Dilller Scofidio + Renfro's Triumph
Published in Blueprint
November 2016

Their new building for Columbia Medical School synthesizes decades of experimentation

by 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 widely imitated, but never realized. The firm has since completed many other projects, some with “continuous surface” elements, but none perhaps as revolutionary as Eyebeam might have been.

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 110,000-square-foot addition to the Columbia Medical School complex in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The 14-story Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center resembles a glass-and-concrete totem, 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,” she says, “are a very specific response to the site and program.”

Columbia Medical School has never really had a campus, much less anything that could be called a student center. Diller Scofidio + Renfro was charged with addressing both shortcomings, creating 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 Elizabeth Diller, the lead architect on the project. “That’s the diagram we started with — rolling up from the street.”

The result is a delirious doodle against the neighborhood’s 3-D grid (a sea of six-story tenement buildings), and if one of its purposes is to help the medical school announce its presence, it has already achieved that goal 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 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. 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 privatization 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 $75 million building — named for its lead donors — has already transformed student life. (I spent an afternoon watching students employing and enjoying the new building.) The goal was to give future MDs 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.

That meant creating a variety of spaces for a variety of learning styles. The most conventional is a 275-seat theater (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-story “neighborhoods.” Those groupings, says, Maddy Burke-Vigeland, who led the Gensler team, give the vertical campus scale and definition. Together, the neighborhoods, separated only by fire doors, add up to a 14-story chutes-and-ladders game — a far cry from typical academic buildings, with classrooms arrayed along central corridors.

In fact, the need to create a variety of spaces gave the architects an incentive to twist and turn the “continuous surface” into as many configurations possible. And given the small footprint, the “open plan” — Mies’s 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 optimize every square foot of usable space, but to contribute to a feeling of well being,” Diller says. She calls the approach “productive inefficiency.”

With the study spaces, 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 firm’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.

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.”

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 24 inches to just 8 inches 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 factors made the building particularly amenable to the continuous surface approach. One is the site. In the 1970s, Columbia built three bland, 30-story apartment towers at the western edge of the medical center 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 with an unnaturally green lawn. 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 dramatic poured-concrete curves.)

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

Given the seemingly unlimited number of formal moves, its was important to limit the range of materials inside, to avoid creating a visual Babel. The architects showed considerable restraint. Floors are made of wood or rust-colored terrazzo; walls are painted white or orange, or inset with panels of ruddy Douglas fir veneer. Upholstery is pumpkin-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 characterizes Vagelos, despite its extremely complex geometry. Says Diller: “Clearly, the studio has matured.”


There is more continuous surface architecture on the way from DS+R.

“Vagelos is the best continuous surface project the firm has completed,” says Charles Renfro. But he expects the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro, now under construction, to further extend the form. That building, he explains, “works so well because it starts with the beach, the most democratic surface in a geographically and economically segregated city. It extends that democratic surface vertically, inviting the general public to walk up its facade to a new public park nine stories in the air. It's the only public lookout over the beaches of Rio, where historically you've needed a hotel or condo key to gain access.”

It’s good to know that DS+R isn’t done with its explorations of continuous surface architecture, or with projects that extend its resistance to the privatization of space. — Fred Bernstein

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