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Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Gensler

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Columbia University

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Year Completed



100,000 sq. feet
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Text by Joseph Giovannini

It may seem a slam dunk for a clinic to look clinical, but at least for the planners of the new medical teaching facility at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, they understood the limits of the paradigm and challenged it.

For the new the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, administrators were intent on building a supportive, transformative environment for teaching and learning medicine, and they wanted more than compact, high-gloss, fluorescents rooms on either side of a double-loaded corridor. Of course, the 100,000-square-foot, 14-story glass tower needed bright, clean teaching spaces for dissecting cadavers. Ditto for high-tech spaces that simulate operating rooms, complete with surgical equipment and patient dummies.

But in the context of pursuing a more holistic pedagogy, administration planners wanted to address the “whole” student in a more engaging and participatory environment. In study areas and common spaces outside hardcore exam rooms that truly required sterility, they wanted a more humane environment that spatialized theories of collaborative learning. The traditional classroom and lecture format assumes a passive transfer of knowledge between faculty and students, but new pedagogies in medical education instead put an emphasis on participatory, problem-based learning that improves teamwork and critical thinking.

In 2010, the medical center held a competition to reinvent and reshape the look and feel of its education center. Educators were enlisting architects to reinvent how medicine would be taught, learned, and practiced in the 21st century.

There was, however, an elephant in the room: the sterility assumed necessary in a hospital setting was itself a dehumanizing agent, and sterility, almost as a style, has invaded and infected many (if not most) corners of medical complexes. Med students notoriously undergo grueling routines, enduring long, focused hours in a succession of low-ceilinged boxes with enameled walls that, over the years, test the senses and patience, if not the sanity, of overworked, sleep-deprived students. Medical school for many is an endurance test unnecessarily aggravated by design. Sterility as an ethos may be pervasive in med schools, but it’s ultimately desensitizing and silently counter-productive.

New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), working in collaboration with Gensler, changed all that with the new Vagelos Education Center in Washington Heights, at the north end of Columbia’s medical campus. Their strategy was simple: separating out all the public spaces and functions in the program from the truly clinical spaces, and collecting and stacking them into what is effectively a vertical campus, and one with buzz.

DS+R was applying ongoing design research in what was for them a new institutional typology. The interdisciplinary design studio has long studied how to pedestrianize tall buildings by designing spatially complex sections with ramps, stairs, and individuated spaces that break up striated sections in favor of diversified, networked space. In their recently opened McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, the design team, headed by Charles Renfro, looped students in paired interlocking wings that spiral up in a square that turns around a courtyard. In Rio de Janeiro, at the Museum of Image and Sound, DS+R continued the Avenida Atlantica up the façade in a series of switchback paths that activate the whole façade and deliver the beach-going crowd to the roof for drinks and free movies.

For an interdisciplinary firm that long specialized in wry and trenchant social commentary and conceptual art installations, the paradigm of a sectionally active, porous, networked building has been a way to develop a language without resorting to formalist signature.

Now, no doubt about it: The new Vagelos Education Center has huge curb appeal. Pedestrians regularly stop and put down their shopping bags on this otherwise quiet, uneventful street to gaze up the jumbled glass façade. Even given the highly-exercised signature condos now populating downtown neighborhoods, the design is unique in the city.

The lead façade on the south end of the rectangular tower resembles a honeycomb after an 8.0 earthquake. In what looks like forced perspective but is really a building shaped by zoning set-back laws, the façade inclines back as it rises, creating a strange sensation, almost an illusion, of speed and disappearance. Only one floor looks flat, and otherwise the building rises in disciplined, rhythmic irregularity, the glazing interrupted by the angled stairways and several open-ended boxes that pop through the glass, two of them outdoor terraces. Not since Paul Rudolph’s brilliant Art + Architecture Building at Yale have we seen a building turn its own corners with such porosity, complexity, wit, and IQ. This is a playground of space, form, and glass, and it’s smart.

Once you pry your eyes off the spectacle, you notice the architects’ deft use of the site. A wide staircase designed in (real) forced perspective with converging railings draws in visitors up past an elevated garden to the main floor, which itself opens onto a deck overlooking another garden, followed by a full-frontal, head-on view of the Hudson River. The building is sited so that its broad, west-facing facade takes full advantage of the river, the view framed by two med school dorm towers. On the south end of their narrow site, the architects tucked a driveway down to the garage in the basement, no doubt a tight fit that required clever geometry.

The façade that is so extroverted and charismatic on the outside was, in fact, designed from the inside. The architects strategized the internal layout by placing the elevator core about a third of the way into the block, zoning the building so that the rooms requiring separation and closure are north of the core, in a regular bread-and-butter part of the building with a conventional striated section. Construction efficiency on the north two-thirds of the building paid for the complexities of the front third.

South of the core the architects organized public spaces into a concatenated vertical plaza of open and closed classrooms, lounges, huddle spaces, outdoor terraces, computer banks—spaces whose functional fungibility allows them to be colonized and occupied by students convening spontaneously or by arrangement. The students can work together, just hang out, study solo, or exit for a breather onto terraces with a view.

“We wanted to scatter spaces of different scale, and plotted an internal topography of plateaus connected vertically,” says founding partner Liz Diller, who worked on the commission with her colleague and the project director, Anthony Saby. “These unprogrammed spaces are large and small, intimate and communal, formal and casual, interior and exterior, some with acoustic control, some with food, and some with built-in technologies.

“It’s a cascade of spaces,” she continues, “linked by a communicating stair that threads its way through every level of the tower. Most medical education buildings are low, densely packed and symmetrically organized, and we wanted to create a form of ‘productive inefficiency’ through a network of exuberant, airy, light-filled spaces that the students could take over without inhibition.”

The architects organize the vertical campus into four stacked neighborhoods defined by fire enclosures. They always tie the spaces back to the core, which solves any accessibility issues, while networking the spaces together with stairways that meander up and down the vertical campus on a path of discovery: Students are hiking in the air in the middle of New York. The journey starts at the entrance on the ground floor, a bright open field of space offering food, a lounge, and dining area, and leads up to a 275-seat auditorium on the next floor, before continuing up into the stacked neighborhoods.

Besides transforming the building into a catalyst for social interaction, like a gentil animateur at a Club Med, the architects operate on the normally closed, usually intractable typology of the stacked and sealed high-rise, opening the tower to itself, and to the outside. Panoramic windows, differentially fritted for sun control, give the students views of the Manhattan skyline south, in addition to those of the Hudson, relieving the compounded hermitic tendencies of a high-rise and a medical school.

Having informalized the building spatially with their cascade, the architects warm the building materially, mixing generous amounts of Douglas fir paneling on all levels of the cascade. They soften its angled geometries with radiused corners inside and out, and took every opportunity to relax the building, breaking the stiffness and chill of extrusion. Even the glazing on each level follows its own logic, no two floors of glass alike.

The architects have mixed their messages in a heterogeneous building that offers both standardized and unique spaces: It’s a functional building but one with a high joy index that offers students an experiential dividend. The building has energy, and the students will soon draw from it. “We designed the building to support this informal learning model in which work and social life are blurred, and students have a lot of freedom to select environments with attributes that appeal to them,” says Diller.

New Yorkers should also be grateful. This is a building that ranks as one of the most intelligent, original, and unexpected buildings of the decade. The architects broke through the normally strict calculus of the high-rise to create a non-institutional building, and broke out of the usually deadening sobriety of medical buildings. The project is generous to the street, to the neighborhood, and to the city.

Long ago, Vitruvius advised that a building should embody firmness, commodity, and delight. The Vagelos Center certainly checks the firm and commodious boxes, and against all typological odds, it scores very high on delight.

Project Description

From the Architects:

Located on an existing Columbia property on Haven Avenue between West 171st and West 172nd Streets, the 100,000-square-foot Medical and Graduate Education Building will be used by students from the Columbia University Medical Center. The “Study Cascade” is the principle design strategy of the building—a network of social ad study spaces distributed across oversize landings along an intricate 14-story stair. The Study Cascade creates a single interconnected space the height of the building, stretching from the ground floor lobby to the top, and conducive to collaborative, team-based learning and teaching. The “Study Cascade” interiors are complemented by a distributed network of south-facing outdoor “rooms” and terraces that are clad with cement panels and wood. The “Study Cascade” is also an urban gesture that, with its transparent façade, aims to become a visual landmark at the northern limit of Columbia University’s medical campus. In collaboration with Gensler.
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