Mind the Gap
ARCHITECTS: TEN Arquitectos
ENGINEERS: Colinas de Buen
PROJECT: National Laboratory of Genomics
Like an unhappy family, each site is unique in the ways it frustrates the will of the architect enlisted to tame it. Whether it’s a hidden spring of toxic ooze or a pesky community board, there is always a snake lurking in the grass. Enrique Norten decided to enshrine that gap between what’s promised and what’s possible in his latest building, the $15 million headquarters for Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics, in El Bajío, a region known as the country’s breadbasket.
A five-foot-wide seismic fault cuts a swath the length of five and a half football fields through the diamond-shaped site. Because of the delicate nature of the lab work done at the institute, the fault is a no-go zone for architecture. So the Mexican-born architect—whose firm, TEN Arquitectos, has offices in his home country as well as in New York City—turned the obstacle into a metaphor, arranging his buildings along a concrete corridor just off the path of the fault. It’s like the Los Angeles River but without the skateboarders.
The institute’s marquee building, a rectilinear box like the rest of the architecture, cantilevers over part of the public walkway. (The buildings were designed with potential future seismic activity in mind. “It should not be at risk,” says Natalia Lomeli, the firm’s marketing director.) “There’s one laboratory that’s very special,” Norten says. “They call it the Something Genetics Laboratory, and that’s where they have all their really expensive machinery and all of that.” But breaking with the trend of open research centers, the other laboratories are hidden behind a forbidding glossy white wall that runs along one side of the ersatz fault. (Scientists, it seems, are just like the rest of us: they don’t like a crowd of onlookers breathing down their necks as they work.) Inside the labs, however, it’s another story. The ruthless lines of stacked boxes give way to a tumbling transparency of glass. “It’s very complex,” Norten says. “It’s almost like in a Cubist condition, the superposition of place and spaces.”
The labs themselves needed extensive intervention too. There had to be enough mass around them to create an adequate buffer from changes in temperature, for instance. But the site was an open field, so TEN built up artificial agricultural berms in which to nestle the buildings. The berms also help provide a hospitable space for the scientists’ experiments. (Their branch of genomics deals with grains and plants and things, not human-gene mapping.) But with what seems like a hostile location for architecture, why not just pick a new site? Norten shrugs. “That’s what they had. There were no other properties where they could go.” He has dealt with deep bureaucracies in Mexico and high-strung NIMBYists in Brooklyn. “Every site comes with its own conditions and its own challenges,” he says, “so you just take as it is and go from there, and then try to make the best out of it as it comes.”