Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, on the edge

The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. Photo by Max Touhey.

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.)

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.