Architecture

The Transparent Aims of Viñoly's Ivory Tower

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Science -- big-think, high-risk, farsighted science -- is the primary function of the vast new biomedical research center that has sneaked into Loudoun County with all the fanfare of a cat sliding into a sunny, hidden niche for a nap. The researchers who will work at the Janelia Farm Research Campus hope to unravel the basic wiring of the human brain -- the processes, mechanisms and minuscule viscera that turn the meat between our ears into thoughts, emotions and action. And yet it is a very peripheral, non-scientific part of the facility, designed by Rafael Viñoly, that says the most about it.

Consider the hotel rooms for visitors to the laboratory: Zenlike little boxes of glass and wood perched over a man-made pond. Arrayed single file on two levels along a graceful arc at the edge of the woods, these spaces blur the line between barren asceticism and tony minimalism. They have the feel of perfectly appointed deluxe accommodations at a high-end fat farm. You can imagine retreating into these little cells, after a long stint at the Mother Ship just up the hill, and be shamed by their simplicity into doing something healthy and edifying with the remains of the day: yoga, a book and an early bedtime -- rather than, say, pizza, TV and a raid on the minibar.

The sprawling campus -- which opened to a lucky 4,000 members of the public who signed up in advance for a tour yesterday -- is set on a 689-acre site along the Potomac River. It includes not just a massive, three-tiered glass-faced laboratory built into a gently sloping hillside, but a full conference center with hotel and a small village of housing for longer-term research associates. It is a building tailored to a long list of very specific requirements, including an easement that required the space be all but invisible from a historic manor house that lies on the property.

But it is the hotel rooms that capture one of the fundamental tensions that make this small city of science exciting. They are places of retreat and improvement, and they connect the whole project -- a research center that hides from the world (though there may be public events in the future) -- to a long history of academic and utopian places that have tried to negotiate the line between getting the best out of individuals while molding them into a community.

It is not Viñoly's most exuberant building of late. It has none of the irony of his Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts (new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra), which places an elite concert space under a long Quonset hut made of glass. Nor does it assert its presence with the edginess and energy of the convention center he has built for Boston. But it is filled with the esprit of utopian thinking, and social engineering, and it is fascinating to see how those fantasies interact with Viñoly's architecture.

The new laboratory, six years in the making, was built by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit research organization sitting on an almost $16 billion endowment (thanks to the proceeds of the 1985 sale of Hughes's aircraft company).

Unlike a lot of laboratories built for universities or for-profit companies, the Hughes people didn't skimp on the architecture. The institute, which has in the past funded scientists at universities around the country, will now have its own half-billion-dollar research center. The intellectual architects of the project aren't shy about their grand ambitions. They want to remake the way science is done, to free researchers from the academic grind and the burden of chasing grant money. And they intend to set their people loose on huge and daunting problems that may not yield results for years, rather than small and tractable ones that bring short-term career glory or profits.

"What we've created here is close to the ivory tower view," says Gerald M. Rubin, 56, Janelia Farm's director, and he means that in an entirely positive way. The farm is meant as a retreat, a place apart from the world. There's a dining room and pub built into the first floor, a well-designed gymnasium that dwarfs most corporate workout rooms, plus a day-care facility. Rubin, a bespectacled man who speaks with a Bostonian's missing R's, says that he hates the quotidian details of life: laundry, taxes, getting your car registration renewed. Janelia Farm can't make those nagging obligations go away, but it's meant to be a very comfortable place for researchers who want to live and breathe science 24 hours a day.

"I look at this almost like a scientific commune," he says. The people he hires will have "a civic duty to interact and help their colleagues," and while he acknowledges that this sort of environment might not be right for most scientists, he has assembled a core of "true believers" who are committed to his utopian ideals.

The transparency of the main building, and its layout in long tiers, are designed as both a metaphorical expression of that community, and a physical means of enforcing it. Hierarchy is flattened and communication enhanced by open laboratories faced with glass, and offices that are essentially glass boxes with a full view into the lab spaces. The lab offices sit on grassy terraces, linked by gracefully serpentine corridors. The arrangement of offices and labs along a single vital spine channels traffic in a way that makes it difficult for individual research teams to remain compartmentalized. There are no private staircases, or isolated office clusters, or hallways that loop in such a way that you can live your life on just one side of the building. Even the cafe, says Rubin, charges 10 cents extra for a cup of takeout, which he hopes will make scientists linger and chat.

Many of the problems Viñoly has solved (cleverly, and in a low-key way) are invisible. Architect Robert McGhee, who was the institute's main collaborator with Viñoly and laid out its essential functional requirements, says the challenge was to create a flexible scientific space with room for big equipment, and laboratories that could be converted from one use to another.

"This science is a lot less wet than it used to be," says McGhee, by which he means that biotech is increasingly a matter of computation and analysis and less a question of beakers and test tubes. Biomedical research is also moving so fast, and the building was designed even before the institute knew exactly what kind of science would be done there, that it needed space that could be quickly, and elegantly, converted from one use to another.


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