Harper Center Architect Speaks About U of C Hospital Project
By Anne Panek '14 | october, 2012, Issue 2
The architect of the Harper Center, Rafael Viñoly, returned to campus on October 8 to showcase his newest creation: the University of Chicago Center for Care and Discovery (aka, the medical center). A presentation and panel discussion were held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts.
Originally from Uruguay, Viñoly studied architecture at the University of Buenos Aires before moving to New York City to establish his own firm in 1983. Now at a young 68, Viñoly cuts a figure that is hard to miss, in tight black trousers and sporting two pairs of eyeglasses around his neck and another on his head. Unsurprisingly, he has a distinctive presentation style, injecting dry humor into anecdotes about the multi-year project and his experiences with University of Chicago administration. Praising the school for its remarkable "sense of accessibility and discussion that does not refer to authority," he also adds that "U of C was the first hospital that didn't give a damn about [having] an atrium," which drew some awkward laughs from the audience.
Scheduled to open in January, 2013, the new hospital building touts a deceptively simple floorplan that includes separate activity paths for practitioners and visitors, as well as operating and treatment rooms designed to easily adapt to advances in medical technology. Its defining feature is a "sky lobby" on the seventh floor, which appears to horizontally split the building. This floor contains public spaces that are typically found on ground level, such as a reception area, waiting rooms, cafeteria, and garden. Patient rooms are located on the three top floors of the structure. By design, the level of the seventh story matches the horizon of the tallest buildings on campus to allow for an optimal view of the surrounding area and the downtown. Per Viñoly, the design is highly functional, with "nothing to do with utopia or the avant-garde."
Viñoly's designs often mirror the physical environment that surrounds a structure, even when it contains competing styles. The Harper Center, which opened in 2004, is an example of this temperate hybrid. Its strong, linear external construction reflects Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, its neighbor to the north, while the tall arching columns of the inner Winter Garden credit the Collegiate Gothic style of the Rockefeller Chapel, located to the west. "It happened to be between two critical buildings [Rockefeller and Robie]. It was a completely different site than the hospital and needed a sense of unity and integration." Viñoly completed his presentation with a final commendation to the university for its willingness to explore new architectural forms: "Not that it couldn't happen anywhere else - it didn't happen anywhere else."