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Rockefeller University's South Campus: A Vortex of Knowledge, Healing and Connection


To maximize this formerly disparate space, the unusable lobby roof was transformed into a dramatic overlook terrace with Balsley's sculptural Vortex shade structures adding human scale to the brutal architectural background.

How does one convey the spiritual intensity of the vast gathering of knowledge that is core to the greatest research facility in the world? How does one create a space in which Nobel Laureates, pre-eminent scientists and brilliant students can mingle and draw the energy to solve some of mankind's greatest problems? What are the icons that would represent all this while at the same time encouraging even greater heights of thought and achievement?

Those were the design questions that were ultimately answered in Thomas Balsley's work on the Peggy Rockefeller Plaza on Rockefeller University's south campus. Founded 100 years ago on York Avenue and 64th Street in New York City, Rockefeller University is one of the preeminent medical research and learning institutions in the world. In the late 1970s, two towers enlarged the southern end of the campus by almost 70-percent, leaving useless, barren leftover plaza space between them. The majority of campus classrooms and lab space, plus the cafeteria, are located in the adjacent towers, requiring the plaza to serve as an "educational agora" for general foot traffic, events, lunchtime dining and intimate moments. However, little attention was paid to this important landscape or the significant role it could play as a new locus of campus activity. Two decades later, the Bass family sponsored a pedestrian bridge linkage from the residential towers and then conducted an invited design competition to transform this space into a new setting for campus social life.


Rockefeller University stands as an urban oasis of lush vegetation in Manhattan where nineteenth-century architecture and 1950s modernist interventions--Including gardens and allees by Dan Kiley--are brought into a harmonious relationship.

Thomas Balsley's challenge was to exploit the assets of the space with its wonderful unobstructed window onto the East River, a building space that allowed sunlight, and its agora qualities that were reinforced by its proximity to the main cafeteria and the residential component of the university. Its negative aspect was the chopped-up, neglected nature of the space - including five different levels over mechanical rooms and computer labs - that demanded a strong, unifying element. In addition, Balsley wanted to incorporate the themes developed by Dan Kiley, the pre-eminent landscape architect who designed the landscape for the north campus in the late 1950s.

The architecture of the north campus, where Dan Kiley did his work, was a combination of early 20th century modern and turn of the century classical. This landscape--formally planned trees, abstractly designed fountains and planting beds--was created to be one with the architecture. It succeeded beautifully, providing a juxtaposition of modern architecture and modern landscaping.


The skylight to the lobby below was transformed into a glass floor for the sunny overlook cafe to which students and faculty now flock to enjoy expansive river and bridge views and to take in the fresh breezes.

"The basic difficulty with the south campus lay in the surrounding brutalistic architecture with its tall, inhuman, modern, bland buildings," says Balsley. "They were built in the 1960s early 1970s and didn't take into account the way they connected the ground or the immense importance of this piece of the campus. What was inherited was a horrible afterthought of a space that had absolutely no social value to the student or faculty population. Yet it happened to fall in one of the very important crossroads on campus."

Residential units are further to the south. Many students and faculty come through the space headed to class and just as importantly, to the main cafeteria for the whole university located at the base of one of the buildings. The traffic is heavy morning, noon, dinnertime and late evenings, and there had to be a thoughtful way of connecting them.


Designed by Thomas Balsley, the vortex sculptures create constantly shifting and changing shadows and patterns on the ground in both moonlight and sunlight.

A whirling mass of air, fire, liquid, etc., which draws with irresistible power. A whirling or circular motion that tends to form a cavity or vacuum in the circle and to draw towards this cavity or vacuum bodies subject to its action. A situation regarded as drawing into its center all that surrounds it.

This was an invited design competition and Kiley, along with many others, was invited to participate in submitting designs that would interconnect the five major components to the space. Taking inspiration from the geometric material and lush landscape character found in Dan Kiley's North campus landscape, Balsley's design moves seamlessly from one level to another while also connecting the past to the present and to future.

The entire space of the south campus is smack in the middle of the city, and for the most part, surrounded by four buildings. "River views were a tremendous asset," says Balsley. "But there was never a place where you'd know there was a river--a major river--out there. Dan Kiley's landscape for the north campus was an internal one, and now the new design gave us an opportunity to incorporate and accentuate the great riverfront setting the university commands."


The contemplative Gingko tree grove's circular form mediates the disparate architectural surroundings and geometry, and a low circular granite wall of water slots and a water channel defines the grove and frames the carpet of stone-dust pavement.

The slab roof of the laboratory building's lobby used to be inaccessible. A raised skylight provided light into the lobby. In the new design, the skylight was transformed into a glass floor. That not only made the roof accessible and part of the entire space, but also by doing so, they improved the connections from the north campus into this space. One of the important circulation patterns moving south comes out onto this roof level--and suddenly onto this river overlook. Stairs were provided down to cafeteria, making connections where previously there were none. The glass floor was one of the solutions that maintained the natural light levels to the lobby, while at the same time providing a gathering space.

A very important component is the river overlook terrace with a cafe area and extraordinary views. Two sculpture elements called the Vortex provide circular elements that mirror the gingko grove on the next level down.


Architectural elements such as canopies and trellises provide sheltered areas through the space and are complemented with the two unexpected sculptural follies at the upper terrace cafe, which serve as foreground elements to the tall buildings. These provocative sculptures point to the sky as collectors of knowledge.

Designed by Balsley to serve as shade structures as well, these sculpture elements provide a foil for the large over-scale tower behind them, and help with the view from the lower level while also bringing the overlook terrace into a pedestrian scale. Philosophically, the Vortex powerfully imparts the concept of pulling ideas from the sky and depositing them within the purview of the researchers. "Because the University is one of the pre-eminent research facilities in the world, with so many Nobel Prize winners and medical breakthroughs, the Vortex perfectly exemplifies this great gathering of knowledge," Balsley explained.

Central to both levels is the contemplative Gingko grove with its circular fountain around which, on that level, is the birch allee and the large folded lawn used for performances and celebration. Gingko trees were chosen because they're hardy uprights and Balsley didn't want trees that would create a huge canopy. He wanted as much sunlight as possible because sunlight extends the season. They provide a grove-like effect without too much shade. However, there is also a medicinal, healing component to Gingko trees. The oldest living seed plants, this species is a link between the present and the past with individual trees living longer than 3,000 years. The earliest recorded use of the leaves as medicine may have been as early as 2800 BC, and the first internal use for healing was recorded around 1505 AD.


During Balsley's first visits to the barren space, the question arose: Given multiple levels of structural slabs over high tech equipment below, how does one respond to a diverse program of security and intensive uses yet maintain Kiley's garden-like settings on the main campus?

A circular fountain was designed around the base of the grove. "We wanted the sound of water to contribute to the calming, soothing use of the grove that we imagined," said Balsley. "We also wanted to make sure the water was just loud enough to help mitigate the impacts of some of the sounds from FDR drive that bounced off the buildings. Without the fountain, the sounds were loud. Water helps soften that with white noise." The almost classical columnar design repeats the city context, while the visual texture of these individual slots creates a mirror image of the buildings all around it.

From the fountain and grove, the lawn gently slopes down to become level again with a lower garden seating area that has tables and chairs and looks out onto the lawn and toward the grove. The terrace and its new stairway to the lower garden, together with the birch allee walk to the west, have reconnected the entire campus. The character of each space, whether it is a garden or river overlook, is defined with a rich palette of paving, planting and furniture. While clearly creating a fresh new landscape vernacular, the design has purposely imported cherished icons of the main campus such as stone ashlar walls, lawns and paving patterns. Two smaller plazas at a higher level are simply furnished with benches under trees in distinctive red oval planters.


The almost classical columnar design of the Gingko grove fountain repeats the city context, while the visual texture of these individual slots creates a mirror image of the buildings all around it.

One of the major design considerations was that Balsley felt the paving should be constructed as a continuation of Kiley's spirit and the spirit of his North campus design--simple, modernistic with geometric forms. In many cases they imported some of the materials and some of the same sorts of details of the north campus. That can be seen in the two different color granite pavements with stone ashlar walls and the allees of trees.

"We decided to go with two kinds of lighting, and worked with a lighting designer. Our choice was moonlighting, which comes from the tops of the very tall buildings, so you see this wonderful glow," explains Balsley. "That also frees the space from some of its clutter. To complement that, we placed accent lighting that highlights the trees, fountain and other important elements."


A path detailed by Kiley in a distinctive fashion utilizing white marble, marble chips, and a charcoal gray granite curve, provided the inspiration for the paving pattern of the entire south campus.

Balsley's design interventions have created a place of both meeting and contemplation, a haven designed to stimulate and nourish the great scientific minds of the future. Two years later on a warm sunny day, Thomas Balsley shared the dais with David Rockefeller and Robert Bass as Balsley delivered the dedication speech, which included passages about the project's challenges and creative process. Hundreds of people, from Nobel Prize winners to students and maintenance workers--most of whom well knew the barrenness of the previous space--shared this glorious moment and went home with a stronger appreciation for the ways in which public spaces that reach for excellence can touch our daily lives.

"Our intent was to honor the Kiley work and translate it with these contemporary forms," says Balsley. "The general choice of the plant material was very much informed by the plant material Kiley chose for the north campus, so there were these connections and linkages of design thought historically as well as structurally."


The curved path, with alternating grass and white marble, is bordered by plantings that include Festuca along the edges of the pavers with Sedum behind it, whose small red flowers create a sparkle of color.

Thomas Balsley Associates took the lead design role in this project, with support from structural, MEP and waterproofing engineers, architecture, lighting and fountain consultants. Frequent design dialogue with the university president and the donor helped reinforce their commitment to design excellence without compromising budget goals and the realities of maintenance.

This project was selected by a jury for inclusion in the 2002 Designed Land Forum II. Thomas Balsley also did the designs for Gantry Plaza Park, Riverside Park South, the new park constructed on the old rail yards between 72nd and 59th Streets in Manhattan, as well as a park on 57th and 9th Avenue which was named after him--Balsley Park. The park he designed in the corridor between W. 27th Street and W. 26th Street, east of 6th Avenue is the subject of an article published in the February 2005 issue of LASN.


A continuous dialogue with the facilities director and staff throughout the design process ensured direct and effective response to concerns for maintenance, management and security as well as cost benefit and value engineering concerns. Subtle level changes together with planter walls provide the required campus security at the edges of the space.


The jury selected Thomas Balsley's' scheme for its ability to configure the conflicting architectural geometries into a campus space whose sculptural qualities captured the university's imagination with expressions of the 21st Century.

This project received the 2003 Merit Award from the New York ASLA, as well as being selected by a jury for inclusion in the 2002 Designed Land Forum II. Thomas Balsley also did the designs for Gantry Plaza Park, Riverside Park South, the new park constructed on the old rail yards between 72nd and 59th Streets on the west side of Manhattan, as well as a park on 57th and 9th Avenue which was named after him--Balsley Park. The park he designed in the corridor between W. 27th Street and W. 26th Street, east of 6th Avenue, featured in "A Plaza Runs Through It," LASN February 2005, Vol. 21, No. 2.

Other Participants in the Peggy Rockefeller Plaza Project.

Wendy Joseph, Architect
500 Park Avenue, 40th floor
New York, NY 10022

H.M. Brandston & Partners, Inc., Lighting Designers
122 West 26th street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10001

Weidlinger Associates, Inc., Structural Engineers
575 8th Avenue, 12th Floor
New York, NY 10014


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