It is easy to walk through the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center of Columbia University Medical Center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and forget that one is on a campus. Where are the large lecture halls with auditorium seating? Is there really no cafeteria? Surely a medical and graduate education building requires dedicated spaces to accommodate the differences between orthopedics and cardiology? Although the building contains a dramatic auditorium with a spectacular view of the Hudson River, the Palisades, and the George Washington Bridge—not to mention a donated grand piano ready to be rolled in for concerts—it eschews traditional classrooms in favor of “active learning classrooms” with operable partitions.

Exterior terraces, stepped lounges, and the sky lounge on the top floor create a visually and kinesthetically beguiling feast of nooks and corners for conversation and the exchange of ideas. Although permeated by the most advanced media technology, which can disseminate the latest research or procedure to every screen in the school, its spirit is that of an ancient academy in which small groups of students and teachers collaborate, talk, listen, and learn. One can easily imagine distraught medical students finding comfort after their first anatomical dissections in one of the many study spaces or in the double-height student commons. In this building, the micro and the macro, the cell and the city, obtain a wondrous harmony.

(Courtesy Nic Lehoux)

(Courtesy Nic Lehoux)

That this 100,000-square-foot, 14-story tower is the tallest building yet realized by DS+R—and one of the rare medical school facilities designed as an integral vertical structure—inevitably raises the question of how successfully the architects have negotiated the jump to a larger scale and the challenge of building a Manhattan high-rise. Happily, nothing in the Vagelos Center, except perhaps the somewhat perfunctory lobby, misses a beat, from the circulation and separation of complex programs, to the small footplate that creates intimacy by eliminating long and alienating corridors, to the soundproofing that admits city sounds while maintaining a welcome quiet. The “study cascade” side of the tower evokes the “folded noodle” of the architects’ unrealized design for the Eyebeam, here subject to a rigorous logic that is likely to establish this building as the textbook example of a design strategy much discussed in the late 1990s and early 21st century but not often realized effectively.

One has come to expect unexpected design elements and technical solutions in a DS+R building. An anatomy classroom with glazed walls and views of the river, a load-bearing column through which one can walk, a landscaped garden space open to surrounding student residences, ceramic “frit” patterns on the north end of the building to filter and diffuse sunlight, and an exterior cladding panel system of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete do not disappoint in this regard. The architects, long known for their concern with the visual arts, performance, and media technology, designed the Mary and Michael Jaharis Simulation Center—about 18 percent of the building, where future physicians train with computerized whole-body mannequins and watch video footage—with a humility that reinforces the astonishment of watching medical robots perform open-heart surgery or deliver babies.

Nearly four decades since Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio began the collaboration that today is DS+R, they have completed their most perfectly resolved building, an amalgam of their interests and the lessons learned from earlier projects, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art, Lincoln Center, and the Juilliard School. The flexibility of the Granoff Center arts building at Brown University, completed in 2011, is taken to an entirely new level.

Deftly balancing reality and simulation, dialogue and image, science and art, the Vagelos Center is joyous and life-affirming, qualities all too often absent today in architecture and medicine. During a summer with no apparent end to bad news, it is a signal event and a credible ground for optimism.

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