At 170th Street in Manhattan, concrete slabs march up the Bard-Haven Towers, three 30-storey student residences overlooking the Hudson River. The pattern of their familiar off-white silhouettes provided a theme for the bold variations of their new neighbour, the Vagelos Education Center.

Located at the northern edge of the Columbia University Medical Center, the project is the latest realized work of local architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, designed in collaboration with Gensler. On the north side of the building, thin horizontal panels of glass fibre reinforced concrete trace each floor plate; a fritted-glass curtain wall hangs between them. The façade recalls the plain horizontal stripes of the residential towers to the west, while suggesting a fundamentally different structure.

It’s this end of the building that houses specialized programmes requiring uninterrupted floor space: labs, classrooms, simulation suites, etc. Follow the floor plates to the south façade, though, and you can see them bending, breaking and even connecting to form closed loops. As the floors and ceilings transform on this side of the building, they open and deflect from the horizontal, creating a less conventional space for the facility’s more flexible functions.

The designers call this part of the high-rise a ‘study cascade’. It’s a single space, unbroken over the full 14-storey height of the building and served by a circuitous open stair that lends access to various areas for informal study. Students and faculty – just beginning to occupy the building – will circulate, settle and ultimately decide whether the ‘cascade’ is too unprogrammed for its own good, but the vertical expanse of shared air and a warm consistent palette of materials and colours (a predominance of orange!) give the impression of a coherent space, even from outside.

Location 104 Haven Avenue, New York City, New York

Article originally published in Mark magazine issue #65