BY BRIAN LIBBY
At the Collaborative Life Sciences Building, there is a lot going on.
For starters, it’s really not one building that comprises its 650,000 square feet but three: the 12-story Skourtes Tower on the north end, the smaller South Bar to the south, and a large glass-ensconced atrium in between that includes wood-wrapped auditoriums at the building’s front and back entrances.
There are also three different schools occupying a variety of classroom, laboratory and office spaces located here: Oregon Health & Sciences University is moving the first two years of its MD program to the CLSB, as well as its entire School of Dentistry. Oregon State has its joint program with OHSU in pharmacy here and Portland State University has moved its undergraduate biology and chemistry departments to the building.
Having this cross-section of institutions and students (some 3,000 will come here each day) isn’t just a matter of the trio of schools pooling their resources. It’s also a chance to encourage the kind of cross-disciplinary interaction between students and faculty that often leads to scientific breakthroughs and synergies.
While the architecture of the Skourtes Tower and South Bank is fairly routine for a medical school—laboratories and classrooms, stacked together in boxes wrapped in glass and perforated metal panels—the communal spaces in the atrium provide the most striking sense of design, not simply aesthetically but socially.
Arriving for a recent tour of the CLSB with Brian Newman, OHSU’s director of campus planning, development and real estate, and SERA Architects associate principal Alene Davis, it was into this atrium that I first stepped. I had to pause to take in the dramatic view before meeting up with them.
From the ground floor, one looks up at a host of different gently sloping bridges going across the upper portion of the atrium; they connect the Skourtes Tower and South Bar, and affixed underneath the spans is a light-based art installation by Pae White. Although classes had not started when I visited and thus there were few people inside the building, it was easy to imagine this atrium as a future hive of activity and energy: the modern version of a town square. The bridges are even outfitted with plush benches and chairs to encourage it.
The Skourtes Tower and the South Bar, the two main structures, actually have different floor-to-ceiling heights, because of how they’re constructed and because of different needs. Newman explained that the Skourtes is built from a concrete moment frame, with much thicker slabs, and higher floor-to-ceiling height. “That’s where all of our uses such as research labs, teaching labs, and the dental clinic are located,” he said. “The South Bar, which is this big dominant form on the south side, is post-tension concrete slab: much thinner decks. That’s where we have our education spaces: classrooms, simulation, offices. And the atrium, which spans between the two, is steel construction.” Because of the different floor heights, the atrium bridges “are a bit of a ramp,” he added. “But the whole point was that for undergraduates, researchers, professors, professionals, staff, they want them to circulate through and have reason to stop and hang out.”
I happened to explain this configuration to a friend, who quipped, “You mean they use the word ‘Collaborative’ in the name and the floors aren’t even the same height?” I don’t think the slight ramping really matters in and of itself in terms of the experience of crossing them, but it may be true that it bespeaks a slight lack of visual clarity to the architecture overall. On the outside, it’s hard at first to get a feel for the different interlocking forms of the three buildings, be it the Jawa Sandcrawler-like South Bar or the way the auditoriums are wedged into the atrium. But when viewed from a distance, especially on the river side the pieces and how they relate to each other come together.
Overall the CLSB, at least to me, seems to be trying to walk some kind of fine line between wanting to be one structure and wanting to be a conglomeration of different architectural pieces. Which is understandble, because the whole reason for the project is these different schools coming together. It makes a certain amount of sense that they would be represented by architecture that's made of big pieces partially unifying yet partially remaining separate.
What's more, the place where this union of buildings and programs does happen - the atrium - I found contributed a potential for hive-like energy that was compelling. Standing in the middle of the space, beneath the bridges, I felt like I was at the epicenter of innovative working and learning environments.
The CLSB is just one of several buildings that OHSU has planned for the South Waterfront and Tilikum Crossing bridgehead (on either side of the Zidell Yards parcel). Soon the school plans to break ground on an eight to 11-story cancer center building near the CLSB, as well as another structure one block south of the Center for Health & Healing beside the tram. In fact, while the CLSB has an unobstructed view of the new bridge, there will eventually be another building between it and the water. But there is a promenade running along the east edge of the CLSB facing the Willamette that will connect it with the rest of the campus. Newman says the hope is that some of the CLSB’s picturesque views of the bridge, the river and downtown will be preserved.
The entire building (save for the mostly windowless large auditoriums) when I visited was teeming with natural light: not too glaring, not too soft. That’s no surprise given that SERA, which co-designed the building with CO Architects of Los Angeles (the former as executive architect, the latter as design architect), has an arguably firmer grasp on the science of daylighting architectural spaces than any other firm in the city, learned in projects like the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt federal building (with Cutler Anderson) and the Oregon Sustainability Center (with GBD Architects). The building is also sustainable in many other ways. It is targeting a Platinum LEED rating with high levels of water and energy conservation.
Touring the wide variety of spaces and facilities here was like taking a tour of American bio-sciences education in the 21st century: so many different disciplines, but all interconnected both technologically and physically. (Particularly memorable were the operation training rooms, equipped with dummies that can respond auditorily to various moves made by the doctors in training.) Perhaps one could even characterize the web of different bridges as a metaphor for the opportunity and challenge of making breakthroughs through disparate parts becoming connected. Although people will spend almost all their time in the two primary buildings to the north and south, it’s the atrium where this sort of academic melting pot of medical and science students from three schools will come together. I just wish being in the middle of the atrium felt a little more visually connected to the outside, but the enclosed auditoriums at either end block some of that view.
In time, as the neighborhood develops, outdoor greenspaces will be built near the building that can bring students, researchers and faculty together. For now, though, the CLSB is still somewhat isolated, with Tilikum Crossing’s massive construction site continuing just outside for another year, and vacant land of the Zidell Yards beyond it to the south. To the north is Riverplace, but that’s about a mile away, with buildings in between. That means the CLSB’s atrium is all the more important to its occupants.
To that end, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been worth it to find a way to fit the large wood-wrapped auditoriums at either end of the atrium in the Skourtes Tower and the South Bar, just to free up even more space and articulate the atrium as a pure glass shape. But it’s easy for a writer sitting miles away from the building and all its design and construction practicalities to throw in program-changing ideas after the fact.
To be fair, the presence of the auditoriums in the atrium adds a distinctive sculptural quality to the middle of the building that, because of the spaces’ wood cladding, can be seen from a distance, in a way that makes the CLSB feel like more complex a facility than just two building halves connected by a glass roof. It reinforces that sense of the CLSB as a hive of activity. I just felt like some transparency and connection to the outside was sacrificed along the way. Even so, there really is a lot going at the CLSB in an interesting way, and the deeper I went inside the more captivating and inspiring the place became.