Project The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School Health Learning Building
Client The University of Texas at Austin
Design Team Daniel Brooks, AIA; Ginny Chilton, AIA; James Gonin, AIA; Larry Speck, FAIA; Josh Coleman, AIA; Matthew Leach, AIA; Janet Zeitler, AIA; Ryan Losch, AIA; Randy Twedt; Breanne Hanson; Adam LaRue; Robert E. Burke, Assoc. AIA
Photographer Dror Baldinger, AIA
On a toasty, blue-skied day, the sweeping views from the top floor of The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School Health Learning Building provide a new perspective on a city constantly in motion — much of it vertical. Austin is growing up before our very eyes, stepping into its 21st-century future with a bold and optimistic vision. The Texas capital as ground zero, as hub, as innovator, now includes a new medical district for UT, appropriately the first new medical school to be built from the ground up at a tier-one research university in the U.S. in 50 years.
Designed by the Austin office of Page with The S/L/A/M Collaborative, the Health Learning Building of the Dell Medical School is the central focus of this new district, which comprises a new Seton hospital and two future medical education buildings — dubbed the Health Transformation and Health Discovery Buildings. The optimistic nomenclature offers a clue about the DNA of the district’s deeply intertwined architectural and pedagogic missions, a definite out-with-the-old approach that seeks to change the way doctors learn and interact with patients, each other, and the community. Larry Speck, FAIA, Page senior principal in charge of design, plugged into the school’s mission from the start. “The Dell Medical School motto, ‘Rethink Everything,’ pretty much describes how they wanted to approach the design of both the district and the building with a focus on inter-professional education and collaboration among members of a broad community of healthcare colleagues. The idea of the ‘lone wolf’ medical student working in an individualistic, competitive environment was anathema from the beginning,” he says.
The Learning Building itself presents an understated public south face, almost residential in scale and character, to the crosstown arterial traffic on 15th Street, while conceptually embracing the University of Texas material traditions of limestone and terra cotta. Walls in solid Armadillo Cordova cream Texas limestone — the same stone used on all UT buildings for 80 years — get a new treatment here. Page worked with Continental Cut Stone in Florence, Texas, to create unique trapezoid-shaped stones — more than 10,000 of them — using an automated milling machine purchased by the contractor specifically for this job. The machine worked around the clock seven days a week for more than nine months to produce the custom pieces with their delicately curved edges. Most eye-catching on the south face, they lend a distinctly streamlined and dynamic interpretation of UT vernacular — tradition transformed by new technology. Delicate edges and meticulous installation required a few mock-ups to get right, as the shadows that the pattern projects magnify any imperfections. Terra cotta fins delineate punched windows and further assert the UT connection. These fins and a simplified version of the trapezoidal stone will be common to all three buildings, unifying the ensemble.
A two-story cantilevered glass box floating four floors above the traffic at the building’s northwest corner is the only hint that something else is afoot, and indeed, it’s the north where the building opens up via a structural silicon glazing system that both dazzles and intrigues. A courtyard dotted with that most University of Texas of landscapes — eight heritage Live Oak trees — acts as a buffer between the north and the more frenetic pace of the southern edge. Here the building rises, transparent, revealing its inner workings to the world. Its panels, placed horizontally to emphasize the views to the courtyard and the length of the building are interspersed Mondrian-like with terra cotta rectangles that mirror the limestone facade’s fins. From here, views of the building bring to mind an oversized anthill, its inhabitants visible as they move through the space and go about the work at hand. A seven-ton, 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a conch shell by British artist Marc Quinn entitled “Spiral of the Galaxy” gives the courtyard a contemplative character from which to observe the activity. Gone is the imposing institutional monolith, keeping its secrets behind small windows and closed doors. This is a place of collaboration and openness, a hive of learning.
The notion of encouraging social function in the academic realm through architecture has taken a firm hold in the interdisciplinary sciences, fostering cross-pollination among scientists who previously might have preferred to shut themselves away in their offices. The Health Learning Building’s five-story cantilevered staircase, the dominant feature visible from the courtyard, creates a dramatic social edge that serves as both architectural and philosophical backbone. “Going to and from almost any activities in the building, you pass through the social edge and see someone you know working, meeting, and discussing cool ideas,” says Speck. “It has become a hotbed of interesting interaction among smart, committed people.” Dubbed “Dell Mountain,” the stair is a social hub, fitness motivator, and manifestation of the school’s open, progressive, and ascendant curriculum. Building users keep tabs on how many times they climb it in a day or a week, and with the outside community seemingly just within arm’s reach, it keeps the town and gown connection present and always front-of-mind. Vertical and horizontal movement and sightlines create the sense that the building is alive, its structural anatomy revealed in the layers of planes and apertures that offer glimpses of activity above and below.
Building the school from the ground up and integrating the curriculum directly with the architecture presented a unique opportunity. Sue Cox, M.D., executive vice dean for academics and chair of Medical Education, and one of the first administrators to lead the school, assembled a committee of UT faculty from 13 colleges across disciplines, as well as community members — a total of 250 people — to help develop the school’s comprehensive vision. She recalls: “We were able to design the building that would serve the curriculum needs and student needs best,” says Cox, who traveled with Speck to visit other facilities with flexible learning spaces and so-called social edges. “We saw rooms that people said worked, but students were just sitting there. They weren’t engaged. Here, we have a sense of community; people call each other by name in the hall and you always encounter people in the building.”
The stair moves people easily and logically through the building’s main functions. The ground floor is home to the cafe and a large auditorium with flexible seating configurations, designed to support team-based learning, is home to public functions. The second and fifth floors house admissions and faculty and the administration sandwiching the student domain on the third and fourth floors, the heart of the building. Cox says: “Putting the students in the middle meant they could go up easily to anatomy and the multipurpose room for training around mannequins and other kinds of trainings, and down to student affairs on the second floor. Students are the hub.” The third floor houses the two student societies, which become the students’ medical school home for their four years. Each society (currently made up of 25 students) has a shared casual lounge space with kitchen facilities — a living room to find relaxation, with sliding glass panels to cordon the society off from the social edge. However, Speck says: “I have never been here when the doors were closed. It really becomes a part of the social edge.”
Along the southern edge, smaller group rooms “belong” to five students each, who share a room where they can work together and across disciplines with the already-established nursing and pharmacy programs; study; or even catch a nap.
Clinical spaces, special teaching, and the anatomy lab are on the fourth floor. The team originally planned for digitized anatomy tables — a kind of oversized iPad with virtual representation of the human body — but students asked for actual cadavers. “We were told over and over again how integral it is — essentially a medical school rite of passage,” Page principal and design lead Josh Coleman, AIA, says, and as a result the lab — typically housed in the basement for privacy requirements and expediency of moving cadavers to and from it — is on the fourth floor, surrounded by natural light and views of life happening outside. Although privacy laws dictate that shades are closed when students are working, natural light and views filter through.
The top floor houses the dean’s offices, including a south-facing terrace that runs the length of the building, and a large boardroom that offers panoramic views of the UT football stadium and the Texas State Capitol, abiding reminders of the community the school serves, and “arguably the two most important buildings in the state,” jokes Coleman.
Page also selected and designed the furniture, including a bespoke reception desk made of wood salvaged from a pecan tree that was taken from the Seton hospital site across the street. This further aligns the architecture with the intended mix of space uses. Ginny Chilton, Page senior associate and project manager, says: “We imagine how people might use programmed rooms and the connecting spaces, and this drives a large part of the architectural design. We design the furnishings to support people’s activities and the flexibility and function of the architecture.” Indeed, students move in, around, and through the building, using terraces for study and the stairs for meetings and chance encounters, accommodating the way kids today move seamlessly between the realms of work and play. Learning happens anywhere and anytime, the architectural response to our new way of living in a fully connected world.
Students are already active in the community, which, after all, helped fund the new medical district though a 2012 bond election. The school has clinical partnerships with local hospitals, community care, and VA clinics, and students are already active in a free clinic in the city and will have a footprint throughout all of Austin through community and primary care rotations.
The building is on track to achieve LEED Gold status, thanks in part to the advantages of its siting and north-facing glass, which make it very energy efficient. The entire district is governed by a Sustainable Sites Initiative rating system. Still nascent and emergent, the district completely transforms this eastern sector of downtown. Once the domain of parking lots and the Frank Erwin Center’s blank walls, it is becoming a dense and walkable area that expands UT’s campus footprint all the way to the I-35 corridor. The project required realigning Red River to Austin’s original Waller grid, which embraces Waller Creek to the west and will infuse this section of that urban green space project with new life. Across the street to the south, the Brackenridge tract will be reimagined into mixed use and high-density development, completing the district’s transformation.
Canan Yetmen is a writer based in Austin.