There’s a lot going on inside the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Neurosciences Building at the University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) Mission Bay campus from moment to moment.
Patients struggling with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other mental disorders talk to caregivers in a bank of exam rooms or in the MRI room. Relatives can be on site or by teleconference to participate in treatment decisions. Administrators type on desks in light-filled offices, while others give presentations in corner meeting rooms. Teams of scientists and researchers stationed in wet and dry labs on floors 3, 4 and 5 are working on cures, sometimes late into the weekend. People line the wood-paneled atrium, a much nicer space than you might expect in a clinical or research facility, where on some nights a donor dinner or charity event might take place. Those looking for a well-deserved break climb the stairs to the top-floor cafe and rooftop terrace or other clustered social spaces on the west side of the building, where mixing is encouraged.
Much, but not all (patient privacy is obviously taken into account), of this activity is visible, whether to peers or other visitors to UCSF, particularly in the early evening when the hub, in the words of its architect, Mark Cavagnero, “comes totally alive.
Stunning transparency characterizes the 181,500 square foot LEED v4 Gold-certified building, whose intricate program complements those of the Sandler Neurosciences Center and Rock Hall, which are also dedicated to the exploration and treatment of brain disorders. The other research laboratories and treatment facilities that form the premier UCSF Medical Center lean, in their architectural attitude, toward involution. In contrast, the Weill Neurosciences Building is outgoing, revealing in its attitude what others hide.
“The rest of the campus was designed with more traditional lab spaces,” Cavagnero said, “where everything was kind of isolated and there was no control from the outside sun, so everyone had their blinds down and there is no daylight for seekers.”
According to Cavagnero, lead donor Sanford I. Weill, a former head of Citigoup, tasked him with finding a “cutting-edge” architectural solution that meets the needs of multiple users and stakeholders and also has iconographic value. The exact meaning of “avant-garde” was left to the architect. In explaining his concept, he reached for ethereal analogies, the most material of which was Japanese origami. “The idea of making science appear light, not heavy and obtuse, really appealed to me,” he said. “I wanted the building to feel like it was about lightness itself. This concept of light being hope.
But given the project’s corner site, which offers primary southern and western exposures, and the heavy use of glazing, an invitation to daylight could soon be missed. Various strategies have been implemented to alleviate this concern. The upper volumetry, for its part, results in a deeply shaded arcade. The first two floors, containing the clinical spaces and their waiting rooms, are set back from the property line, joined by the upper floors, held in height by concrete columns.
To protect these upper floors, the design team, which included local SmithGroup office and facade consultancy Walters & Wolf, among others, designed a prophylactic metal screen that preserved the desired transparency. Tidy white aluminum blades suspended from glass facades deter heat gain while adding visual interest: depending on its approach, an elevation can appear opaque or clear, prompting the viewer to “begin to read form and abstraction in a new way,” Cavagnero said.
The metal blades are “the main focus of the building’s clean exterior expression,” said Jon Riddle, Principal Architect at SmithGroup. The description agrees with Cavagnero’s references to origami; the resemblance comes into play in the upper register, where the corners of the inclined attic volumes (separated by a gallery) are raised like butterfly wings. Riddle also compared the precise manipulation of the exteriors with the “precision healing that happens on the inside, where computer modeling and analysis is used to really target the area that needs treatment.”
The same philosophy has inspired the design of the interiors, which are flush with warm, natural materials, in particular the widespread use of sycamore. Wood paneling is found in all manner of spaces, including exam rooms, although it is most widely used in the full-height atrium. Lining the rear walls and soffits, the sycamore enlivens the expansive room, especially during the day, when it is bathed in daylight falling through the central skylights and west facade. Durable marble from a small quarry in the south of France covers the floor, a finish that would be cost prohibitive for most installations of this type.
“The quality of these finishes was really driven by the donor, who wanted more hospitality,” said Suzanne Napier, vice president of SmithGroup, “and they really go throughout the building, from top to bottom, to the inside and outside.”
Something telling happens around the corner of the atrium. The walls of a fire rated stair core are partially glazed so that light can reach them. This visibility, counter-intuitive from a functional point of view, also makes the stairs more attractive for all the main users of the building. It’s an elegant summary of the project’s goals, Cavagnero said. “The underlying message was that nothing is happening here behind closed doors. We are all chasing the same dream. We are all trying to find the same remedies here in this wonderful new environment together.