Rafael Viñoly faced a considerable challenge in his design for the new Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The Mission Bay campus masterplan, adopted in 1994, imposes exacting urban design guidelines that mandate simple (i.e., box-like) volumes, articulation into base, body, and top, sand colors, and wiry screens around penthouse exhaust stacks. So the test for the 163,000-square-foot structure wasn’t how to avoid gratuitous sculpture, but, rather, how to come up with a winning design, despite constraints that elsewhere on campus have led to a look I would characterize as Postmodern Beaux Arts.
Viñoly’s understanding of architecture is “how to shape program with form and not impose form on program.” His approach for his first building in Northern California was to work inside out, and craft its spaces—in the spirit of its program—as a research investigation. In the past, the systems-rich laboratories of medical research buildings were secluded, operating like expanded private offices. Of late, thinking in the field has acknowledged the benefits of both interdisciplinary collaboration and incidental encounters. While a cancer research building must include fixed laboratories, Viñoly carved most of the volume into what I’d call a spatial flow. On the four floors of laboratories, practically the only rooms that don’t participate in the movement of people and material are those offices along the eastern wall.
Circulation takes up the large central atrium. Staircases cascade up and down the five-story space, leading to wraparound corridors. From below, the monochrome underside of the stairways appeared to me like the floating hulls of ships. Laterally, the great, light-filled volume drew my eyes to a three-story sheet of glass and its panorama of the San Francisco skyline. The color-coded, wraparound corridors open onto exterior terraces and internal gathering spaces. They access elevator shafts and meeting rooms. They morph into cagier paths that lead past refrigerators, high-aspect ratio vessels, and rotating-wall bioreactors into the main event—the promenade through the laboratories, housed in one of the building’s two L-shaped wings.
On the window side off the promenade, individual laboratory alcoves swell into a continuous corridor, with row upon row of white-coated researchers, microscopes, centrifuges, racks of pipettes, and computer terminals. The transparency between work areas is made possible by extending the curved ceiling higher into a clerestory and dissolving partitions by routing conduits for electricity, gases, liquids, and other utilities through the same posts and beams that shape the alcoves and provide support for their shelves and tables. Fascinated with the cancer researchers and their creation of test environments to thwart the onset of malignancies, Viñoly saw, I believe, the laboratory spaces as the architectural expression of those dishes or tubes where cancer research takes place.
Unfortunately, the cancer research center is not open to the public and most of us must satisfy ourselves with the scabbard in which it rests. Here, as elsewhere in Mission Bay, design guidelines have obstructed the possibility of architecture communicating the work that takes place inside. Instead of an exterior that flows from interior moves, we’re presented with facades differentiated, as far as I could see, for the sake of differentiation. Mandated setbacks on the northern side, the campus’ gateway from downtown San Francisco, force a bit of variety out of the stolid mass, and result in a momentarily arresting sequence of projecting and receding planes of glass, travertine, and painted steel and aluminum.
Then it’s over. At ground level, because Mission Bay prohibits basements, mechanical services and their vents and blank walls block connectivity between street and building. I hardly noticed the gateway gesture at the northeast corner, where the word UCSF has been carved out of the travertine. It’s that uninspiring. Above, we’re treated to more travertine walls and more strip windows with sunshades, more thick-chested facade expression that reflects the university’s quixotic and misguided belief that design guidelines can elevate anonymous, bulky buildings into the realm of significant architecture.