Vagelos Education Center, Columbia University by Diller Scofidio + Renfro


‘Rolling up the street’ was the starting idea for this 14-storey addition to the Columbia Medical School by Diller Scofido + Renfro. With it the practice has also realised a 20-year long exploration of a continuous surface building, albeit as a specific response to site and program.


Words: Fred A Bernstein

For more than 20 years, Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro have been exploring the idea of a continuous surface building - one in which a single concrete slab climbs from foundation to roof while serving simultaneously as walls, floors and ceilings. The best-known example of the genre was the firm’s 2004 design for the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology.

The Eyebeam proposal was circulated, admired and even widely imitated, but never realised. The firm has since completed many other projects, some with ‘continuous surface’ elements, but none perhaps as revolutionary as Eyebeam might have been.

First floor

But now Diller Scofidio + Renfro (working with the nimble giant Gensler as architect of record) has completed a continuous surface building that was worth the wait: a 9,300 sq m addition to the Columbia Medical School complex in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan. A 14-storey building on a 600 sq m footprint, it resembles a glass-and-concrete totem, seemingly earthbound even as it climbs, evoking associations ranging from New York City fire escapes to the cutaways that medical students use to learn anatomy. But the building, Diller says, was not about ‘an itch that needed to be scratched. Its forms are a very specific response to the site and program’.

The new building successfully addresses Columbia Medical School’s twin problems of not having a real campus nor a student centre. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe new building successfully addresses Columbia Medical School’s twin problems of not having a real campus nor a student centre. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Columbia Medical School, part of a sprawling hospital complex in a dense part of the city, has never really had a campus, much less any kind of student centre. Diller Scofidio + Renfro was charged with addressing both problems, with a building that students, moving around the hospital complex on crowded city streets, would be drawn into. ‘We started with the idea of rolling the street up into the building,’ says Diller, the lead architect on the project. ‘That’s the diagram we started with - rolling up from the street.’

A curtain wall of clear, low-iron glass reveals a collage of oranges and ochres, here on the ground floor. Image Credit: Iwan BaanA curtain wall of clear, low-iron glass reveals a collage of oranges and ochres, here on the ground floor. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

The result is a delirious doodle against the neighbourhood’s 3D grid (a sea of six-storey tenement buildings), and if one of its purposes is to help the medical school announce its presence, it has already achieved that summa cum laude.

Seen from the south, where a curtain wall of unusually clear, low-iron glass reveals a collage of oranges and ochres, the building is as startling in its way as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum four miles south, or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao 4,000 miles east. So unusual is the effect that the New York Times called a rendering of its south facade a ‘cutaway’ - and had to publish a correction. Indeed, given the transparency of the facade, the interiors are also its exteriors.

In the DS+R building a single concrete slab climbs from foundation to roof, while also serving as walls, floors and ceilings. Image Credit: Iwan BaanIn the DS+R building a single concrete slab climbs from foundation to roof, while also serving as walls, floors and ceilings. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

And that satisfies another idea, Diller says, ‘that we never got out of our system’ (and which the firm has been exploring since its earliest days): ‘A resistance to the privatisation of space’ - letting the public enter (or, if that’s not possible, then visually penetrate) the building.

But the continuous slab was about much more than ‘rolling up the street’, the clear facade about more than letting people see inside. In fact, in a miraculous meeting of ‘stylistic itch’ and intuition about function, the $75m building - known as the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, for its lead donors - has already transformed student life. (I spent an afternoon watching students employing and enjoying the new building.)

Long section

The goal was to give future doctors a variety of places to work, alone or in groups, in public or behind closed doors, in light or shadow, during ‘school hours’ or any other time of day or night, and to hang out in when they aren’t working. ‘As we got more and more into the understanding of how medical education works these days, we saw that it is less lecture-based and more about teamwork and problem solving,’ Diller says.

A variety of learning spaces have been designed, from small conference rooms with writable walls, study alcoves and bleacher seating, to this 275-seat lecture theatre. Image Credit: Iwan BaanA variety of learning spaces have been designed, from small conference rooms with writable walls, study alcoves and bleacher seating, to this 275-seat lecture theatre. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

That meant creating a variety of spaces for a variety of learning styles. The most conventional is a 275-seat theatre (necessarily placed at the base of the building); the others range from small conference rooms (where both opaque and glass walls are fully ‘writable’) to study alcoves to bleacher-seating areas, grouped into two or three-storey ‘neighbourhoods’. Those groupings, says Maddy Burke-Vigeland, who led the Gensler team, give the vertical campus scale and definition. Together, the neighbourhoods, separated only by fire doors, add up to a 14-storey snakes-and-ladders game  a far cry from typical academic buildings, with classrooms arrayed along corridors.

Cross Section

The need to create a variety of spaces gave the architects an incentive to twist and turn the ‘continuous surface’ into as many configurations as possible. And given the small footprint, the open plan - Mies’ approach to flexibility - wasn’t an option. In its place: the open section. It helped that the client didn’t demand efficiency. ‘Our goal wasn’t to optimise every square foot of usable space, but to contribute to a feeling of wellbeing,’ Diller says. She calls the approach ‘productive inefficiency’.

With the study areas, its spacious lobby/lounge and its south-facing terraces, Vagelos joins other Diller Scofidio + Renfro buildings in providing spaces the client never thought to ask for. The practice’s art department building at Stanford University, with roof terraces open to the public, is another recent example. Renfro sees it as a kind of architectural ‘generosity’ that comes from not taking the initial program at face value. In this firm’s approach, form foments function.

The neighbouring bland Haven Avenue towers provide a perfect backdrop for the curvaceous Vagelos building. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe neighbouring bland Haven Avenue towers provide a perfect backdrop for the curvaceous Vagelos building. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

But Diller’s productive inefficiency was confined to the southern half of the building. The northern half is relatively conventional: a stack of classrooms (and several simulation labs, where students work on robotic ‘patients’ - even delivering a robotic baby out of a robotic mother - as well as real cadavers).

Aesthetically, the buttoned-up northern half keeps the southern half grounded. But the balancing of id and ego also worked financially, says Diller. ‘We were able to build far less expensively on the north side, so we could spend money on more costly cantilevers on the south side. We were able to pay for the south with the north.’

In simulation labs medical students work on robotic patients and real cadavers. Image Credit: Iwan BaanIn simulation labs medical students work on robotic patients and real cadavers. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Structurally, the north rests on an ordinary reinforced concrete grid. In the south, the structural challenge was to find vertical load paths through the study cascade without turning its distinctive cursive into ungainly block lettering. That was accomplished (by engineers at Leslie E Robertson Associates) with two huge columns made of high-strength, self-consolidating concrete, which slope as the building narrows slightly until reaching the eighth floor. But the continuous slab itself, which tapers from 61cm to just 20cm thick as it approaches the south curtain wall, has to do much of the work. It is made of concrete poured over a Cobiax system of plastic spheres set into rebar cages. The rebar serves as reinforcement, while the spheres make the slab a kind of waffle, rendering it lighter - and thus in need of less support - than it would have been without the indentations.

Several other things made the building particularly amenable to the continuous surface approach. One is the site. In the Seventies, Columbia built three bland, 30-storey apartment towers at the western edge of the medical centre complex. At the base of the towers was a small, pre-war apartment building.

Demolishing that building made room for Vagelos and a tiny park. The park and the building both have world-class views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, which made floor-to-ceiling glass practically a necessity; some of the study rooms feel like glass capsules suspended over the bridge. (Sadly, the views don’t take in Pier Luigi Nervi’s brilliant George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, with its own curvaceous, poured concrete profiles.)

Meanwhile, the banality of the three existing Haven Avenue towers finally served some purpose: their grids provide a perfect counterpoint to the swoops and swirls of Vagelos, like calligraphy against lined paper. And the proximity of the towers meant Vagelos didn’t need its own heating and cooling plant, freeing up precious square footage.

The new building has world-class views of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge, making floor-to-ceiling windows practically a necessity. Image Credit:  Nic LehouxThe new building has world-class views of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge, making floor-to-ceiling windows practically a necessity. Image Credit:  Nic Lehoux

Given the seemingly unlimited range of formal moves, it was important to limit the range of materials inside - to avoid creating a visual Babel. Floors are made of wood or rust-coloured terrazzo; walls are painted white or orange, or inset with panels of ruddy Douglas fir veneer. Upholstery is melon-coloured. The effect is cheerful but never juvenile.

And the details are extraordinarily well executed. For that, Diller credits both the client (backed by the ‘very supportive’ donor Roy Vagelos) and the contractor, Sciame, which was involved as early as the competition stage. ‘That buy-in was important,’ Diller says. And Burke-Vigeland gives a lot of credit to the software used by the architects and consultants: ‘We worked together throughout the project in the same Revit model on a cloud-based platform called Citrix; it acted as a real time integrator,’ she says.

But even that doesn’t explain the leap from the awkward detailing of some earlier DS+R buildings to the superb resolution that characterises Vagelos, despite its extremely complex geometry. Says Diller: ‘Clearly, the studio has matured.'





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