For Columbia’s medical school, a building that’s falling apart — on purpose

TRD New York /
Jul.July 05, 2012 05:30 PM

There was a time, a long time, when it seemed as though the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro wasn’t doing much of anything. The architects gave lectures to like-minded vanguardists, designed art exhibitions and made art, or something like it. And they conjured up numerous projects that never left the drawing board.

Then, all of a sudden, they became incandescently hot, and now they seem to be everywhere. You could be excused for thinking that there was not a cultural project on New York’s architectural horizon that they do not have a hand in. They have reconceived Lincoln Center’s public spaces — not counting the buildings themselves —and have greatly improved and made more pleasant the public’s interaction with that 50-year-old cultural superblock. This firm was also responsible for the two completed installments of the High Line, and for the third one that is still a year or two away.

Then, late last month the Cooper-Hewitt museum announced that it had chosen a firm to oversee its expansion and that firm is — you guessed it — DS+R. And on the very same day, Columbia University published the renderings for its new medical and graduate education center in Washington Heights, designed, once again, by DS+R.

The proposed building, part of Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, will be a 14-story tower made possible by a lead gift from Dr. P Roy Vagelos and his wife, Diana. Located at Haven Avenue and 171st Street, the new building, like all of this firm’s work, is an energetic example of the deconstructivist style. Indeed, it is so deconstructed that the New York Times ran a piece with an image that it described as a “cutaway rendering,” that is, one from which the exterior was removed to reveal what was inside. But the next day, they ran a correction, informing the public that, in fact, that it was a view of the exterior all along. Even before the first girder is in place, the thing looks as though it is falling apart, intentionally, of course, with a syncopated mish-mash of levels and the appearance that an entire side of the structure has been torn away.

The results look to be far more arresting visually than they are functional, their grand strategy — as so often with this firm — being to call attention to the architectural act in itself. Even though the tangled asymmetries of the rendering strike this critic as ugly, and no less so for being intentionally ugly, they will certainly cry out for and receive the attention of pedestrians and those within.

The project is to start early next year and to take three and a half years to complete.

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