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An Architectural Balancing Act

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When I caught news of Columbia University's new medical building projected for 2013, I couldn’t help but think about the interesting balance of art and utility.

Dubbed by the New York Observer as the “craziest building in Harlem, if not the entire city,” this structure, planned to be viewable from both the George Washington Bridge and Riverside Park, already has people talking. Was it the right decision for Columbia to go with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro for this job, which will be the firm’s first ever vertical project of this type? Or should Columbia have been more modest and simple in their choice of design?

When designing a hospital, for instance, the architect must address and solve programmatic and technical requirements while creating a building with a sense of place that is nurturing, beautiful and as easy to navigate as possible (i.e. does not rely exclusively on signage). The best thought for an architect to keep in mind is that the occupants are patients and caretakers (including patients' family and friends) -- not art or architectural critics.

But even if the patient were an artist or designer (and by chance at enough leisure to contemplate the building's merit) they would likely admit they prefer to recuperate or receive therapy in a place that is comfortable, familiar, ordered, and beautiful rather than try to decipher their favorite architect's brilliant glass sculpture. Perhaps they could better enjoy these in a state of full health and with the mental agility generally needed to understand and appreciate such artistic forms.

Columbia’s building is a student medical building rather than a hospital, but it still makes me wonder if they’ve struck the right balance for physicians-in-training and patients under their care.

Readers, what do you think? Does your college, university or workplace have modern architecture such as this? If so, did you find it helpful to your studying and work experience, or otherwise?

Photograph of the New York Observer.

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Rachael Maricich

chill out music