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Dramatic New Med School To Grace CUMC Campus

Exterior rendering of Columbia University Medical Center's new medical school, featuring glass façade on its southern face
The new medical school planned for the Columbia University Medical Center features an intricately articulated glass façade on its southern face that reveals a series of intertwined, continuous social spaces that literally step down through the levels of the building. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro 

Distinguished by an intricate glass face that reveals a “cascade” of interior spaces, the new medical school soon to be built by the Columbia University Medical Center is a design inspiration. 

July 31, 2012—Louis Sullivan’s dictum that form follows function may call to mind a generation of geometrically pristine glass and steel boxes, but a stunning new medical school at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, is turning the concept on its head.

The design of the new 14-story building, designed by New York City-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro and unveiled late last month, is a quite literal example of form following—actually embodying—function. The building features an intricately articulated glass façade on its southern face that reveals a series of intertwined, continuous social spaces that literally step down through the levels of the building. These spaces, collectively called the cascade, will provide a flowing series of informal spaces in which medical students can interact and socialize, collaborate and study, or just unwind while enjoying breathtaking views of the city. The spaces include stepped lounges, cantilevered interior balconies, and outdoor gathering spaces—all designed to conform to New York City’s Active Design Guidelines, which were established to create healthier buildings. “The basic parti of the building was to locate all of those programs in an interconnected continuous space on the south,” says Gerard Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP, a senior associate of Diller.

The entire cascade—all 14 floors of it—is sheathed in a glass façade that provides exterior views of various interior spaces and gives the building its singular appeal. It’s the architectural equivalent of an anatomical diagram in which the interior structure is brought dramatically to the surface. 

The cascade is intended both to meet the primary programmatic strategy of the building and reflect the energy of the city and streetscape. Sullivan promises that the views—looking back to the Midtown Manhattan skyline—will be “spectacular, some of the best views in New York.”

The 14-story, 99,000 sq ft building—Columbia gives the construction cost as $70 million for labor and material—is due to break ground at Haven Avenue and 171st Street next spring and scheduled to open sometime in 2016. “We’re looking to build a state-of-the-art medical research facility commensurate with the quality of education here at Columbia,” says Patrick Burke, AIA, the assistant vice president of capital project management for CUMC.

The building will become the center for medical education and gradate education, and serve as the new home of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Founded in the late 1920s, CUMC comprises the medical school, known as the College of Physicians and Surgeons; schools for public health, nursing, and dentistry; and two hospitals. It’s also, Burke says, a “very, very robust research site, one of the more robust research institutions in the country.”

Exterior rendering of new medical school featuring floors sheathed in glass, providing views of various interior spaces 

All 14 floors of the “cascade” are sheathed in glass to provide
exterior views of various interior spaces—the architectural
equivalent of an anatomical diagram. Courtesy of Diller
Scofidio +Renfro

More than 10,000 work or attend school at the university, which generates $1.8 billion a year. The medical center is several miles north of the university’s main campus, in Morningside Heights. 

The original concept of the building, says Sullivan, was to concentrate public spaces at the south end of the building and to conceive of them as all glass—taking advantage of both the light and the views. Originally, the north end was meant to be a sheathed “veil” made of a cast concrete sun visor system. The sun visor system, however, was replaced by fritted glass, but the overall effect is meant to be the same: a hugely open glass façade to the south, and a more veiled façade to the north. North cladding is glass-reinforced concrete punctuated by horizontal strip windows to complement the masonry character of surrounding buildings.

The building will feature highly plastic expressed slab edges composed of cast-in-place concrete clad in expressive glass-reinforced concrete, which enables designers to give the building rounded forms. The cladding also functions as a rain screen. Inside, the ceilings and walls of the cascade are lined with wood paneling; the stairs and floors are lined with a more durable, color-matched terrazzo. 

The polyphony of interior social spaces compelled designers to determine how to organize spaces. As Sullivan puts it, “How do you make sense of that and not feel like a lot of repetitive slabs?”

The solution was to think of the 14 floors as a series of neighborhoods. The five floors of the building’s base house public spaces and such large-occupancy rooms as an auditorium. Classrooms on the setback upper floors are grouped above and below a two-story sky café and student commons on floors 10 and 11. “We wanted to use food as an anchor for the program,” says Sullivan.

Classrooms are situated on the north side of the building, which also includes administrative space, event space, a two-floor anatomy lab, and spaces for developing clinical skills. On the ground floor, a glass lobby looks out to twin courtyards—one to the south and one to the west. 

“Bringing it down that way allowed the building to have a more intimate feel,” says Sullivan. “And what that started to inform was some of the moves on the southern cascade development”—in terms of distribution of such amenities as outdoor rooms.

Sulllivan notes that even in hyperdense Manhattan there’s not a lot of social infrastructure in the surrounding neighborhood “A lot of the students go down to the Morningside campus to study because there’s just better quality study space. So we were trying to create places that the students would feel were engaging, comfortable, and would promote their staying in the building.”

“The whole project was a prototype for the new building,” says Burke. “It confirmed the need for social space and interactive space. Several of the classrooms are media oriented. Those classrooms really inform the way we’re designing the classroom.”

Those reviews, along with a very “democratic process” of exchange among senior administrators, faculty, and curriculum developers, helped planners understand what the spaces needed to achieve.

Exterior rendering of medical center's entry to auditorium 

The 14 floors were conceived as a series of neighborhoods.
The five floors of the building’s base house public spaces and
such large-occupancy rooms as an auditorium. Courtesy of Diller
Scofidio + Renfro

That process also became the benchmark, Burke says, for “running the international design competition.” Only six firms were invited to participate, and only three were asked to submit proposals. The Diller proposal prevailed because its façade most clearly expressed the programmatic goals of interactive social and educational space. “When you look at the south façade, that’s exactly what you’re looking at,” says Burke. “There’s no concealing what goes on inside this building. The facade is really revealing about what goes on inside the building.” Joining Diller on the project is Gensler, the global architecture, design, planning, and consulting firm that will serve as the executive architect. 

The extensive planning phase included studies of peer institutions, and revealed that simulation and clinical skills development space was crucial. So the CUMC building has more than doubled those spaces. In previous generations, medical students would observe clinicians performing surgery in teaching hospitals; now those suites will come to the CUMC. The clinical simulation space features a mock emergency room and a mock operating room populated by robotlike mannequins—effectively robots—with which students train. “It’s simulating real world situations before they get into a real world situation,” says Burke.

In addition, CUMC is planning a battery of 10 exam rooms in which actors—one per room—will “perform” a predetermined ailment. The students will be asked to examine their pretend patients while a very robust audio and video capture system will feed their performance to a central command station in the building and to multiple conference rooms, where students can be observed by their colleagues and evaluated by faculty.

The new building will rise on the site of two lots just west of Haven Avenue. One of the lots is vacant; on the other stands a five-story red brick student housing building that will be demolished. (The students have been relocated.)

“Being here in New York City, we’re always space constrained,” says Burke. “That’s one of our greatest challenges being an urban campus.” The constrained site meant for small floor plates—roughly 6,000 sq ft—a third of which is taken up by the core.

To the west of the site are three tall residential towers, and then Riverside Drive and Fort Washington Park at the edge of the island. Most buildings in the neighborhood are about five stories in height, though the three towers should ensure that the medical school is not completely out of scale. In fact, the building is positioned between two of the towers so it has views of the Hudson River.

Exterior rendering that landscape designers stove to mirror the look across the Hudson River to New Jersey 

The landscape designers strove to mirror the look across the
Hudson River to New Jersey so that people in the building have
the sensation as they look across the river that they are looking
back at themselves. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Sullivan describes the setup as “very dramatic. … You have the natural topographic change between Riverside Drive and Haven Avenue, which sits above it. The below-grade parking of the towers essentially create a plinth. It very much feels like a cliff.”

In fact, landscape designers strove to mirror the look across the Hudson, where towers rise above a bluff at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, so that people in the building will have the uncanny sensation, as they look out across the river, that they are somehow looking back at themselves.

An 8 ft high glass barrier at the edge of the western courtyard, along with a small grove of evergreens, helps mitigate wind on the site, and make that courtyard, about 10,000 sq ft, more useable.

The tower is meant to impart definition and clarity to what is presently a diffused site. “We were not responding to the existing buildings aesthetically at all,” says Sullivan. “If it participates in any way with that group of buildings, it’s really in scale and in the formation of exterior space at ground level.”



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