3.2 km (2 mi) north of the original Washington Heights campus and overlooking the Hudson River is the CUMC - Columbia University Medical Center - an enormous school of medicine covering six blocks of the northernmost part of Manhattan. This is also the site of the new avant-garde medical, teaching and simulation facility, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. The new architecture is an excellent example of how a building belonging to a specialist sector - in this case a medical facility - can be a bridge linking an enclave with the surrounding urban fabric. Standing among the massive buildings of Upper Manhattan and the rest of the medical campus, the new tower immediately catches the eye for its delicate elegance and sculptural shapes. Its innovative transparent appearance reflects the Center’s declared aim to be a place where medicine is taught and learned with collaborative teaching formats, and practiced in keeping with today’s more holistic, patient-focused approach.
67 m / 220 ft
14 stories tall
With its 14 stories rising about 67 m (220 ft) for a total surface area of 10,000 sqm (107,700 sq ft), the Vagelos Center is very aptly described by Elizabeth Diller as a ‘baby tower’. The exterior of the ‘baby tower’ follows the design of the interiors. The regular parallelepiped on the north side reflects the square volume of the laboratories and classrooms behind it. On the south side, the Study Cascade creates volumes resembling a deconstructed beehive, their different shapes evidenced by striking stringcourses marking out ramps and landings. The overall appearance is of an enormous piece of graphic-art, or a huge cross-sectional diagram showing the circulation system and the activities going on inside.
Design & engineering, manufacturing and installation of unitized aluminum façade with integrated GFRC elements and different silkscreen patterns, filigree façade for an overall area of around 6,000 sqm (64,600 sq ft).
The façade system and its components: geometries and trasparency
The outer envelope comprises several different custom-made façades. Technologically highly demanding, these different façade typologies had to meet the requirements of the architectural design but also take into account the particular solar exposure.
Architecturally, the south façade is the most striking aspect of the tower. The continuous staircase running through the Study Cascade follows the cantilevered volumes down through the building, each segment emphasized by broad GFRC bands. The total see-through transparency of the façade reveals the network of social and study spaces distributed across oversize landings. It is as if this 14-story glass tower has had its outer skin removed to reveal a sectional view of the Cascade’s skeleton. The other three sides of the tower are made up of a continuous glass and aluminum unitized curtain wall with glass fiber-reinforced concrete elements. While each façade displays slightly different technical characteristics depending on orientation, the integrated glass fiber-reinforced concrete strips create a single wrap-around unit. The glass-fin façade is today one of the most transparent forms of structural glass façades.
Developed by Josef Garter USA, a division of Permasteelisa North America, it extends up the full 14 stories of the building. Aesthetically pleasing with no visible metal connections, this fully transparent unitized wall is also highly energy efficient, thanks to the low-e coated low-iron glass. In order to ensure a completely transparent façade, each element had to be custom-developed in order to take its designated place in the tower’s particularly complex envelope. All aluminum connecting elements are concealed inside the floor slabs or stringcourses while the glass panels are supported internally by different size laminated glass fins, the tallest of which measures 9 m (29.5 ft). Aptly called a glass-fin façade, it is supported by vertical profiles comprising three layers of stratified safety glass that extend for one or more floors. These profiles transfer the wind loads and dead loads of the façade onto the floor plates. The double-glazed panels are connected to the fins with a snap-on aluminum fastening device. In this way, the weight-bearing aluminum profile on the vertical fin and the glazed panels of the façade become a single structural system. Each glass fin had to be a one-off unit, a requirement that added to the technological complexity of an already challenging project. Apart from the connections on the structural glazing, no other mechanical connecting systems were used to fix the elevations to the structural frame. A further constraint was the fact that anchoring pins could not be used on account of the very high-density components and post-tensioning cables making up the floor plates.
The deliberately ‘inefficient’ spaces of the Study Cascade contrast with the north, east and west sides whose strictly regular grid is designed for specialist activities. The outer envelope enclosing the lecture rooms, laboratories and other dedicated areas shield the environments from direct sunlight and allow only muted views through continuous, full-height windows developed by Permasteelisa North America. Separated by the round-edged GFRC strips, the characteristics of the glass panels change from one floor to the next depending on the functional requirements of the interior environment and the particular solar exposure.
Highly transparent glass-fin façade
Each glass fin is unique
Unitized curtain wall with integrated GFRC elements
9 different frit patterns and gradients
Winner of the 2016 AN ‘Best of Design Award in Façade’
OWNER: Columbia University Medical Center
DESIGN ARCHITECT: Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)
EXECUTIVE ARCHITECT: Gensler
CLIENT & CONTRACTOR: Sciame Construction, LLC
FAÇADE CONSULTANT: BuroHappold
STRUCTURAL CONSULTING ENGINEER: Leslie E. Robertson Associates
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