Approaching the new Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center from the jumble of hulking facilities in Upper Manhattan that make up the Columbia University Medical Center, the first thing that comes into view is the tower’s attention-grabbing south elevation. Its 14 stories of canted planes, transparent glass, and projecting boxes offer a striking counterpoint to both the sprawling medical complex—which includes Columbia’s teaching hospital, New York Presbyterian—and the surrounding low-scale but dense Washington Heights neighborhood.

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Though initially it might seem like a gratuitous formal exercise, the surprising assemblage is the exterior expression of a dynamic stair that snakes up one side of the building. Dubbed the “study cascade” by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR), which designed the medical school academic building with executive architect Gensler, this element rises from a stepped plaza. As it ascends, it expands and contracts to create atrium-like spaces that Elizabeth Diller, DSR partner in charge of the project, refers to as “destinations” or “neighborhoods.” These include areas of tiered seating, glass-enclosed meeting rooms, open gathering spaces, and outdoor terraces where medical students can socialize, study, or relax while taking in the views of the city or the Hudson River with the steep cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades beyond. From the street, the zigzagging circulation route is especially visible once the sun sets and the illuminated interiors begin to glow.

The 110,000-square-foot building’s tower configuration, with a 12,500-square-foot footprint at the base that slims to 6,000 feet on the upper floors, is the result of squeezing all the required instructional and administrative space into the allowed zoning envelope. The cascade, meanwhile, is a response to the urban medical center’s dearth of amenities and public space, says DSR’s project director Anthony Saby. The vertical path, and the specialized facilities it winds past—including a state-of-the-art anatomy lab and a 275-seat auditorium—occupy about 50 percent of the trapezoidal floor plates. The education center’s northern half has a more typical organization. It is a straightforward stack of offices, classrooms, and high-tech simulation rooms where students perfect their skills on sophisticated whole-body mannequins.

Glazing wraps the four sides of the education center, while the limited areas of protruding structure are delineated by glass fiber reinforced concrete cladding. Although the more conventional half is enclosed behind a unitized curtain wall incorporating a frit pattern that mitigates solar gain and conceals the interior to varying degrees, the south end’s glazing system is quite different. To maximize transparency, its mullionless skin is made up of low-iron insulated glazing units supported by glass fins, some of which are as tall as 27 feet. 

Achieving this transparent, taut skin, however, was not straightforward and required structural gymnastics, says Matthew Melrose, an associate partner at Leslie E. Robertson Associates, the project’s structural engineer. To allow unobstructed views through the glass skin, the columns at the south end of the building—two muscular elements cast in high-strength architectural concrete and sloped to create a 65-foot clear span at the auditorium—are pulled away from the perimeter, producing floors that cantilever as much as 26 feet. And to limit deflection, especially where the slabs meet the all-glass facade, the design team combined voided slabs with post-tensioning. According to Melrose, the Vagelos Center is one of only a handful of U.S. projects to deploy weight-saving void formers (hollow plastic balls embedded in the concrete) and the country’s first to use them in conjunction with post-tensioning.

Although the unusual slab system is invisible to occupants, they are aware of the long spans, the unencumbered floors, and sloping walls and ceilings that it makes possible. The forms that result from this adventurous structure possess an almost restless energy. But a color scheme of earthy reds, including burnt sienna–stained Douglas fir paneling and end-grain floors, combined with cool grays that highlight the hue of the exposed concrete structure, help create a calm interior that is well suited to intense focus and concentration. 

In some places, the meeting of these many different materials and angled surfaces is not well resolved. But for the most part, DSR deals with the multitude of finishes and challenging geometry skillfully and inventively. Desk-height work surfaces supported by the sloping columns or extending under stairs offer one example. They project from the structural elements like diving boards, rendering areas with limited headroom usable.

On a recent early autumn afternoon, the cascade was a hub of activity: several students were seated with their laptops at the cantilevered work surfaces, others scribbling notes on a meeting room whiteboard, and a few were lounging in the tiered seating areas. The buzz is evidence that the education center has lived up to its ambitions. And, in demonstrating that social and collaboration spaces are just as necessary for training future physicians as laboratories and classrooms, the project offers a new model for medical schools. It also shows—through the use of bold forms and inviting spaces—how these institutions can energize their often bleak campuses with a strong architectural identity.



Diller Scofidio + Renfro
601 W 26TH ST. 1815 NYC 10001
T: 212 260 7971
F: 212 260 7924


Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:

Partner-in-Charge: Elizabeth Diller
Principal Designers: Ricardo Scofidio AIA, Charles Renfro AIA, Benjamin Gilmartin AIA
Project Director: Anthony Saby
Project Architect: Chris Hillyard, AIA
Design Team: Chris Andreacola AIA, David Chacon AIA, Christopher Kupski AIA LEED AP, Barak Pliskin AIA LEED AP, Kevin Rice AIA, Gerard Sullivan AIA, Mary Broaddus, Charles Curran,Robert Donnelly, Amber Foo, Yoon-Young Hur, Joshua Jow, Andreas Kostopoulos, Joseph Dart Messick, Patrick Ngo, Matt Ostrow, Stefano Paiocchi, Jesse Saylor, Jack Solomon, Hallie Terzopolos, Elizabeth Wisecarver


Architect of record: Gensler: Principal-in-Charge: Madeline Burke-Vigeland AIA, LEED AP  Project Manager: Kristian Gregerson AIA  Technical Director: Ambrose Aliaga-Kelly AIA  Design Team: Joanne Fernando AIA, Jinho Kim AIA, Michelle Neary AIA, Bill  DuBois, Ana Espejo, Mariano Ortiz, Henry Hong RA, Scott Wilson AIA


Engineers: Structural: Leslie E. Roberston Associates (LERA)
MEP: Jaros Baum & Bolles (JB&B)
Civil / Geotechnical: Thornton Tomasetti, Weidlinger Transportation Practice



Landscape: SCAPE/Landscape Architecture
Curtain Wall: Buro Happold Consulting Engineers P.C.
Lighting: Tillotson Design Associates
Acoustic / Audio / Visual: Cerami & Associates, Inc.
Building Code: Milrose Consultants, Inc.
Elevator: Jenkins & Huntington, Inc. (JHI)
Graphic Design: 2x4 and Gensler
Security and IT: Jaros Baum & Bolles (JB&B)
Sustainability: Vidaris Inc.
Foodservice: Cini-Little International, Inc.


General contractor:

FJ Sciame Construction Co., Inc.


Owner's Representative:

Group PMX



Iwan Baan, Nic Lehoux 



Structural System

Site-formed reinforced concrete vertical core and post-tensioned, reinforced concrete slabs with embedded structural steel

Void formers: Cobaix USA

Exterior Cladding

Metal panels: IMETCO
Metal Screen: Bilfinger (formerly Johnson Screens)

Metal/glass curtain wall: Josef Gartner / Permasteelisa Group

Glass fiber reinforced concrete: David Kucera Inc.

Wood composite: Tru Grain (Resysta)

Glass fin curtain wall: Gartner
unitized curtain wall: Permasteelisa North America

Exterior glass: BGT (BGT Bischoff Glastechnik AG)


Exterior glass: BGT (BGT Bischoff Glastechnik AG)


Entrances: Blumcraft / C.R.Laurence

Interior Finishes

Demountable partitions: Clipper Wall

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Legere Group
Wood veneer: Bohlke

Wall coverings: Twenty2 - custom digital print wall paper

Paneling: Legere Group

Floor and wall tile: Daltile - Restrooms, Food service areas

Carpet: Bentley [and others]


Interior ambient lighting: Custom fixtures: 1212 Studio

Downlights: Prescolite, Gammalux

Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron


Elevators/escalators: TEI Group