The DNA of Science Labs

A three-story glass structure dug into a hillside stretches horizontally through a former farm along the Potomac River in northern Virginia. Part of a surge in new scientific laboratories being built across the country, many of them by prominent architects, the Janelia Farm Research Campus is a kind of intentional community conceived from the ground up as a machine for revolutionary science. Designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)—the largest private institution funding scientific re-search, 98 percent of which is otherwise sponsored by the federal government—Janelia Farm is in many ways a unique case within this expanding field of laboratory architecture, but the thinking behind its form and space planning mirrors trends being manifested in a whole generation of experimental labs.

Scientific research labs have not traditionally been noted for their architecture. Apart from rare projects by high-profile architects—such as Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute or, more recently, facilities by Norman Foster at Stanford University and Charles Correa at MIT—they’re more likely to be humdrum functional buildings that fulfill technical objectives without attempting to raise the public profile of scientists, or for that matter, to inspire great science. That is beginning to change. The majority of the labs are being built for universities competing for the best minds and federal grants in hot new fields, and they’re staking out their territory with architecture. State and local governments are even getting into the act, ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars for buildings in order to attract jobs in the biotech and IT industries that often emerge from new areas of research. And the federal government’s own scientific agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are also paying more attention to lab design through the influence of the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program. But perhaps most significantly, big-name architects are planning the new generation of lab buildings in close collaboration with the scientists themselves, whose goal of producing major scientific breakthroughs informs every aspect of their design. “The scientists were always on the receiving end of all of this, but all of a sudden they have become really important decision makers,” Viñoly says. “There has been forever a misrepresentation of the capacity of these people to think about spaces and how they condition work.”

For Janelia Farm, Viñoly worked closely with Bob McGhee, HHMI’s in-house architect, as well as the campus director, Gerry Rubin, to make sure that architectural ideas were put to a strict functional test. “Our trustees felt very comfortable hiring a visionary architect because we had Bob McGhee, who is an expert on lab design,” Rubin says. “He could push back to make sure the building would meet its scientific function, and I could be there and make comments about the way the science should be. We wanted a building that would help us to perform our mission, but we wanted one that was also inspiring to work at.”

It helped that Viñoly had already been designing science buildings for nearly a decade, including a nanotechnology lab at UCLA, a genomics institute at Princeton, and a neuroscience facility for the NIH. “Renowned architects now consider this a field within which you can actually do architecture,” he says. “It has always been considered highly specialized and technical, but we came into this field in almost the same way that we come into all fields. The life sciences have changed by leaps and bounds—at a much faster pace than nearly any other field of technical complexity—but we think that we can bring a fresh perspective and make a serious contribution to revamping a pretty stagnant perception of how these things operate.”

There is a danger of too much “architecture” being inflicted on lab buildings, however. Researchers at Frank Gehry’s surreal Stata Center at MIT, for instance, have complained of feeling like lab rats peering out of its narrow cubbyholes. “You have to adjust a certain speculative thinking about function in relation to the environment in a project like this,” Viñoly says. “It represents a completely groundbreaking institutional approach to research. These people are inventing a different practice: this is not the kind of project to which you can respond with formalistic gestures.”

The 281-acre suburban site was also unusual for science facilities—they are more typically hemmed in on college campuses and federal complexes, forcing them to expand vertically—and allowed Viñoly and his collaborators to plan thoroughly for what is becoming one of the holy grails of research labs: cross-disciplinary interaction. “We wanted to create a different kind of scientific environment from most universities, one that appeals to the kind of person who interacts and works well with people from different scientific backgrounds and disciplines,” says Rubin, who made his reputation studying the genome of the fruit fly. “It’s like why some people in the 1970s dropped out and joined communes, and other people stayed in normal society. We are getting highly creative individuals—good scientists have all those quirky, unusual tendencies that you find in writers or poets or architects—and we’re trying to make an environment where those people can do their best work. It’s really a project of social engineering, and the architecture is part of that.”

Both Rubin and McGhee, who has spent the last 20 years studying lab design and refining his theory of space planning, constantly refer to the most successful research centers from the past century—such as the Salk Institute; AT&T’s Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, New Jersey; Xerox’s PARC, in Palo Alto, California; and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, England—tracing relationships between the physical structures and their enormous scientific and technological achievements. Connectedness emerged as one of the project’s overriding themes, motivated by the observation that 80 percent of scientific breakthroughs start not in labs or in formal meetings but through casual interaction among colleagues. In all-day weekly meetings over the course of two years, Viñoly, Rubin, and McGhee hashed out how to optimize every part of the structure so that molecular biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and computer scientists would constantly be crashing into one another along its wavy corridors, in its sole dining area, and in glass-walled meeting rooms between the lab benches and offices—ideally, fertilizing one another’s research with every encounter. “Traditionally these meeting rooms were just little architectural spaces at the end of the corridor, but they really need to be connected to the labs to be visible and be a part of the circulation,” McGhee argues during a PowerPoint presentation on lab planning. “The best thing you can do is to a have single corridor, because that’s the one place where you always run into people.”

The sense of connectedness extends to the offices overlooking an artificial lake and forested area along the Potomac, to open-plan glass-walled labs that get natural light through the glass fac­ades of the corridors, and to the more enclosed support spaces filled with refrigerators and equipment for contained experiments. A series of palatial skylit staircases integrates the building’s three stories vertically as well as horizontally, leading all the way up to a green roof that flows seamlessly into the hilltop. Even the rooms for short-term visitors are embedded in the same structure—accessible through underground corridors that end at spare Modernist quarters perched on the edge of the lake.

Another major theme for Janelia Farm’s space planning was flexibility, which emerged partly as a negative observation about the flaws of existing research facilities. The rapidly changing nature of scientific equipment and the need to adapt quickly to different research projects, as well as to adjust to individual preferences, meant that the labs should be capable of being transformed without the wasted time and expense of a total retrofit. Gigantic rooms behind the support spaces were also set aside in case large pieces of equipment might be required in the future. “At the University of California, San Francisco, they were spending as much money on renovations as they were building new buildings, but they weren’t getting any additional space,” McGhee says. “That’s a real problem—because group sizes change, research changes, equipment changes, and scientists are mobile. If you design something for five years and you design it for existing scientists, it won’t work when they move in because they’re not doing the same thing.”

Here the experience of Viñoly and his partner Jay Bargmann came in especially handy; Bargmann had patented a modular system for lab benches—an outgrowth of their casework for the Van Andel Institute, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, completed in 2000—that allows mechanical elements such as vacuums, gas, electricity, and data to be accessed through sidewalls or posts in the floor. “Like most specialty buildings, there are only four or five things that you really have to learn to do,” Bargmann says. “Once you learn the module of a lab and start thinking about the distribution of utilities, that’s pretty much it. You just treat it intelligently.” The posts interface with a pre-wired kit-of-parts consisting of desks, lab benches, storage cabinets, or special technical equipment that can be plugged in and interchanged without the need for an electrician or plumber—and without closing down the lab for an extended period. Running the mechanical systems through the floor also enhanced the connections between the spaces and the flow of natural light: there’s a clear view through the labs to the offices, so researchers don’t have to get into an elevator and weave their way through a warren of hallways to find the project leader.

Flexibility was particularly important because Rubin hadn’t decided what scientific problem he would set out to solve before they began the design. “Universities have a well-established culture, and they’re very self-satisfied,” he says. “Usually they decide they want to have a cancer center or a new engineering or computer-science building, and then they design the building to meet the needs of a particular community. We decided we wanted to create this kind of culture or environment first, design the building for it, and then pick the research area, so we had to make the building very flexible and easily changeable, which was a big driver in our design.”

What Rubin did know was that it would be a long-term project that might take 100 years to complete and would answer big questions that don’t normally win grants from the federal government, which is more focused on shorter-term projects that get incremental results. Janelia Farm was designed to produce paradigm-shifting discoveries, and the problem Rubin eventually set out to research was nothing less than the functioning of human consciousness. “What’s going on in your brain while you’re having this conversation in terms of chemicals and molecules, and how are you going to remember this or some of it tomorrow? What will you remember a year from now, and how does that work?” he says. “That’s the problem we’d like to understand a hundred years from now, but in the next ten or twenty years we think we can understand what happens when a fruit fly is flying around the room and lands on your coffee cup. How does it recognize the end of your coffee cup and land on the edge rather than the middle? How does it control its wings so it’s moving very fast and comes to a nice landing rather than crashing into the side of the coffee cup?”

Along the way Rubin expects that the research will have implications for everything from mental illness and developmental disorders to degenerative diseases and learning disabilities—as well as in relation to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. And, fittingly for a research center with a 100-year vision, environmental sustainability was taken for granted as a goal of the project. Apart from the ample daylighting, every floor of the building has planted rooftops steps away from the labs, with walkways where scientists can take breaks and contemplate the mysteries of consciousness. Some of the materials for the building came directly from the site: all of the excavated rock from the hillside was crushed and used as aggregate for the concrete, which was mixed within a few hundred feet of the building, vastly reducing truck traffic and transport costs; all of the oak trees cut down were recycled as flooring.

Last fall the first 100 researchers moved into the building, and it has already hosted several conferences. So far Rubin is pleased with his experimental community. “It’s a great recruiting tool,” he says. “It’s very easy for me to hire people to come work here, because they come see it and it’s a much nicer environment than you would typically find scientists working in. More than five hundred scientists have come through here, and generally people are sort of blown away by the building—if you’re going to some new art museum maybe you expect this kind of architecture, but you don’t expect it in a science building.” His favorite space is the pub, which resembles something you might find in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. “It’s worked sociologically the way I want. We have people bringing their families, we have small kids in there, people hanging out until late in the evening engaged in vigorous scientific debate or playing Ping-Pong or pool. How well it will function for all the aspects of our needs—obviously we have to live in it a little longer before we know the answer to that.”

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