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Metaphors for Motion: University of Connecticut Farmington Musculoskeletal Institute by AHSC Architects

Farmington, Connecticut: A building articulates its purpose with muscle and grace.

by James W. Tilghman, AIA
June 2, 2004

Editor’s note: The Musculoskeletal Institute/Medical Arts Research Building on the University of Connecticut Farmington campus, designed by Tarrytown, New York-based AHSC Architects, will be a four-story, 99,000-square-foot freestanding building on a partially sloping wooded site immediately adjacent an existing administrative services building (ASB). When completed this winter, the almost $20 million building will house a mix of clinical and research components in addition to an ambulatory surgery center.


It is one of the first projects to be realized in a new master plan for the 162-acre campus. The site lies on a potential pedestrian route linking the upper and lower campus zones of the UCONN Health Center.


The challenge posed by the site is the location – a bit tucked away from public view as seen from the main approach to the campus with the existing ASB building in the foreground. The design needed to “reach out” in a fairly audacious way to the view corridor from the main road if the new building was going to have sufficient presence as an anchoring element for the lower campus. The project received a 2003 AIA Design Award for Unbuilt Projects.


The expressive design solution draws from the building’s program by examining certain metaphors related to the research activity housed within, as AHSC Architects Director of Design and the UCONN MSI project designer James W. Tilghman, AIA, explains:


Design Process


From the outset, we were presented with aggressive budgetary and scheduling objectives – $200 per square foot and a blindingly fast 20-month design/construction Schedule. Even with these constraints, the AHSC team felt confident that design excellence could emerge from the design process – that the budget and schedule objectives need not preclude design excellence.


We reached a destination in this project that was unforeseen at the outset, but that emerged in a clearly defined series of conceptual steps both on a campus scale and at the scale of the design language for the building. This sense of discovery and unfolding of the language of the building made the design process truly special.


Design elements


We knew that there was an opportunity, and a desire, for this building to make a clear and dramatic gesture toward the campus entry point. There were also opportunities in the design process to make several objectives “transparent” to one another – that is, where a single design move could satisfy multiple objectives at once.


The basic building geometry is an example of this. The 21-degree angle of the building emerged from looking at the “tipping point’’ of campus geometry – where the optimum angle was for making a critical connection to pedestrian routes on the uphill side that would connect through the new building to the lower campus areas. In doing so, the dramatic acute angled corner of the building pushes outward toward the entry approach, while increasing natural light in the laboratory spaces located on the west side of the building.


Design language


Satisfying programmatic requirements, adjacencies, entry conditions, and circulation strategies is clearly paramount in a building of this complexity – but we asked ourselves what could be done to truly enhance the architectural presence and the quality of experience in this building? How might we bring some broader meaning to the language of this building given its mission as a Musculoskeletal Institute?


Going back to the design process we knew that we would have to identify opportunities for expressive potential right from the start: the initial planning and site concepts would have to clearly anticipate and support future design refinement. A significant opportunity clearly presented itself in the lobby and entry face of the building. This was where we could bring forward, in a thematic way, some insight into what really goes on in this unique facility – and on a scale that could speak to the whole campus.


We developed a strategy very early on that the building, while trapezoidal in plan form, could and should be a fairly simple box as it moved south into the hillside site. This supported the idea that the first 25 feet into the plan at the north entry side could be where a truly special environment could be created.


The rear wall of the lobby – 55 feet high and 120 feet long – stood there like a tabula rasa ready for something really dynamic to take place.


The projecting portico element, 59 feet above the ground and cantilevered 20 feet over the entry, also represented a chance for structural expression. The portico effectively captures the natural environment around it – inviting the outside in toward the wetland area, and creating a kind of large outdoor room at the entry.


The Wall-In-Motion and The Armature


The final major elements to emerge from the design process we call “ the Armature” and the “wall-in-motion,” which are linked thematically, but examine what could be called “musculoskeletality” in different ways.


We realized that the rear lobby wall could be about “motion” – described in a series of folded wall planes with sequential geometric relationships. The concept had considerable expressive potential, and the theme of motion had enormous relevance to the activity housed within. It was a very legible concept. This was a particularly exciting moment in the design process.


If the wall-in-motion represents a series of moments, the armature element stands in contrast as a single moment – a stop frame so to speak. It is intended to resonate on many levels with the theme of “musculoskeletality.” It clearly is an entry piece, and ultimately an icon for the place and the institution. The two elements are interdependent in a sense: they reinforce one another thematically, but add different dimensions to the experiencing this new environment.




The ultimate objective for the building is to be engaging as you move through and around it – doing everything from performing research to performing procedures in operating rooms. To do this, decisions about materiality, color and lighting all need to support the “spirit” of the new environment, and to have a palpable connection back to first principles.


While the building is in a campus setting, it is essentially a “green field” or “green hill” site. We worked hard to create a very real connection to the landscape in both the basic orientation of the building, but also in terms of material, detail, and color selections. The lobby floor is to be an acid-washed concrete, which is a highly variegated and somewhat “earthy” material that will resonate with the tree canopy and wetlands area visible through the lobby curtain wall. The pattern of jointing is an extension of the geometry of the wall-in-motion.


As far as the interior finish concrete specification goes, we briefly dreamed about using indigenous site gravel and materials in the actual mixture. The closest we come to this is at the reception desk – the top surface is a laminated glass product, lighted from below, with what could be described as an “organic” interlayer. The effect is somewhat mysterious –dense layers that appear to be made up of many kinds of organic materials taken directly from the site.


The detailing of the stair railings and other hardware references back to the geometry of the Armature and the wall-in-motion. All of these elements taken together are a “family of forms” that constantly engage visitors and staff at different scales.


Image: A Center for The “Performing Medical Arts”


From the standpoint of image, we were interested in extending the envelope of expression for a research and clinical facility – moving away, within the budgetary limits, from a preconception of what such facilities are expected to look like or should look like.


For both the client and the AHSC team, this project represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at the architecture of the integrated research/clinical building type. What I think we’ve done particularly well is to reduce the theme of “musculoskeletality” to its essence in a dynamic and compelling way – a legible way.




Looking back on the design process for this building, I note that most good concepts that endure in the process are there right from the start. We were very fortunate that the very earliest strategic decisions created the right opportunities for the development of the design language of the project.


The programmatic mix is, in effect, a microcosm of the entire Health Center brought into very close proximity. Departments and disciplines to be housed in the facility will include a Diagnostic Imaging suite; Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine facilities; clinical offices for Orthopaedics, Osteoporosis/bone density, and Rheumatology; the Musculoskeletal Institute Research Laboratories and offices; and an Ambulatory Surgery Center. A café accessible off the main lobby will provide a gathering place for staff and visitors from the immediate campus area. -- James W. Tilghman, AIA


Project credits:


Architect: AHSC Architects, P.C.

Project Team: John M. Kenney, AIA (Senior Principal-in-Charge), James R. Fair, AIA (Sr. Principal Project Manager), James W. Tilghman, AIA (Director of Design, Project Designer), Kimberly Weller, AIA (Planning Principal), Kevin Rohane, AIA (Planning Principal-Laboratory), Neil Spanier, AIA (Technical Principal), Larry Costello, Pedro Abreu, Greg Ruoti, Greg Bennett, AIA, Alex Hidalgo, Mahmoud Rafeh (Design/Production Team)

Project Manager: Hammes Company

General Contractor: FIP Construction


Structural: Purcell Associates

MEP: Van Zelm, Heywood and Shadford Inc.

Civil: Macchi Engineers


AHSC is comprised of two firms: AHSC Architects and AHSC McLellan Copenhagen, a consulting firm serving the scientific community. The two firms, having common ownership, work together seamlessly when needed to provide full service laboratory design from programming through construction. Founded in 1981, AHSC has grown to be one of the leading health care design firms in the United States, and has also established a strong reputation for research, education, and elder care facilities design. AHSC McLellan Copenhagen is a consulting/design firm that provides programming, planning, and design serving academic, governmental, biotech and pharmaceutical organizations; nationally and internationally.


James W. Tilghman, AIA, is Director of Design for AHSC. Prior to joining the firm, he held senior design positions at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, and Foster Associates in London, England.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

View from northeast parking/pedestrian approach; "wall-in-motion is visible behind the lobby curtain wall.

Northwest view

North elevation with Armature element

Lobby concept section showing relationship to wetlands areas and outdoor room concept.

The Armature will be white painted steel with stainless steel cable and joint details.

A closer view of the Armature

Armature details

Lobby café

The lobby floor pattern will be acid washed concrete in a four-tone scheme.

Exploded axonometric of lobby building elements, including wall-in-motion, armature, and curtain wall.

Wall-in-motion elevation

Concept sketch for the wall-in-motion

Concept sketches-wall in motion

West elevation concept sketch and detail

West elevation rendered

East elevation concept sketch and detail

East elevation rendered

Plans: 1st and 2nd floors

Plans: 3rd and 4th floors

Site plan with existing Administrative Services Building and parking areas; bridge to upper campus at south elevation

UCONN Health Center campus plan with Musculoskeletal Institute sited relative to campus geometries

© 2004