July 30, 2018
New Nursing School Heralds the Rebirth of Camden, New Jersey
The Perkins Eastman–designed Rutgers University project balances site-sensitive design with a bold architectural statement for the school’s (and city’s) future.
When the Rutgers University–Camden Nursing and Science Building opened in downtown Camden, New Jersey, the city’s mayor remarked on the facility’s connection to city hall—and not just because of proximity. The newest outpost of the state university’s Camden location is the first academic building beyond the walls of its campus proper, about a ten-minute walk away, just opposite the Depression-era municipal building. City hall can be glimpsed from the new Perkins Eastman–designed structure’s atrium and is reflected in its glazing. Look closely and you might spot a line by Walt Whitman, which has become the city’s motto, emblazoned on the older structure: “In a dream, I saw a city invincible.”
Not long ago, the revival of downtown Camden might have seemed little more than a dream. The city, which sits across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, suffered from more than half a century of economic decline and disinvestment, and previous attempts at revitalization focused on the waterfront, catering more to day-trippers than the city’s residents. But today, the downtown is abuzz once again: Pedestrians stroll past the new university building’s storefronts as a bevy of construction projects rise around it. A new chapter seems to have begun in Camden, and Perkins Eastman’s 101,000-square-foot Nursing and Science Building—part of a recent wave of med-ed investment in the area—is the latest harbinger of the resilient city’s next act.
“When we were beginning this project, we thought of it as a building for Rutgers, and a building for the city of Camden,” recalls Dario Brito, senior designer and associate principal at the multinational firm. Sensitive integration within the urban fabric was a goal from the very beginning: “[Rutgers has] recognized that knitting the university into the city, as opposed to creating an inward-looking campus that turns its back to the city, is the way to go,” design principal James Butterfield says of the university’s approach to its several urban campuses. So, in keeping with what Butterfield calls the “rules of good neighbors,” the team focused on how context could inform choices of materials, massing, and program, while also offering a bold architectural statement for the school’s (and city’s) future. The expansive sculptural facade uses both glass and brick-colored TAKTL (ultra–high performance fiber-reinforced concrete) panels, the materiality and colors of which, Butterfield says, “help stitch that part of the city together.”
The project’s first challenge came from its triangular site, which is bounded to the north and east by Federal and Hudson Streets and, on the other side of the property, by light-rail tracks that run diagonally alongside the new building’s southwest-facing facade. The unusual shape prompted the team to create shaded terraces that extend to form sharp exterior corners, bringing a soft boundary to the sliver of open space on the other side of the tracks. This was especially important, Butterfield notes, because the four-story building (and its bold massing) can be seen from afar on all sides—a rarity in an inner city.
To accommodate a diverse program within the triangular plan, the architects conceived a “student street” corridor of public spaces and seating areas that follow the longest edge on each of the four floors. “It’s a space that contributes to the well-being of students,” Christine Albright, Perkins Eastman’s principal-in-charge, says of the light-filled social space. Placing flexible seating arrangements along these diagonals opened up space for classrooms, labs, and offices along the building’s two orthogonal sides.
The “student street” layout also provided an energy-efficient solution to a feature the team dubbed the “super window,” a curtain wall that dominates the wide southwest-facing facade. Here, a mix of tinted panels and vision glazing shaded by perforated aluminum fins— arrayed in protruding blocks to break down the monolithic facade—help minimize solar gain without sacrificing views. “Conceptually, it’s very much like a section,” Brito says of the glazed facade. “We were trying to expose all the program that’s happening inside, and celebrate it from the exterior.”
At night, that “super window” glows like a beacon and reveals buzzing activity— an achievement as functional as it is symbolic. “One thing we’re really proud of is how expressive the building is,” Butterfield says. “It speaks to a level of optimism that the city has about its future.”
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