Rendering to Reality: ​Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “Cascading Campus” Takes Medical Education to New Heights

Orli Hakanoglu Orli Hakanoglu

The Columbia University Medical Center’s new state-of-the-art medical and graduate education building — the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center — now looms large over the neighborhood. The 14-story glass and concrete tower, located in Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan, was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler and forms an extraordinary new educational hub for New York City’s next generation of medical students.

Architizer was fortunate to be invited to an advanced walkthrough of the building earlier this week, where Elizabeth Diller, Principal of DS+R, introduced and led a tour of the building along with other members of the CUMC project team from both DS+R and Columbia University.

The building, which will open August 15 for the start of the fall term, is a reflection of the University’s philosophy on how medicine should be taught, learned and practiced in the 21st century. DS+R’s design was the winner of the University’s paid design competition, for which Morphosis and Kengo Kuma and Associates also submitted designs.

DS+R’s finished construction (right) looks remarkably like the original rendering (left); images courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

“Our new education building will ensure that Columbia continues to train superior doctors and researchers, educated in the latest techniques, as medicine continues to evolve rapidly throughout the 21st century,” said Lee Goldman, MD, Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University. “The building will also allow us to centralize key activities in a state-of-the-art facility that reflects our commitment to providing world-class instruction and a superb learning environment for students.”

The finished building looks strikingly similar to the renderings submitted at the competition stage, thanks to structural glazing on the south elevation enhancing transparency and the ribbon-like floor plates closely matching the original vision. True to the original architectural visualizations, the warm color palette of orange floor finishes and wood throughout the completed building complement the cool gray tones of the flowing concrete slabs and columns.

“Space matters for structured and informal learning,” said Elizabeth Diller, founding partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “To support Columbia’s progressive medical education program, we designed a building that will nurture collaboration. Its defining feature is the Study Cascade: a 14-­story network of vertically linked spaces in a variety of sizes, both focused and social, private and communal, indoors and out.”

The most striking aspect of the building — a vertical “cascade” of study spaces — lends the south side of the building its distinctive section-like appearance. The meandering, organic sequence articulates the architect’s interest in fostering a collaborative spirit, featuring a stepped study lounge, a student commons, group and private study areas and a café. Together, they form a collaborative and social ecosystem and should foster a strong sense of community among students and university staff. Along the cascade are a number of exterior terraces with stunning views toward the south, east and west.

As students move from the study cascade toward the north side of the building, ceramic “frit” patterns on the glass create a visual transition to a more introspective space: the Active Learning Classrooms. These 30-to-60-person flexible spaces are divided by operable partitions and offer indirect sunlight and controlled views through continuous, full-height windows.

The ground floor lobby

State-of-the-art labs

The auditorium

The building is broken up into “academic neighborhoods,” groups of classrooms that have particular academic focuses. Each neighborhood is articulated on the exterior by the fiberglass reinforced concrete floor plates. Within these pockets are key elements of the design, including the ground-floor lobby and café — which adjoin a “study bar” with views of the Palisades — an advanced clinical simulation center, a specialized space for mock examination rooms, clinics and operating rooms, a multipurpose auditorium and a 275-­seat flexible space used for campus-wide events such as lectures, screenings and concerts.

The building also features an Anatomy Quad, a flexible learning space with integrated screens and task lighting. Outside, the South and West Courts feature local plant species and views of the Hudson River.

The building’s verticality signifies a break from the usual horizontal, sprawling typology that characterizes most medical school buildings. The building is one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood and offers largely unobstructed views in all directions from its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Its location in Washington Heights supports the push toward creating a vertical campus: The neighborhood is home to the highest natural elevation in Manhattan. The building’s 14 stories gain an extra boost as its site is over 100 feet above sea level.

The view from the “Sky Lounge” on the uppermost floor is breathtaking, providing a lofty lookout toward the strict grid of Upper Manhattan to the east and the George Washington Bridge, Hudson River and Palisades to the west. In addition to the building alone, its surrounding green spaces have created a new gateway to the medical school, providing a bridge to the surrounding Washington Heights community.

The building includes a variety of sustainable features such as locally sourced materials, green roof technologies and an innovative mechanical system that minimizes energy and water use. This building is one step in CUMC’s larger goal to minimize its carbon footprint and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025.

In keeping with its unorthodox architectural design, the building’s engineering is also noteworthy. Throughout the study cascade, two reinforced concrete columns appear to slalom up the building, transferring varying loads and supporting the long spans and cantilevers of the south façade. The flowing floor plates are made of post-tensioned, reinforced slabs that are embedded with Cobiax void-formers to reduce the weight of the concrete to a minimum.

While touring us around the building, Benjamin Gilmartin, partner in charge through many stages of the project, noted: “We are at the cutting edge,” only to add with a smile, “not the bleeding edge.” While students working in the Anatomy Quad may beg to differ from a literal standpoint, the building is indeed state of the art without sacrificing functionality or being overly risky in its boldness.

On our way back to the Architizer office, we walked southward through the rest of the medical school campus, noticing the stark contrast between old and new architecture. Comparing the gothic exterior of the College of Physicians and Surgeons with DS+R’s new building made perfectly clear Columbia’s goal to be at the forefront of modern medical practice.

All photographs by Nic Lehoux, courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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