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Architecture to Envy, Art to Inspire

Belfer Research Building: Todd Schliemann on special exterior from Weill Cornell Medical College on Vimeo.

The Belfer Research Building

Weill Cornell's new Belfer Research Building is the architectural reflection of the medical college's vision for 21st century translational research. It's also an archetype for a green, high-rise laboratory facility — a rare structure in an urban setting like Manhattan.

"Can you believe this building?" enthused Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell. "It is magnificent. It is really beautiful. I get so excited just walking around and looking at this building because I can imagine it filled with senior researchers, filled with junior researchers, post-docs, graduate students and expanding our research enterprise so significantly."

From open and adaptable floor plans and airy stairwells that link every two floors together, to comfortable break rooms and transparent glass walls, the 18-story building is designed to break down research silos, encourage collaboration and elicit a sense of community. The $650 million, 480,000-square-foot facility took nearly four years to build.

"The idea is to create what we call 'productive collisions,'" said Todd Schliemann, who designed the building as a design partner for Ennead Architects. "We created opportunities for researchers to meet each other and discuss what they are doing. Research these days is necessarily interdisciplinary. There is a lot of cooperation within research teams, but we want the various teams to get together, as well."

Built by Tishman Construction, the building includes 16 above-ground floors — three public and 13 of laboratory space — as well as two research-support floors in the basement. Construction workers spent a year excavating 90 feet of rock called Manhattan Schist to build the basement floors.

"Laboratories aren't often done this way," Schliemann said. "To build a building this tall, especially in Manhattan, is unique."

By its very nature, high-impact research requires and consumes a significant amount of energy, Schliemann said, making a building that used sustainable materials, highly efficient mechanical systems and green construction to maintain energy stability a priority.

On the south side of the building, Ennead created a double-skinned, fritted glass curtain wall with openings and sun-shading devices that absorb

An airy stairwell links two floors together.

the sun's heat before it gets trapped inside, which would require air conditioners to pump out more cold air. Continuous ribbon windows flood the building with natural light, and energy-efficient HVAC, lighting control and water-conservation systems save on power and resources. The building's green infrastructure is expected to shrink Weill Cornell's energy bill by about 30 percent and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 26 percent compared to a building complying with the minimum requirements set by typical industry guidelines and standards. Weill Cornell is seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings, for the facility.

Nearly $400 million was gifted by more than 100 donors to support construction of the Belfer Research Building, including a $100 million gift from Robert and Renée Belfer, for whom the building is named. The building is designed to complement the adjacent Weill Greenberg Center, the medical college's National Healthcare Design Award-winning ambulatory care center, which was completed in 2007.

"Together with the Weill Greenberg Center, which is just next door, this building and that building form a kind of pairing, which begins to project the mission of Weill Cornell as a great urban medical college," Schliemann said.

Designing the Belfer Research Building was particularly meaningful for Schliemann, a 1979 Cornell University School of Architecture, Art and Planning graduate. Cornellians, he said, share a commitment to improving society.

"The advancements in science in this building will offer tremendous contributions to society and the future of mankind," he said. "It's a very, very inspirational time to be working on laboratories because the breakthroughs in science are exponential, and this building will give scientists a state-of-the-art vehicle to accomplish Weill Cornell's mission."

Invoking the Spirit of Discovery in Art

Belfer Research Building: Todd Schliemann on media wall from Weill Cornell Medical College on Vimeo.

Weill Cornell's media wall located inside the Belfer Research Building's main lobby Credit: Richard Lobell

Weill Cornell leaders set out to create an environment that was not just conducive to high-impact research, but was also warm, inviting and engaging. The building's artwork enhances that intention. Capital planning officials, longtime benefactor Mrs. Belfer and consultants spent months handpicking the art that will hang in the building's conference rooms, public spaces and hallways.

"On the one hand, we were looking for art that related to the spirit of discovery, that would be reminiscent of the kinds of images that are found during scientific research," said William Cunningham, Weill Cornell's campus architect. "But we were also looking for pieces for our informal spaces that that would offer some relief, be relaxing and restful and give a change of pace for people who are concentrating on their science all day."

The most prominent and high-profile works are a digital media wall in the lobby, and three installations from the late American artist Sol LeWitt, who helped pioneer Conceptualism and Minimalism as dominant movements of the 20th century.

The custom-made, animated and programmable digital media wall, designed by London-based multimedia firm Squint/Opera and visible from 69th Street, features thousands of LCD screens that project photos and text that highlight scientific discoveries at the medical college.

The first of two Sol LeWitt wall drawings found on the 12th floor of the Belfer Research Building. Credit: John Abbott

"It's intended to both to tell the story of the research that's going on in the building as well as honor the donors who made the building and medical research possible," Cunningham said.

LeWitt, whose father Abraham was a 1900 graduate of Weill Cornell Medical College, was an internationally acclaimed artist who conceived his wall drawings to be executed by other artists. Three artists spent two weeks at the Belfer Research Building in December executing two of those drawings — complementary isometric figures with red, yellow, gray and blue color ink washes, one color on each plane. The drawings are located on the 12th floor, which is dedicated to children's health research. A team of artists will spend six weeks in the spring installing a third wall drawing — visible from both inside and outside the building — in the stairwell between the second and third floors.

The LeWitt wall drawings on the 12th floor are on loan from the LeWitt family and estate, and the wall drawing on the second and third floors was gifted to Weill Cornell by the estate. Overseer Ronay Menschel and her husband Richard underwrote the installation of all of the LeWitt artwork.

Weill Cornell also commissioned original artwork from painter Isabel Bigelow, whose art will hang in seven lounges on upper building floors, and purchased art, prints and photographs from various artists that will hang across all floors.

"It is our hope at the medical college that viewers of these pieces not only find the works to be visually stunning," Dr. Glimcher said, "but also feel inspired to come up with the ideas that lead to future discoveries at the lab bench in this state-of-the-art research space."

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