James Gardner — Mount Sinai: remade

The hospital's new Center for Science and Medicine shows up older neighbors

Jun.June 01, 2011 01:43 PM

Few blocks in Manhattan are changing as rapidly, or as fundamentally, as 102nd Street between Madison Avenue and Central Park, an area dominated by Mount Sinai Medical Center. The hospital, which currently occupies a superblock stretching from 98th to 102nd streets between Fifth and Madison avenues, has three simultaneous projects in the works. These include two striking, brand-new buildings that are eventful for the neighborhood: Mount Sinai’s new Center for Science and Medicine, a research building, and a 43-story residential tower at 4 East 102nd Street.

Together with the third project — a 16-story prewar rental building at 1212 Fifth Avenue that’s being converted into condos — the changes considerably improve the quality of the area’s building stock.

The hospital has something of a checkered architectural history: Until now, the entire length of Madison Avenue between 101st and 102nd streets had been given over to a drearily Rationalist postwar structure, two stories high — one half of it in white brick, the other in a two-toned lozenge pattern.

Why is it — we must ask in passing — that so many hospital wings of the postwar period seem to have been contrived with the express intention of inspiring despair in all who enter? Whatever one thinks of the hospital architecture that followed, either in the 1980s or today, surely it is far better than what was done before.

Still, the three Mount Sinai projects exhibit varying degrees of success.

4 East 102nd Street
A sketch of the research center and East 102nd Street tower (left), and the tower being built.
The preexisting brown-brick apartment building at 1212 Fifth Avenue was built by the developer Nathan Raisler in 1926. Mount Sinai acquired this property in the 1970s, and its current renovation and conversion is being undertaken by Durst Fetner Residential. The architectural firm involved is SLCE, while the interiors are to be designed by S. Russell Groves.

The conversion should improve — without greatly altering — the look of the neighborhood.

A far greater change is coming in the form of the two new buildings to the east. The high-rise at 4 East 102nd Street is destined to contain 230 luxury rentals, 20 percent of which will be affordable housing. The building is about eight months from completion but is almost at its full height, and enough of its cladding has been applied that we are in a position to offer a preliminary assessment of the project. (Note: correction appended).

At over 500 feet, this building will be one of the tallest on the Upper East Side. Even now, in its incomplete state, it is taller than anything for a mile around, including the Annenberg Building, the towering black Skidmore, Owings & Merrill monolith that houses the Mount Sinai Medical School.

There was controversy when the Annenberg Building arose, because of its great height, but even its impression may seem diminished next to its skyscraping neighbor. Already, the new building can be seen in isolation from miles away, a rarity for Manhattan, and the effect alters the Upper East Side skyline dramatically.

Designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the finished building will consist of a collage of five differentiated and interlocking zones, two of them fashioned from crème-colored cast stone, the other three from reflective window glass.

Doubtless the whole thing will look better when it is finished, but for now the place reeks of value engineering. The cast-stone surfaces feel slapped on, while the glass that makes up the rest of the façade seems to pucker in places. The cast stone at the base of the building is ill-suited to the glass, and the protruding strips of stone on the upper floors make little architectural or aesthetic sense. Even the shifting zones of the building look tired and uninspired.

Another (and better) addition to the skyline is the Center for Science and Medicine, on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 101st Street. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed building is all but complete on the outside.

The boxy nature of the building, which is much shorter than 4 East 102nd, diminishes the sense of just how large it is, but it rises to a height equal to that of the Guggenheim Pavilion to the south (designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and completed in 1992).

Scheduled for completion early next year, the 11-story building, like the Guggenheim Pavilion, emphatically asserts the integrity and seeming solidity of its walls.

Though a rendering seemed to suggest that windows would occupy more of the building’s surface, as realized they read more like the long and narrow windows of a medieval fortress. Each of these windows, like a double-height slit in the masonry walls, is made of glazed terra-cotta and has echoes in the cast-stone passages of the contiguous high-rise at 4 East 102nd, with which it will communicate.

The width of the windows varies, somewhat arbitrarily, from one floor to another and even within a given floor, but the overall effect is of pleasing and regimented order.

The generally tawny hue of the surface recalls that of the Guggenheim Pavilion, though it has none of the Postmodern perspectival tricks and historicist allusions that characterize Pei’s building. But the Center for Science and Medicine does seem to convey a strong sense of contextualism: The textured cladding and the slightly recessed windows all have a greater richness and resonance than one might expect from such a relentlessly geometrical design.

If one wanted an object lesson in how much better, in a general way, hospital architecture has become in recent years, it would not be unfair to compare the new Center for Science and Medicine with the hospital’s truly atrocious Klingenstein Pavilion, completed in 1952 by Kahn & Jacobs, two blocks south. This older, International Style building is little more than a rectangular box whose flattened surface is distinguished by nothing more than an unyielding monotony of strip windows alternating with layers of infill.

Granted, the Center for Science and Medicine is destined to be a research center rather than an in-patient hospital. But unlike its 60-year-old neighbor, it succeeds in conveying a sense of hope as well as history, and — even more important in a context like that of Mount Sinai — a sense of health and regeneration.


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