Temples of Science

Image courtesy of Magnus Stark The Broad Center for the Biological Sciences, at the California Institute of Technology, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners James Spudich, a Stanford University biochemist, likens the cell to a city. It incorporates roads and pathways, he says, and houses large structures, akin to buildings, such as the mitochondria and nucleus. But unlike the city, the cell can completely transform its own structure according to its needs. The right signals can convert t

By | June 2, 2003

Image courtesy of Magnus Stark
 The Broad Center for the Biological Sciences, at the California Institute of Technology, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

James Spudich, a Stanford University biochemist, likens the cell to a city. It incorporates roads and pathways, he says, and houses large structures, akin to buildings, such as the mitochondria and nucleus. But unlike the city, the cell can completely transform its own structure according to its needs. The right signals can convert the equivalent of the San Francisco city plan into the London city plan, he explains, if that makes sense to the cell. This metaphor of cell and city informs Spudich's vision of the new James H. Clark Center, set to open this month. The Center forms the core of Stanford's Bio-X program, which aims to join scientists of multiple disciplines in research.

Designed by the pioneering British architects, Foster and Partners, the new center comprises open labs housed in two glass pods, bracketed on one side by a rectilinear structure. Steel platforms bridge the pods. A path snakes among the wings and connects to surrounding science buildings. Like an organic entity, the Clark Center is designed for change, with lab configurations that can be easily disassembled and reassembled as new researchers move in. "I told Foster and crew that we needed something that had a good degree of organization," Spudich relates. "But it had to be incredibly flexible, like the cell."

This conversation between scientist and architect parallels discussions in London, Dresden, Vienna, and even Cincinnati--complex negotiations that contractors have translated into gleaming temples of light and movement. In turn, these structures are intended to boost a new kind of competition, where scientists do not acquire notoriety as solo performers but attain success as members of organic communities.

Funded largely through the largesse of billionaires made from the technology bubble of the 1990s, these domes housing architect-scientist collaborations in the United States arise as technological advances render many traditional bench experiments obsolete and demand new quarters for expensive equipment. In Europe, a campaign to build a science infrastructure that is competitive with that in the United States has led superstar researchers into dialogues with the world's great designers, who now lead the demolition of the dark cubbies of 19th and 20th century science. Together, they are forging the configuration of new space.

Courtesy of Stanford
 TRANSPARENT SCIENCE: Bridged glass pods under construction (at left) and finished (right) showcase scientists' work at Stanford.

The architects' focus on light, with colossal windows or walls of glass that open scientific workings to the public, emerges as ordinary people demand their own conversations with scientists about the ethics of animal experimentation, genetically engineered organisms, and stem-cell research. "One theme is openness," says Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, describing the goals of the new Cargill Building for Microbial and Plant Genomics that officially opened May 5. "There's a lot of discussion and dialog in society about genome research ... [and] genetically modified food. This building is wide open and, you know, in the late afternoon and evening with the lights on, even on the outside you feel like you're inside working in the lab."

Yet for all the lofty goals of openness and transparency, a subtle coercion underlies these glossy facades. Atriums, open labs, bridges from glass pod to glass pod, and campus paths undulating through built-up hills are an attempt to compel cooperation. At the Max Planck Institute of Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, all corridors lead to the center atrium where scientists can congregate over coffee. Architects hope hunger will drive collaboration at the Clark Center: A subterranean restaurant is the magnet for engineers and scientists from other buildings.

"[The architecture] does end up to be prescriptive," says David Nelson, a Foster partner and director of the Clark Center project as well as Stanford's recently completed Center for Clinical Sciences Research. (Foster and Partners also designed a master plan for Imperial College London and the Sir Alexander Fleming Building, another medical research space.) That is why the conversations between researcher and designer before plans are "frozen" into a structure are so important, Nelson says, and why flexibility rules the lab grid. "If [scientists] do want to 'cellurize' the space and have lots of little rabbit warrens, they can still do it," he adds. "It may not be as efficient ... but there are still a lot of choices."

The whimsical forms of the new architecture--elliptical facades, helical staircases, curved walls--and homey interiors accented with wood and stone can reinforce rather than relieve researchers' congress with machines and computers. The organic beauty, skylights, and stages for conversation make it easy to remain in the buildings for long hours. Some new digs allow scientists to commune amid gardens and green spaces that surround the buildings, and some structures, like the Max Planck Institute of Dresden, mimic the malleability of nature itself. "The facade is an invention," says Kai Simons, the institute's director. "It changes color as you change the angle of your eyes. It depends on the time of day and on the position of the clouds and the sun. Even though it's a sterile form, it's very alive."

PROTOTYPES The convergence of living forms and inorganic metals in today's labs owes much to a partnership between a towering scientist, Jonas Salk, and a comparably important architect, Louis Kahn, in the 1960s. Kahn's resulting cascade of lab and office, spun out of polished concrete and travertine marble, and fringed with teak shingles, tumbles toward the Pacific Ocean, whose rolling crests create a closure for the buildings' central plaza. "Salk told Kahn that he wanted to build the sort of building he might bring Picasso to," writes New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger of an intellectual union that has acquired an almost mystical quality. "He didn't talk to Kahn about how many square feet his scientists needed. It was pretty clear from the beginning that Kahn and Salk would get along."1

Nearly 40 years later, at the Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology at Yale University, architect Rayford Law engrossed himself in his clients' work life to lead a new era of lab design on urban campuses--where the look and placement of the more traditional buildings can constrain the new buildings' size, shape, and vista. "I spent a couple weeks in the lab with the scientists, with the technicians, learning the procedures," relates Law, a principal in the firm Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects. "I needed to have some handle on [the science] in order to understand the posing of the problems or the challenges in handling a building."

Courtesy of Jussi Tiainen
 LIGHT PATHWAYS: Concourses connect labs at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden

At the University of Cincinnati, a collection of asphalt parking lots accompanied the dreary cadence of red-brick rectangles outlining an urban campus, when Jay Chatterjee, head of the school's architecture department, and other administrators launched a new construction campaign two decades ago. Chatterjee brought in landscape architect and planner George Hargreaves from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, whose dialectical master plan called for the demolition of some tall buildings and displacement of parking lots with grassy quads. The medical school built five new structures before commissioning Frank Gehry to design the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies, which opened on a public thoroughfare in 2000. At this $46 million research site, Gehry achieves his marriage of organic and inorganic form by transforming conventional rectangles into brick-paneled hulks with bulging walls. Inside the 120,000 square-foot structure, Gehry winds labs and offices around a sky-lit atrium, pierced by the strand of a spiraling staircase.2 "We chose someone like Gehry [because] it was going to be the main entrance of the medical center," says Donald Harrison, then senior vice president and provost of the medical school. "I wanted something that represented the new entrepreneurial spirit of the medical center, something that we were trying to achieve in our own image."

PARTNERSHIPS A decision by the Max Planck Society to open a new Cell Biology and Genetics Institute in Dresden, to help revitalize the economy of the former East Germany, gave prospective researchers leverage to make demands about the kind of space they wanted, according to Simons. "We only wanted to move to the East if our conditions were met, because we didn't have to come here," he says. "We didn't sign our contract before this was part of the game."

With advice from his brother, an architect, Simons chose Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, a firm from his own country (Finland), to design the new ¤55 million institute. Simon's science colleagues sketched out their ideas. "We got a very nice wish from the client: Please design us a building on the highest level in technical and practical terms in laboratory design," says Markku Komonen, one of the two principals in the firm, "but, on the other hand, a building where a scientist and individual who has been stuck with his or her problems ... cannot stay alone ... but has to confront his critical community."

The available space, a skinny strip near the medical center on a bank of the Elbe River, defines the building's dimensions, Komonen says. Two research wings, each with three autonomous labs, span the structure's length, and inside, a stark layering of white bridges caps the atrium and connects the lab wings to an elevator and a helical staircase, swathed in shimmering perforated steel sheets. The atrium spans the core of the building. Komonen credits the success of the building to the willingness of the scientists to accept creative new ideas--their willingness to collaborate. "We cannot smuggle architecture," he says. "There has to be a willing client."

At Princeton where Rafael Viñoly designed the $49 million Carl C. Icahn Laboratory, he found more than a willing client in Shirley Tilghman, then director of a planned genomics center at the lab. He found an intellectual complement. "Scientists are a special breed," he says. "They have a capacity to question themselves as a matter of practice."

In turn, Viñoly wanted to know more about the scientist than the kind of lab and social space they might want. "He is intensely intellectually curious, and he wanted to understand, not simply the mechanics of how a science building works, where the centrifuges have to be, and the ice machine ... he insisted that he understand the science that we were trying to understand," says Tilghman, who is now Princeton's president. For nearly two years, Tilghman, Viñoly, and the campus building staff met weekly to explore design problems and their solutions. "The key is that you need to find ways through which you develop a language or a level of interaction that engages the client so you can discover, or help create, the basic parameters of how the building should be," Viñoly says.

The building shaped by this intellectual counterpoint houses the Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrative Genomics and a trove of architectural and engineering tricks. The 98,000 square-foot structure, which officially opened in May, consists of two rectangular wings, with exterior walls of precast concrete panels engineered to resemble the campus's red brick. The wings are joined at an angle and connected with a curved atrium. From the atrium's southern face, a wall of glass rises 30 feet from the floor to the ceiling, its panels girded with cable rather than heavy aluminum mullions, which creates a sense of limitless space. Outside the glass, 31 aluminum louvers pivot from east to west to screen heat and light.

A bank of labs and offices rises above the atrium, with glass panels on each side that face an older lab to the north and the atrium to the south. Inside the labs, a clerestory pulls sun in through the ceiling, lighting the labs without creating glare. Along a ribbon of windows, Viñoly has set cubicles, iced with translucent glass panels, for postdoctoral researchers. Maple cabinets match the custom maple tables in the offices. Conference rooms punctuate the southern ends of the lab; their ample windows face out, presenting views of the building and the playing fields outside, reinforcing the sense of a lack of boundaries between the exterior and interior. Viñoly discounts the aesthetics of the structure, and highlights the engineering and function. "All buildings are really tools," he says. His firm is designing the buildings for the $500 million Janelia Farm Project at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland.

DISCHORD AND DISTRACTION Not all partnerships are harmonious. Some scientists fail to see the value of architect-designed buildings. Some just fail to see the design. "I was walking around the Salk Institute," recalls Lisa Findley, an architect and writer for Architectural Record. "There are scientists who don't even notice that courtyard that architects think of as one of the great sacred spaces."

Others grumble at the aesthetics of modern design. At the California Institute of Technology, the $50 million Broad Center for the Biological Sciences, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners features a stainless-steel outcropping. In the sunlight, it glistens like a box of silver against the mountains. Not everyone is a fan. "I do not feel [that] the steel exterior on the north and west sides of the building fit with the rest of the campus at all," complains Paul Patterson, biology professor. "[It] looks too much like a hospital or prison façade."

Courtesy of Kevin Frank
 PROGENITOR: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies inspires scientists and architects with its poetic nooks of polished concrete.

Hargreaves, professor and chairman of landscape architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, tore down what he calls an ugly giant building on the University of Cincinnati campus, removed parking lots and replaced them with angular hills and braided pathways. "There was resistance to it," he relates. "A lot of people in the medical community and the science community said, 'We [just] want to drive our cars to the building.'"

Even before the Carl Icahn lab officially opened, scientists had taped dark paper over the windows facing the southern atrium. An apocryphal story has the architect Kahn personally tearing off wallpaper a scientist used to screen his lab. Nelson, of Foster and Partners, expresses a philosophical resolve at such modifications: "Every time we do a lab, we have things nicely lined up, and by the time we take the photograph it's completely packed with everything ... cardboard boxes, bottles .... This is what the work is, and this is how it is done."

PRIVACY AND PUBLICITY These new labs--open to scrutiny, layered with crannies, pedestrian bridges, and coffee shops--are designed to shape a new way to get work done, and challenge scientists' notions of private space. "We grouped the offices together and the open labs together, just to get them to rub shoulders more," James Glymph, of Frank O. Gehry and Associates says of the Vontz Center design. "We wanted to enhance the awareness in the day-to-day use of the building, try to make it more transparent."

But some assert that the openness and flexibility give the institution, and not the researcher, primacy. "I believe that this design is actually favored by administrators because the absence of walls between labs removes one of the barriers to expanding and contracting the space of an investigator in accordance with [his or her] research holdings or stature, which I think is fine," says Robert Brackenbury, professor of cell biology, neurobiology, and anatomy at the Vontz.

Barry Dickson, a group leader at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) in Vienna sees a value in open labs; if they don't always encourage collaboration, he says, at least they don't discourage it. "I've been in labs before where there's two or three people in one room behind a door and another two or three people behind another door ... then they don't talk to one another."

At Stanford, Spudich says that the Clark Center will be the hub of a community that spans the science campus. "I believe that the communication happens naturally if you don't have a lot of walls that serve as barriers," he says.

Replacing opaque buildings with glass temples also brings the public into the collaboration, Dickson contends: "I think it's good if scientific institutes are landmarks ... you know the public institutes of museums and theatres ... you should know [the institutes of] science as well."

Paula Park can be contacted at ppark@the-scientist.com.

1. P. Goldberger, "Many mansions," The New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2001, pp 128-31.

2. S. Stevenson, "Frank Gehry veers away from the brick box with his dynamic Vontz Center at the University of Cincinnati," Architectural Record, 189:81, 2000.

3. M. Rogers, "Broad Center opens its doors," Caltech336, available online at pr.caltech.edu/periodicals/336/articles/volume 2/09-19-02/broad.html

4. D. Cohn, "Heikkinen-Komonen Architects create a sense of community for scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden," Architectural Record, 191:111, January 2003.


Courtesy of Ken Kornberg

 COMFORT ZONES: Ken Kornberg designs labs, like this one at the University of California, Davis, that he would feel comfortable working in.
A row of 40-foot louvers, positioned along the southern face of the new Carl C. Icahn Laboratory, pivot in rhythm with the sun's arc across the sky. The louvers, constructed with woven aluminum lattices, shade a massive wall of glass, allowing light to dance through the building's atrium without creating glare or overheating. The weave casts a helical shadow on the front sidewalk that curves along the southeast edge of the Princeton University campus.

These 31 louvers, posted in sentry along an exterior wall of glass, address some of the world's oldest architectural problems: drawing light into the building without creating glare, and conserving the energy required to heat and cool a massive structure. "We wanted to block out some of the light, but not all of it," explains Jennifer Swee, project director for Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Conserving energy in laboratories can pose problems, particularly when universities demand that architects design laboratories that not only increase the effectiveness of research, but also encourage collaboration and make bold aesthetic statements. Problems mean costs, either in features that lower the energy loss, or in lost energy itself. "The lion's share of the money is spent on ventilating the building," says Ken Kornberg, whose firm specializes in lab design, "and typically lab buildings don't do what office buildings do." In most buildings, air circulates. "The labs take the air that comes in and send it out," Kornberg explains.

The big air and energy guzzlers in the lab are the fume hoods. A single hood that pulls air out at the rate of 100 feet a minute can consume as much energy as an entire residential block, Kornberg says, and some lab buildings house as many as 120 hoods, ratcheting up both costs and energy use. One problem with trying to reduce the output is codes: The US Standard Building Code and the International Building Code incorporate standards for lab hood use. Each location also enforces its own building codes that may also dictate the amount of air that has to be pulled from each hood.

Courtesy of Building Design Partnership

 PURITY UNDER GLASS: At the new Nanoscience Center at Cambridge University, the Building Design Partnership created a glass shrine for clean rooms.

Kornberg participates in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Labs for the 21st Century project, set up to reduce energy consumption. "There's lots of ways to chip away at that cost. In extremely cold climate and hot and dry climates, you can use energy recovery systems. In more moderate climates it's harder to do that."

The architect's job, Kornberg adds, is to decrease heat and cooling requirements, and the new energy-wise rules help labs do that. Glass structures that concentrate light can be particularly challenging. At the James H. Clark Center in Stanford, the architects have used passive forms of energy reduction: windows that open, allowing conservation of air conditioning, and shaded circulation pathways along the perimeter of the building that also reduce the heat gain and loss through the glass walls.

David Nelson, a partner in Foster and Partners in London, says that architects often end up adhering to the country's culture: Countries that emphasize conservation insist on low-energy sources. Other countries, such as the United States and Britain, are accustomed to high-energy use and have less rigid requirements. "Some countries and cultures allow us to go much further," Nelson says. "[But] it goes without saying, there's going to be an environmental agenda that's going to be quite strong even before we start."

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