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Designing laboratory buildings (Part 3)


Designing laboratory buildings (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[RV] Mostly they have been biology, because…

[DSB] Life sciences labs.

[RV] Life sciences and biology.

Life sciences.

[DSB] Yes.

[RV] And biology because they’re the two, they’re the two programs that have been most significant in the last 25 years.

It is important to mention that the lab has become… was – it’s now calming down a bit – was a very, very active kind of work. There was a lot of Federal… Federal financing of it and that helped make it a, kind of, building that was very characteristic. And there were a lot of them… had been a lot of them. But it is important also – this is very important, I’m glad you mentioned that – to emphasize that we… that the interior of a lab, even with its flexibility, is very complex, and can be very specialised and that we could not connect with… we were not specialists concerning the interior program of the lab, so, in virtually all the labs we have done we have worked in co-operation with another… another architect… another architectural firm. Especially one in Boston, Payette Associates, where they have been responsible for the interior essentially and we have been responsible for the architectural exterior.

And that is not… that you… a functionalist might say, oh, that’s bad, that you’re just being decorators and all that. Well, that’s not so, because in many other aspects of architecture, you have many, many people co-operating and working together.

[DSB] Also it’s an oversimplification to say we do just the exterior. That whole theory of the street through the building that Bob has described and I want to describe in my terms, we evolved that. And so, the inner functioning of the public spaces of the labs we’re very much involved with, and their siting and their relation between the outside system of access and the inside system. And all the things that interest us that come from our mixture of architecture and urbanism. I’d like to also say that the way we describe the shed is really in terms of its system, its systems. We talk about its lighting system being very even, like this building we’re in, here, this loft building.  Therefore letting light fall very nicely on tasks and allowing you to do tasks in front of lots of different windows, works beautifully for a lab. And then we talk about the structural bays being the right size for labs.  And then we hope for development and lab design in the future. And all those buildings have a sequence where the highest tech labs become lower tech labs, and then teaching labs and eventually, we think architecture studios. And so, you think of the structural bay for all those purposes.

[RV] There’s also…

[DSB] And also, going on from there… so, it’s the decoration which has now to do with the rhythm and the entrances and things like that. But the patterns of community on the inside, the basic idea, comes from, you could say, urban economics  – that at a meeting place of two main streets, you put a market. It’s always like that; where most people pass is where you put the market and if you don’t, then the market dies. So, eventually, it will end up where it needs to be. So, if you take this street through the building of the access corridor, the next most important ‘street’ is the vertical circulation, the elevators and the stairs. So, we put our coffee lounges at that point where the stairs and the elevators meet the major corridor.  And looking out over a window. Now, lab workers can’t bring their coffee into their labs, it’s just bad for the machines. You spill it over a very expensive computer or some other piece of scientific equipment and see what happens. So, the principal researcher will go into her or his office and the secretary will make coffee there, for that person. But the post-docs need another place and so they gravitate… the principal researcher hopes not for too long… but they gravitate to a comfortable chair, to a change in the focal length. They’ve been sitting at their desk doing this experiment like this for hours and the junior researchers do that for hours and hours and hours, they save the senior researchers’ time. In the life sciences there’s a lot of that. So, they need a place where they can relax their tired bottoms and refocus their tired eyes. And if you give them, also, a blackboard, or it’s usually a white board, it’s very interesting to go into those labs and see what’s on the boards, because they get talking with each other. And someone from another lab comes by, on the stairs, or something like that. 

And if the lab is open in feeling, it’s a different kind of architecture. If the… rather the coffee lounge is open and a different kind of architecture from the lab, which is very organised like the grid of a city.  This is more free-flowing – like a flow of movement. And if you feel you can go in there but you don’t have to – there’s no door that will close after you… that’s difficult to arrange because the main circulation is also the main fire safety route and the door must close at a certain time.  But you can get hinges which let it stay open and then close automatically… if you don’t provide those hinges, your coffee shops won’t work. So, then the next thing… so I, as an Urbanist, must stay into the detailing of the hinges to make sure the relationships that I’ve planned, will actually happen. So, sitting there and meeting and talking, there is this serendipitous possibility of interdisciplinary interchange and the meeting of two minds. We say, those meeting places are market places, and market places for ideas and the meeting of minds. And in that situation, where will the next Nobel Prize be generated, at the lab bench or in the coffee lounge?

And then we build a system. In our Michigan project, you can say, after that, there’s an open space outside where people congregate – if we will leave them, not benches, but things they can make into seating, like semi amphitheatres or rostra or edges of flower beds. And they’ll sit about on those things. Or they can go walking past the commons, and then two of them coming from the academic sciences past the life sciences may meet a friend from the life sciences. And as they go past the common room, or the common’s building, there’s a café with glass along the route there and they may see Joe in there.  They join Joe and there’s another place where the next Nobel Prize could happen.

[RV] They might see their enemy, and then they can just take their coffee and go back out.

[DSB] Yes, that’s right. It’s open to them to do that. Then, the path goes on a bridge and this whole bridge is over what was once an old lake. So, underneath is 960 cars, I’m talking about Michigan. But you don’t think it’s a bridge, because it goes flat – and a still [sic] flat takes you across the major street that was the huge stumbling block to access between the main medical research people and the life sciences and the scientists. Well, this bridge has just linked the whole lot of them, and ends them up at the same level, except at the very end when they go down a little, with ramps that handicapped can manage, and there they are at medical research. So, we’ve linked, with this one bridge, the whole scientific endeavour of the campus and we’re very proud of that.

But we’ve made it also habitable and congenial in the way we’ve planned it. And the lovely thing when you do that kind of planning is to go there and see those things actually happening.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 8 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010