Ask the School of Public Health where to find the crossroads of campus, and you may be surprised by their answer. By naming their nearly completed addition and renovation “The Crossroads and the Tower,” the School of Public Health posits that their own school resides on a critical spot where major University connections collide. Doing so, they label their own department’s location as a vital campus nexus. This self-recognition may be called departmental egoism, if it were not the truth.

Steven Neff
SPH II overlooks the hospital and hill area. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

The School of Public Health does sit on a crucial location, though their previous fragmented buildings had disguised this fact for years.

Even though the term “crossroads” is meant to be dually metaphorical and literal, their site is truly at a hinge of spatial activity that acts simultaneously as a boundary, a transition and a portal. The School of Public Health buildings are a buffer between dorms and the cemetery, an axial link connecting Central Campus to Medical Campus and a gateway to the Arboretum and North Campus.

No one could see these relationships before, but with the construction of the new addition, these analytic site potentials are now vividly realized in physicality. Reacting elegantly to all of its environs, this new building is at once practical and enigmatic.

The addition, which has taken the place of the SPH I’s east wing and traverses Washington Heights, is a built geode with a simple exterior and a splashy interior.

Closely matching the existing brick of the older structures, the addition’s exterior expertly melds into the existing framework. SPH II is hard to imagine as a solo building, especially since it was always an oddly monolithic cube cut with ribbon windows. Floating above the road, the addition somewhat mimics the existing buildings while still allowing for aesthetic variation. Simply put, the structure not only looks like it belongs, it makes a case that it should have been there all along.

Yet visual conformity doesn’t create the aforementioned links so necessarily essential to this particular site. Views are the vital links that connect the various forces of the site into one coherent whole.

An inverted cylinder and projecting vestibule greets the visitors approaching from the Hill Area while the threshold of the arched corridor is not overpowering and surprisingly pleasant. Walking from Markley, MoJo’s entrance is perfectly framed. Most importantly, the internal courtyard that was once sealed now spills out in a dramatic cascade toward the hospital complex. The corridor magnificently ties these two University elements of public health together, especially since those approaching from the hospital can see the building prominently in the skyline. From every angle, the new addition provides an appropriate response.

Views that look out from within the building also provide clear relationships of how the building correlates with other campus areas. Over Washington Heights, one can observe the road below while clear views from the mezzanine level pierce through double-height spaces to the outside. A polygonal room juts out toward Markley and absorbs a framed vignette that reveals the hospital complex traffic. Powerfully, the height of the tower combined with its perched position provides top floor inhabitants panoramic views that display a good portion of Ann Arbor and stretch as far as North Campus.

Although it’s important to recognize the improved circulation and interrelationships that the addition provides, my favorite aspect of this building is the stark contrast of its restrained and fitting exterior and its funky interior.

Only the colored tiles on the sides of the pilasters hint at the playful inside; the rest is an amusing surprise. Like crystals embedded within a geode, the interior is colorful and serenely chaotic. Staircases and oversize columns line the main atrium’s periphery along with small gathering spaces encased in oblique, futuristic glass. Bright colors accent these elements, and the material palette is rich and vibrant.

Circulation is at once odd and easy to navigate, with main spaces overflowing into others in non-Cartesian paths. Curved halls criss-cross and, unlike straight corridors, leave mysteries as to what lies ahead. Overall, the spaces are simple yet peculiar, but work well because of the open, community space that provides clear sightlines to the adjacent spaces.

Through academic relationships, site location, campus connections, visual links and a bizarre interior, the School of Public Health addition is most certainly a crossroads on many levels. All they have to do now is play Bone Thugz n’ Harmony in the elevators, and the Crossroads will be truly complete.

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