New health building is not so black and white

Photo by Amir Sharif.

For roughly three years, while the new Yale Health Center on 55 Lock St. was being built, the only images publicized on the architect’s website were the handful of renderings showing an understated white building with smooth lines. But the building that appeared and began accepting overnight patients this weekend is black and jagged.

The exterior was not a surprise to the University, said David Cripe, the Yale Office of Facilities senior project manager in charge of the project. The renderings, Cripe added, were an artistic understanding of how the building would appear when finished — they were not meant to depict reality.

Artistic renderings of the recently completed Health Center, above, had little in common with its final exterior design, above.
Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects
Artistic renderings of the recently completed Health Center, above, had little in common with its final exterior design, above.

The surprises, though, lie within. The interior is an asymmetrical space marked by angled and uneven bridges and stairwells that provide unusual pathways throughout the building. Zigzagging internal windows cut through nonlinear walls and two four-story atriums. The initial impression is impressive but disorienting.

The new four-story building, designed by Atlanta-based firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, has all the furnishings of a cutting-edge health facility, with a cancer infusion center and MRI CT-scan capabilities. Already, the center is filling prescriptions and treating patients in need of urgent care. Starting next week, on Sept. 7, when the Student Medicine department is set to complete its move from 17 Hillhouse Ave., all students in need of medical attention will be sent to 55 Lock St., where they’ll find new equipment and new services — but in a rather peculiar setting, said Michael Rigsby, the medical director of Yale HEALTH.

“This is not an institutional-feeling building,” Rigsby said. “We wanted the new building to feel distinct.”

But the center’s irregular plan may prove to be a challenge for patients to navigate — a concern Rigsby acknowledged while winding through the corridors that lead between the practitioners’ offices in the eastern portion of the building.

He added that there isn’t much to be done to change the design of the building if it proves to be a navigational challenge, but the University would likely work to increase the signage to help guide patients.

“It’s not predictable,” Rigsby said. “I think we’ll have to wait and see.”

The designs were chosen through a closed competition, which included a submission from renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who designed the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. A panel of consultants — including both School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 and the school’s former dean Cesar Pelli — selected the plans. The winning design, Stern said, was chosen for its bold yet practical nature.

“It provides a very memorable expression,” Stern said of the design. “It’s a complete reimagining of the experience for the users, doctors and nurses in the building.”

Stern, whose New York-based arcihtecture firm is designing the new residential colleges, added that the new health center will direct students to a part of the campus that many are currently unfamiliar with — the area near Science Hill and the site of the new colleges.

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects declined to comment on the story.

A 370-car parking garage was built attached to the center, along with new offices for Yale Security. Rigsby noted that the move of Yale Security to the site, in addition to the presence of Yale University Police headquarters nextdoor, will help students feel safer trekking into unfamiliar territory.

“I’ve just been here all day looking at the building,” security officer James Murray said, sitting at the reception desk in the lobby of the building, located in the open central four-story atrium. “It’s something unique.”

The move to the new building is set to be completed by Sept. 13.

Correction, Sept. 1, 2010

The article “Not so black and white” mistakenly stated that the renderings on the architects’ website were the only ones available to the public during the construction process. Later renderings were on file at City Hall since 2007.


  • charlesroig

    “*The renderings … were an artistic understanding of how the building would appear when finished – they were not meant to depict reality?”* How many people out there find this completely ludicrous? If a rendering is not supposed to reflect reality, than it doesn’t need to exist. Let’s put a “poetic image” out there instead. Not to mention – the depiction isn’t even *close* to the finished product.

    I sense “The Emperor’s New Clothes” on this statement, like we are just supposed to believe it because it was said. With all of the out of work architects in the profession, I find it hard to believe that we can accept a ruse like this. It is predicted that the final users will find the building difficult to navigate. If we can’t design the building to work for the users, than we are creating sculpture.

  • AlanWilliamson

    I think the model warped during transport and they decided “What the heck, let’s build it.”

  • kissyface

    This article is extremely misleading. The rendering that is shown with this article is one of the early competition renderings-it is NOT one of the renderings used to to convey to the client what the building would look like. I have seen those renderings and they are nearly identical to what the completed building looks like-right down to the grass around the building. As for the wayfinding…there were numerous consultants on board throughout the projects development-including user groups supplied by the client. There is no ruse here-the Emperor is wearing the outfit that he paid for.

  • charlesroig

    You’re right; the article is misleading. I’m glad that the later renderings were identicle to the actual building. This does not, however, take away the absurdity of the statement.
    All we can do now is hope that the clients find their way around the building.