In Austin, A New University Medical Center Stays True to its Motto: Rethink Everything

The design of this new Austin, Texas, medical training facility encourages academic excellence with spaces for collaboration.

Dell Medical School
The building’s rear facade is transparent glass, revealing a grand stairway that forms the spine of the school. Courtesy Albert Vecerka/Esto

Austin has grown up considerably since its heyday as a breeding ground for outlaw country and indie rock. With a population approaching one million and a burgeoning tech industry, the “Silicon Hills” now attract a different type of striver: software wizards, video game jockeys, start-up pioneers, and medical innovators.

For members of this last group, the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin is a particular draw. Opened in May 2016, it is the first ground-up medical school to be built at a top-tier American research university in 50 years. Architecturally, the complex is spread over three buildings (all designed by local firm Page with collaborators) and a 1,120-vehicle parking garage on an ecologically sensitive site beside Waller Creek. The grounds, which were landscaped by Sasaki, are situated between the university’s original 40-acre campus and downtown Austin.

Page worked with Portland, Oregon– based architecture firm ZGF on two of these buildings—the 260,000-square-foot Health Discovery Building, primarily devoted to research, and the 233,000-square-foot Health Transformation Building, an office building—in addition to the garage. But the third is the jewel of the medical campus. Designed by Page with the S/L/A/M Collaborative, the Health Learning Building packs 85,000 square feet into a slim five-story lozenge along 15th Street. As an educational facility for aspiring physicians, the LEED Gold–certified building is unique. “The school’s motto is ‘Rethink Everything,’” says Lawrence Speck, senior principal at Page. “Our position was that the building can help with that.”

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Dell Medical School
The north-facing courtyard features a reconstructed prairie and a grove of mature live oaks, some nearly a century old. As part of the University of Texas at Austin’s ambitious public art program, a large bronze sculpture—British artist Marc Quinn’s Spiral of the Galaxy—is installed on the grounds. Courtesy Albert Vecerka/Esto

Organized on a boutique model, Dell Medical School accepts only 50 students from roughly 5,000 applicants annually—candidates who stand out for their leadership qualities, ability to work collaboratively, and knowledge of the medical system. In the words of Sue Cox, Dell Medical’s executive vice dean of academics, the school’s purpose “is to train future leaders in academic medicine.” Accepted students begin clinical work within the first year (as opposed to after the second, which is typical) and team up with nurses, social workers, and pharmacists—critical work experience gained from these allied professions.

The building design supports this educational model with spaces conducive to collaboration. The primary student learning areas are found in the middle of the building, sandwiched between faculty offices (on the second floor) and administration (the fifth floor houses the dean’s office). On the third floor, classrooms are divided into two 25-person “societies,” each with its own workroom that connects to a large unprogrammed space on the building’s north perimeter, which the architects call the “social edge.” On the opposite end, concealed by a frosted sawtooth wall, are a series of smaller break rooms, where the societies can split into smaller teams. The sawtooth wall creates nooks in the hallway where students can pop out for a phone call.

On the fourth floor, Page laid out spaces for clinical training and collaboration with other health-care disciplines. Here, there is a dissection room, as well as several mock hospital rooms, where students interact with actors to role-play medical situations and work on their bedside manners.

Dell Medical School
The ground-floor Interactive Auditorium incorporates whiteboard walls behind every tier of seating. The inspiration came from a similar space at the Duke University School of Medicine, which the Health Learning Building’s architects readily acknowledge. Courtesy Albert Vecerka/Esto

The architects drew on precedents found in recent “cross-pollinating” learning/science facilities, tailoring them to Dell’s specific culture. For example, the lecture hall on the ground floor features two rows of seating on each tier, with a wide table between them and swivel chairs that allow the students in front to swing around and work on problems with their peers. The idea came from a similar space at Duke University, but here Page added whiteboards along the back wall. Even more familiar to those who have followed recent developments in academic buildings is the aforementioned “social edge,” a generously proportioned concourse that climbs the building’s five floors. Visible behind the north facade curtain wall, this “thick” corridor space is outfitted with lounge areas for spontaneous hangouts and connection points to several outdoor terraces. Although Greenguard-certified products were used throughout the building and the interior air quality is exceptional, these easy-to-access exterior spaces give users another option for a breath of fresh air.

To find a fitting architectural expression for the exterior, Page brought an original spin to the language of UT’s preexisting campus. Vertically oriented exterior sun-shading fins on south-facing windows are burnt orange, the university’s primary color. This face is also clad with Cordova Cream limestone from the Armadillo Quarry, where all of the university’s buildings get their limestone. But the stone has been given a fresh expression: It’s tiered to create shadows and reduce the glare that a south-facing limestone wall can be prone to. The angle on the CNC-milled stone face curves gracefully to plumb at the corners and punched windows.

Where the building meets the ground and moisture infiltration becomes more of a concern, Page elected to swap the limestone facade for basalt, which is more impervious to water. Sasaki incorporated a series of sustainable measures to improve the watershed’s water quality, including rain gardens and permeable paving, which reduce runoff to Waller Creek. The creek channel itself was stabilized, and non-native species were plucked from its banks. To replace them, Sasaki revegetated the entire site with plants that require significantly less irrigation than traditional flora. A pleasant courtyard to the north of the building features a reconstructed prairie and a grove of mature live oaks. They were relocated ahead of construction, a hallmark of Austin’s peculiar care for its sylvan assets, and an example of the sort of ambitious and holistic thinking the careful design of the Dell Health Learning Building seeks to engender in the future doctors who walk its halls.

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