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Max Touhey

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Diller Scofidio + Renfro, on the edge

Is architecture’s most cutting-edge firm on the precipice of innovation or ubiquity?

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange visits two Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed buildings in New York and California to gauge whether the firm's signature moves signify the future, the present, or the soon-to-be-past.

I don’t typically think of Manhattan’s new architecture in terms of site. Location, yes, in terms of changing the perception of some existing block or neighborhood. One of the delights of BIG’s VIA 57, for example, is how it makes its location into a site, altering the geography of an area populated by meaty, faceless buildings by giving it sparkly topography. While one of the mysteries of Herzog & de Meuron’s stack of boxes downtown on Leonard is what, exactly, one might call its location.

Or so I (mis)remembered, kicking myself for being lower Manhattan-centric, after I paid a visit to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new Columbia University Medical Center building, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. (Gensler was the executive architect.)

The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center.
Max Touhey

Traveling uphill from the 168th Street stop, Haven Avenue makes a right, turning parallel to the stony ridge that carries Washington Heights high above the Henry Hudson Parkway and the river. Three buff brick towers rise above older masonry buildings, housing for Columbia dental students since the early 1970s. Their height and footprint provide a rude sort of context for their new stepsister, lighter on her feet, more welcoming, more transparent.

From the south, the Vagelos Center’s 14-story facade is defined by the switchback curves of a pale, solid ribbon of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, which undulates in slopes and ridges as it descends from floor to floor, ending in a second-story terrace that unrolls to the sidewalk as stairs.

The neverending staircase is a grand public gesture, recalling both DSR’s LED-edged steps at Lincoln Center and their never built Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology of 2004. The effect is terrific: perfect for its site, location, and context, a tiny skyscraper that seems to fulfill many of the firm’s long-held design desires.

The architects’ literature calls this ribbon the "cascade," but I prefer to think of it as a zipper (exposed zippers being in fashion, after all) exposing the circulation of a building whose central purpose is a set of anatomy labs. Because the work of medical students (think bodies, both real and robotic) can’t be read on the facade, we must content ourselves instead with the movements of laptop-bearing students, seeking the right level of stimulus in public spaces that range from amphitheater to crow’s nest, conference room to Star Trek cantina.

It is hard to believe, for architects who once made art out of "dissident ironing," that DSR weren’t disappointed not to be able to expose more of the building’s teaching apparati. If Lever House nodded to its owner’s soapy fortunes through automated window-washing platforms, couldn’t there be some nod to medical theater? With the understanding that privacy concerns, i.e.cadavers, might limit that expression to a static or mechanical one; this is no place for medical reality TV.

The effect is terrific: perfect for its site, location, and context, a tiny skyscraper that seems to fulfill many of the firm’s long-held design desires.

As Elizabeth Diller explained on a recent tour, the architects’ desire was to knit this student building more closely to the rest of the medical campus, which lacks open space and connectivity. That choice, to frontload the southern face with sculptural activity, makes the other three sides relatively dull. From the north, the building looks like a clouded glass marshmallow bulging at the bottom, the striped frit, which reduces solar heat gain, dissolving into a haze. From the sides, the frit, which is concentrated over the core to mask its dullness, is more suggestive, petering out at the edges and encouraging you to move around the obelisk to understand its secrets.

Up top, the views are incredible. Standing in the penthouse student spaces, you can see, to the east, upper Manhattan unfurling like a brown quilt and, to the west, the movement of cars on the highway and bridge approaches. The combination of tower and cliff makes commuters look like Hot Wheels. You feel like a master of the universe, in a neutral, contemporary, glassy space.

The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center.
Max Touhey

With so much going on outside, DSR has wisely kept the materials palette super-clean: white, orange, wood, with the occasional gray. But this very strictness leads to a mental category error. You don’t feel like you are in an education building. You could be in a condominium or an office. You could be in a near-future science fiction film.

Absent the exterior theatrics, DSR is capable of creating a wonderfully blank and airy room: the top gallery at the Broad, for example, or the reading room at their McMurtry Building for the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford, which hangs over a busy campus walkway (and is one of few moments of peace in an otherwise busy and ungainly composition). Like the exposed lounges at the Vagelos Center, it serves as an ostentatious display of studiousness.

It is a polished performance, and, like the Broad Museum, shows DSR finally building beyond their influential ideas. What troubled me at Columbia, as well as in other recent DSR work, is that, even as technology has enabled them to build structures that were previously only dreams, they still haven’t overcome everyday drag.

Don’t undermine your own architecture by whiffing the close-ups.

We have already seen the wood amphitheater and the floating rooms, the ramp up and the terrace down. This doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it expected. It is also much-repeated across the building’s 110,000 square feet. I kept my bearings from the 14th floor to about the 9th, and then I lost my place. A supergraphic number, or even a color gradient, might help.

The illusion of "we are now in the future" crashes on that glass door at the top of the grand stair. On the addition of tiny spikes on several of the exterior glass fiber reinforced concrete slopes, not (as I thought) to deter pigeons but to keep snow from falling 12 stories down. On a transparent surround attached to the ceiling at the base of one of the open staircases to ensure it meets fire code—can’t you model an open stair that meets code all on its own?

It’s very modernist of me to want everything incorporated, and all of the moves to make intuitive sense, but there it is. I want my bread evenly toasted. Don’t undermine your own architecture by whiffing the close-ups.

When I reviewed the Broad last year, it was a relief to see DSR set aside the checklist of moves that seemed to dominate their practice for so long. The Broad’s stolidity—the building dominates the little site it has—was a relief, and seemed appropriate to Los Angeles’s history of roadside architecture and sunscreen facades. The expected cantilever was indoors, shaded from the sun.

My favorite of DSR’s recent projects is the one that seems (mostly) free of conflict between ambition, symbolism and function: the renovation of and addition to an Art Deco printing plant to create a new home for the Berkeley Museum of Art / Pacific Film Archive (where EHDD was the executive architect). I laughed to see the giant, sidewalk-side screen on the backside of the building, looking like a remnant of their most iconic project, the 1991 Slow House. That project proposed a house, shaped like a lens, with ocean views and a monitor to show simultaneous "ocean views." To put a screen on a film archive seems ridiculous, yet apt.

The screen serves as one end of DSR’s big twist: an unbalanced barbell-shaped addition that sinks into and slumps over the regular rectangles of the printing plant. Behind the screen, there’s a 232-seat theater, metaphorically exposing its guts. A kite-shaped window illuminates the mid-block theater lobby, and the sloping underside of the seats channels daylight down to the film archive, underground but not invisible. The study carrels there looked as inspirational as any I’ve ever researched in.

The smaller end of the barbell projects from the opposite side of the building as an enclosed second-story porch for the coffee shop – another place to put public performances with laptops on display. DSR should have bumped up the size of the band of glass around the bottom of this protuberance. It displays showtimes for the archive’s screens with LEDs, but it lacks the glamor of the movie marquees the whole contraption is referencing.

Inside, things calm down without going generic, thanks to the combined qualities of the old and new architecture. There are big, beautiful top-lit galleries in the style of Dia:Beacon. The stepped amphitheater seating in the lobby, made by master carpenter Paul Discoe out of Canary Island Pines removed from the site, suits the setting and the needs of the university students the museum wants to entice inside.

The major awkwardness of the design is that the architects put too little seating in the coffee shop (no food on the steps, as they are too close to the art). Patrons are squeezed down the narrow, red-painted center of the barbell, which doesn’t feel like an aid to digestion. BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder pointed to the smooth belly with pride, praising the craftsmanship required to get the sheetrock so smooth. But why make sheetrock do that? I kept thinking there had to be a better way—better material, better craftsmanship, better manufacturing. We’ve come so far from their ICA Boston, built in 2006, and yet we aren’t there yet.

A cascade. A ribbon. A twist. A veil. DNA. These are the metaphors all of the DSR partners use when discussing their work, and all of them suggest effortlessness, simplicity, flow. The quest of their career has been taking boxy programs and making them move, cinematically or as a blur. But whether perched atop Manhattan, or streamlined on an East Bay block, DSR’s productions aren’t transporting. The relative modesty of the Berkeley project ($112 million) seems to have produced more attention to detail, and the accommodation of someone else’s architecture a better balance of gesture and thoughtful, not generic, repose.

The Vagelos Center’s zipper seems more about architectural unveiling than what’s going on inside. The rendering still outstrips the reality, and even this lovingly lofted marshmallow exposes a chilly, untoasted side to the street.

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