Page 2 of 2   <      

The Transparent Aims of Viñoly's Ivory Tower

McGhee calls that kind of space "generic." The problem for an architect, however, is this: If the space is functionally generic, should it also be aesthetically generic? If what's going on inside the building is in a state of rapid flux, should the outside reflect that fact? Architect Robert Venturi, in an essay he wrote about a lab designed for Princeton University, argued that if the internal space must be generic, then the whole building should in some sense be generic as well: "It is not an architectural vehicle for sculptural articulation." And so he designed a building for Princeton with fairly simple contours, and a play of light decoration on the outside.

Viñoly's work at Janelia Farm is a lot less austere. By carving deeply into the hillside, much of the functional space has been hidden underground (including a parking garage). But the offices, the primary lab spaces and the corridors that force people into interaction don't feel subterranean. The building has both curves borrowed from the topography of the hillside, and hard edges that suggest the presence of human habitation.

There was also the institute's very particular ideology of scientific creativity that had to be expressed, and it turns out to be an ideology that is not particularly new: Circulation of people brings chance contacts that spark ideas. Circulation, an idea borrowed from the physiology of the body, has been a driving architectural metaphor since the last half of the 19th century. And architectural transparency and organic shapes have long been fundamental to utopian and collective projects.

And so, weirdly enough, you can find an almost exact description of Janelia Farm in a Soviet tract, "The Ideal Communist City," written in the late 1950s.

"A new world arises, a world of curved humanistic lines," wrote the authors, faculty members of the University of Moscow architecture school. "Light and landscape penetrate into areas where until recently darkness and bleakness ruled."

One doesn't envy the challenge all of this posed to Viñoly -- a highly functional building with a very grand ideological agenda. He had to build an architectural expression of a utopian fantasy -- at a time, and in a country, where the romance of utopian thinking is virtually extinct (except, in a camouflaged way, in corporate and scientific circles). He might well have argued with the basic premise of the whole project: a research campus as a place apart. Shouldn't science, rather, be more engaged with the world? Wouldn't it be better to force scientists into contact with, say, artists and humanists and religious scholars, rather than with each other?

And where, in a glass building, do you draw the line between transparency that lets the light in, and transparency that facilitates surveillance? Even last month, as the first scientists were moving into the building, you could sense small glances of annoyance as people, working at lab tables, looked up to see who was passing through the transparent corridor. Even the pub, which is next to the administrative offices, raises an important question: Would you linger at a watering hole when the boss can see straight into the bar?

The central problem with any utopian vision is how to balance the freedom to maintain individual identities while the community forges a collective one. Rubin points out that Janelia Farm is a choice, not an obligation, for the people who work. He freely acknowledges that its communality will appeal to only a small subset of professional scientists. The people who go there will also, in many cases, make serious sacrifices, exchanging tenure at major universities for the generous support and very nice digs that are among the institute's primary attractions. And while he talks up the commune quality of the laboratory, and while his own residence has been built just below the lab building, the resident scientists won't live on the campus. This is a job, not a cult.

But still, as you explore the campus, you can't help but wonder how people will adapt to it, whether they will rebel in small ways against the social demands it makes.

Will they be tempted to cover some of this glass? Will the important socializing take place in the fishbowl spaces, or back in the dark burrows of the hill? Will they eat lunch in the restaurant, or head for the fast-food places that line the roads of Loudoun County?

Which is one reason that the hotel rooms say so much about the architecture of the place -- and Viñoly's ultimate success in balancing the technological, social and ideological demands of the project. They have been placed all but out of view of the main lab, with a stark cement wall hiding the little bit that pokes above the contour of the hill. They look out and away from the glass beehive of science. Man is a social animal, except when he's not. In a truly monastic community, solitude is for sleep, and nothing else. These rooms are just nice enough, yet spare enough, to signal to visitors that the demands of the ivory tower are rigorous but not annihilating. They are rooms that allow for compromise between the individual and the collective, the kind of compromise that keeps both alive.

For more information about the Janelia Farm Research Campus visit

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company