In architecture, the challenge is you’re only going to build a building once, but you want to get that iterative learning in somewhere.” He refers to the design of his house, which took nine months to build and came in the form of three separate blueprints. One had the kitchen directly facing the lake, “but then the porch was on the side,” he says of the screened-in deck that now overlooks the water. Each preference came with its own counter set of restrictions. “There’s no hallway to the second floor and the stairs come into what is essentially the dining room,” he explains. “That’s bizarre but as a flow it works incredibly well.”
It’s not an accident that the 2,300 sq ft house and the land on which it sits feel inextricably bound. “I wanted [an architect] who was going to fit the house to the lot,” he explains. “I wanted a house that felt really spacious but actually isn’t that many square feet. It’s the public parts of the house that use up a lot of the space. The upstairs [three modestly sized bedrooms] is a lot smaller” and mainly used for when he has guests. Huttenlocher has devoted a lot of time to faculty hiring and to crafting a curriculum that addresses both the practical needs of the start-up tech world and the idealistic academic desire to gestate big disruptive ideas. His recruits include David Tisch, co-founder of TechStars NYC, who will run a start-up studio, where students can create digital products and services and present their work for critique in the safety of an academic environment.
Although Huttenlocher’s parents were professors, he never envisioned going into academia. “Most people want to flee what they grew up in and I fit that pattern,” he explains as we look at a German expressionist cartoon that hangs in the kitchen, a gift from his late father, who was a renowned paediatric neurologist and an avid collector of German expressionist art. A painting by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, depicting a large head with colourful orbs percolating around it, hangs above the fireplace, in contrast to the mellow tones that fill the rest of the space. An ornate pine cabinet he inherited from his parents when they downsized sits in the dining room. “It used to belong to friends of my parents,” he explains. “They slowly got a lot of art deco antiques, and this early American piece started to stand out.”
The item holds Meissen china plates brought over by his grandmother when she immigrated before the second world war, although his mother, who was an academic psychologist, has held on to most of the collection. Huttenlocher’s driving philosophy for the new school is rooted in historical lessons. “Part of the premise for this campus is that this shift into a digital economy affords tremendous opportunity but also risk, particularly around the very nature of employment. Much like when we shifted from an agrarian to industrial society and there was a disruption of employment,” he says, noting the decrease in jobs-to-revenue ratios in American companies over the past few decades.
Huttenlocher has decided to use job creation as the metric by which to measure the success of the school. He’s proud that the school, which is presently occupying donated space in the NYC Google building, has already created 60-70 jobs through the start-ups the students have created in its first two years.
Unlike an incubator or accelerator, the tech campus will focus on developing the student, not the company. “The majority of students will come through our programme and never start a company, but you can create inside of a big company as well,” he says. “Last year we had about 100 students. We’ve been growing at a 50 per cent year-over-year rate, which for an academic institution is fast.” In the autumn, Cornell Tech will grow from 150 to 250, counting faculty.
While Huttenlocher identifies critical skills for students to learn regarding algorithms and user interface design, he is quick to identify coding as a complex and nuanced “language of expression. Much as one can know English without being educated as a journalist or novelist, the mere knowledge of the language is not that powerful.”
Photographs: Sara Hylton
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