As reported by The Hartford Courant, July 10, 2005.

Health Center's New Institute Makes Connection

By Michael J. Crosbie

The new Musculoskeletal Institute at the University of Connecticut's Health Center in Farmington is an excellent example of how a building can respond to its local setting without sacrificing its identity.

Architects typically choose one of two paths in designing a building. They can be slavish contextualists, modeling their building after the one next door, or down the block, which might result in the new architecture never having its own genuine identity. Or, architects design something that is wholly self-referential - oblivious of the context, the architecture nearby, or the inter-relationships between buildings and uses around it.

Few buildings are entirely of one category. Most of the well-known icons of architecture fall into the latter category, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York, which seems to exist totally outside the context of Manhattan. There is nothing like it in the city, and its unique spiral form would be out of place anywhere. In contrast, the castle-like buildings on the Yale campus designed in the 1920s and '30s by James Gamble Rogers are entirely contextual, responding primarily to the idea of creating an American Oxbridge in the venerable collegiate Gothic tradition of academic architecture.

The new UConn building, designed by James Tilghman of AHSC Architects of Tarrytown, N.Y., combines the best of both categories. It is highly contextual in the way it responds to the campus and the building's location in its master plan, but it is also memorable as an icon, unlike any building nearby.

The Musculoskeletal Institute, which opened in June, is already a focal point of the health center campus. A master plan created a few years ago considered growth and expansion to the north of the gargantuan, concrete, bunker-like main building, which looms over I-84. The new building is at the center of the new campus plan, on a site that slopes down to the north from the main building toward a wetlands area.

Part of the new four-story building's function is to serve as a link from the upper campus to the lower campus, and it does this by providing pedestrian routes via a bridge, a ramp and stairs. One can follow the ramp down the site, or navigate the changes in level through the building itself, via an interior stair that hugs the new building's east wall. People circulating up or down this slope can move through the building without disrupting any of the activities housed there, which include research (on the fourth floor), clinical facilities (third floor), the Farmington Surgery Center (second floor), and diagnostic imaging and rehab (first floor).

From the north end of campus, the new building reaches out to you, literally, with a deep canopy and a four-story glass wall. You catch your first glimpse of the building as you enter the campus from the northwest off of Farmington Avenue. The building's geometry accentuates its height and the 20-foot-deep overhang. The architects made this corner of the building less than a 90-degree right angle, which visually exaggerates the building's height and the angle of the overhanging roof, which does not actually tilt up, although it appears to. It's a very clever trick for attracting attention, which is exactly what the building needs to do to flag down first-time visitors.

Another dramatic feature is the glassy lobby, which extends 120 feet across the building's front as it faces the wetlands. According to the designers, the 58-foot-tall lobby was a way to bring the outside inside, and from the interior the trees and plants appear as a green wall.

The lobby itself is alive with color and movement. Tilghman describes it as a "wall-in-motion," a layered, fractured, carved composition of abstracted arms, elbows, legs, knees, and feet moving through the lobby. Here, the building's function as a setting for research and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders becomes the highly appropriate context for an inventive architectural response. The lobby wall appears to be marching along, captured in a time-lapse photograph, recalling the images of Eadweard Muybridge or Marcel Duschamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase." Tilghman says his design was also influenced by the drawings and paintings suggesting movement of the Italian Futurists of the early 20th century.

At night, the lobby wall glows with concealed fluorescent lights tucked in its alcoves, and also with spotlights hung from the glass wall structure that accentuate the wall's joints as they change plane and direction. This curtain of light and color (various shades of yellow) becomes a beacon at the health center, marking the new heart of the campus in its service to physicians, researchers and patients.