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.

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 visithttp://www.hhmi.org/janelia.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company