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At Carnegie Mellon U., a Gleaming Computer-Science Complex Worthy of M.C. Escher

Computer-science complex
The formal opening of the Gates-Hillman Complex takes place Tuesday. The Hillman Center is on the left, the Gates on the right. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

Pittsburgh—A few years ago Carnegie Mellon University showed Mack Scogin a 75-foot-deep chasm cluttered with old buildings and parking lots and asked him to put a new computer-science complex there instead. The university wanted 310 offices (all with windows, please), plus classrooms, computer labs, formal and informal meeting space, lounges, a workshop for things like planetary rovers, and underground parking. Also, the university wanted Mr. Scogin to give its long-neglected West Campus a sense of place. Oh, and how about a volleyball court? And lots of greenery. And could the building be LEED silver? Or better yet, gold?

Mr. Scogin, a principal in the Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, took on the challenge. The result is a shiny, lively, two-building complex with as many bridges as an M.C. Escher drawing and more glass than you’ve probably ever seen in one place. The interior plays with angles and voids in ways that would have given the contractor nightmares even if they hadn’t been arranged around, and inside of, a five-story helix. The zinc-and-glass exterior consists of irregular masses piled on top of one another, as though haphazardly. Landscaping by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates wraps around the complex and spills out of a three-walled garden between the two buildings.

The complex’s formal dedication is scheduled for Tuesday, and the main speaker will be the project’s biggest donor, Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $20-million of the $98.6-million total cost. Another $10-million came from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, established by the Pittsburgh philanthropists Henry and Elsie Hillman. Not surprisingly, the larger of the two buildings is called the Gates Center for Computer Science, while the smaller is the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies.

The eight-story complex,, which totals 217,000 square feet, can be entered on any of five levels—in two cases by bridges, one named for the late Randy Pausch, the computer-science professor whose Last Lecture struck a chord nationwide. The upper stories of the Gates Center overlook the campus’s expansive main quadrangle on the east, while on the west the entire complex has view of a smaller and much lower quadrangle formed by buildings to which the complex gives new prominence. 

Inside, the complex is arranged around a series of atriums that bring light to offices and help users orient themselves amid Mr. Scogin’s many angles. Several of the atriums have zigzag staircases overlooked by windows through which you can see graduate students writing code; the largest is filled with the helix, a long ramp winding up five stories from a cafe to the office occupied by the dean of the School of Computer Science. The helix even wraps around a classroom as it climbs. The complex is designed so that the upper three floors, where faculty offices are located, are essentially private space, while the lower floors have more public functions. A large lounge on the fifth floor is one of the complex’s showpieces—it has a big balcony with terrific views to the west. Another showpiece is a small eighth-floor reading room with equally good views to the east, north, and south.

Computer-science complex
From the West, the Gates Center’s jutting building-block masses help disguise how large it is.
Computer-science complex
Landscaping by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates spills into the West Campus quadrangle from a garden between the two buildings.
Computer-science complex
Among the shapes popping out of the building is this two-story mass overlooking the university’s main quadrangle.
Computer-science complex
This staircase descends through an atrium in the Hillman Center, past the windows of graduate students’ offices.
Computer-science complex
An interior helix rises through five stories of the complex.
Computer-science complex
The helix winds around a classroom.
Computer-science complex
Bright interior colors appear throughout the building, and in the evening can be seen from outside.
Computer-science complex
In an area intended for conferences, patterned upholstery competes with the pattern of acoustic cutouts used in paneling throughout the complex.
Computer-science complex
An eighth-floor reading room also merited upscale furnishings.
Computer-science complex
A stair in the Gates Center meets an angled bridge crossing an atrium.
Computer-science complex
From the floor above, visitors can look down through a glass-walled light well into a lounge that in turn overlooks the West Campus.

Computer-science complex
During the day, the glass-and-zinc facade reflects light and sky, but in the evening the building’s lights and colors become ornaments themselves.

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