Genomics design creates common ground
Princeton NJ -- Visitors to the University's new genomics building, when it opens its doors in 2002, will sense quickly that they are not in a conventional laboratory.
It is expected to be a fitting introduction to the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. Both these features, laid out in recently completed plans by architect Rafael Viñoly, speak to the institute's driving goal of creating common ground between scientists of very different backgrounds in pursuit of a wholly original approach to biology.
Biologists will work in the institute's labs alongside physicists, computer scientists, chemists, engineers and others whose fields traditionally have not had much contact with each other. In addition to its bold use of common space, the design incorporates scores of other less immediately visible innovations to encourage these collaborations.
"It's really a novel building -- different from any science building I've ever seen," said Shirley Tilghman, the institute's director.
The difference reflects the institute's unique scientific mission, which reverses the traditional reductionist approach to biology that takes a finer and finer look at every cell, protein and gene. Instead, institute scientists will attempt to integrate the available evidence into a more coherent picture. With the human genome data in hand, the job of identifying new biological parts is drawing to a close, Tilghman said.
"We have laid out all the components," said Tilghman. "Now can we invent the kind of science you will need when you have all the parts and you want to put them together and see how they work?" The answer, she said, will come from exploring intellectual approaches of different branches of science, and the building will succeed if it can facilitate such cross-fertilization.
For Viñoly, the boldness of the undertaking was an inspiration. "Art is primarily a form of risk taking, like scientific research has always been," he said. "I hope the genomics building would respond to this uncertainty with the same intelligence that is behind the scientific quest.
"Exploration and experimentation, in the physical, ethical and intellectual context of Princeton, are what makes this place so unique and remarkable," he continued. "We have taken the challenge of creating an unusual space for an unusual use: the setting of an interactive intellectual place of exchange. The arc of space that links the two laboratory wings will create that condition. It should encourage opportunities for thought and conversation as well as expose to the community the makings of the genomics project."
When planning for the 90,000-square-foot building began a year and a half ago, the only given was its location, an L-shaped slot just south of molecular biology's Lewis Thomas Laboratory. The site, which covers the current parking lot 5, fills in a portion of a giant ellipse that is proposed in the University's master plan for the southern end of campus.
Since narrow corridors along a gangly L-shape are not conducive to bringing people together, Viñoly immediately proposed the atrium. That idea was critical, said Tilghman, because researchers in any lab will be able to see across the atrium to any other. "Psychologically, there is a big difference when you can see a colleague's lab instead of just knowing it is there."
Flexible spaces, chance meetings
Over the next year, from the summer of 1999 to the summer of 2000, Tilghman and University administrators met with Viñoly every week to hone each detail to support the institute's agenda.
The design deals creatively, for example, with the placement of the scientists' offices. Unlike many labs where, for sake of efficiency, offices are adjacent to lab space, the genomics building will have all the offices in a block, forcing researchers to run into each other as they walk from office to lab.
In the labs themselves, the critical feature was flexibility, said Tilghman. Each discipline has different requirements: chemists need extensive ventilation, biologists need animal facilities and physicists need vibration-free work spaces where they can perform ultrasensitive tests of force and movement within cells. As a result, all the lab spaces can accommodate all those requirements.
"So we're not going to create a physics ghetto, a chemistry ghetto or a molecular biology ghetto," said Tilghman.
Another concern was that the science itself is changing so rapidly that it is impossible to predict how the space should be configured two years from now. Here the solution was to eliminate all permanent walls in the lab space in favor of moveable partitions. "You could put up walls today and tomorrow decide you don't like them," said Tilghman.
Tilghman's last worry was finding a manufacturer of lab benches with a product that is truly moveable, but yet fully functional. "Now that I am confident that we have found such a system, I am thrilled. I am not just happy, I am thrilled," she said.
Frank Gehry sculpture
The idea for the atrium sculpture came later in the design. In discussions unrelated to the genomics building, alumnus Peter Lewis, who donated $35 million toward the creation of the institute, spoke to Vice President and Secretary Thomas Wright about donating a large piece of sculpture to the University.
The sculpture, a massive, undulating metal shell supported by a seemingly delicate wooden framework, is the work of architect Frank Gehry, who created it as part of a commission by Lewis to design a house. The house has not been built, but "the sculpture is, in effect, the product -- in some sense a model -- resulting from that project," said Wright.
When Wright proposed putting the sculpture in the genomics building, Viñoly was enthusiastic. "The incorporation of the Gehry structure becomes a natural addition to the space: a source of wonder, an inexplicable volume that hides a function, like nature always does," said Viñoly.
With the additional idea of situating a coffee shop in it, the sculpture fits very well into the goal of bringing scientists together, said Tilghman.
As a final detail, the expanse of glass that encases the atrium is shaded by two-story louvers that move with the sun and cast shadows in the double-helix shape of DNA.
For Tilghman, it all adds up to a workspace that she believes will truly contribute to achieving the institute's goals. "It will be a great building. I can't wait."
Her wait will be about 18 months: With initial site preparation having started in January, the building should start going up this summer and be ready for occupancy in the summer of 2002.