AN ARCHITECTURE OF EPHEMERAL REALMS
The ‘Virchow 16’ building on the Novartis campus in Basel, Switzerland, embodies a new approach where architecture attempts to converge the planning of a campus and its relationship to other buildings with the intimacy of a workspace. Designed to resemble a compact cube, it illustrates the architects’ masterful ability to enter into a dialogue with nature, art, and the architectonics of work
FROM THE ARCHITECTS’ PROJECT DESCRIPTION
Novartis’ brief to us was to design a ‘Lab of the Future’, and so this building is designed on the principle that buildings of the future will hopefully embody the few constants we know, and hence strive to be human-centric and connect as seamlessly as possible with the site’s environment. Virchow 16 is multi centred and disaggregated in its organisation, allowing people to engage in configuring and reconfiguring space as needs evolve. Thus the building armature, while being robust and modular, must simultaneously be porous and synergistically aligned to foster interaction and collaboration.
In order to achieve this condition, the building is organised in two parts. The first part, the lower building, has four levels — two basements, the ground and first floor, and houses labs, services, and a visitor centre. The second part is situated above the first (a building above a building) and has three levels, with a central greenhouse connecting labs and collaborative spaces. Consequently, light cuts through the building at the courtyards, allowing for nature to intervene and bring together the varied programmatic requirements and a rich spectrum of ambience and experiences within. Each aspect of the programme is defined in its volume, and designed for its specific requirements. This gives the most flexibility in that within each programme, space can be developed and modified over time to reflect its contemporary needs. The stairs and elevators are fragmented
to form a circulation triangle, situated in three locations, and allow for multiple circulation routes, which will increase the robustness and adaptability for the building’s future uses. It creates several ways of segregating zones with independent circulation and cores. This, we believe, is a crucial organisational principle for the Lab of the Future. Several of the Lab’s buildings on the campus are five levels, all lab floors, and therefore with large floor-to-floor heights of 4.55m. Virchow 16 is unique in that while the laboratories still have the 4.55m height, we designed the offices at a 3.325m height — in the process accommodating five floors of office space to four floors of labs. And due to the additional office area we now had, it allowed us the opportunity to create a large void in the form of an upper courtyard. This is in scale of the offices and created split-levels on the other side of the courtyard.
Most importantly, this disintegration allows for zones to be created within the building, zones that aren’t just partitioned on a floor slab, but ones that have distinct spatial differences. In order that we could create spaces that are conducive to innovative thinking, we created quiet, contemplative zones and more interactive zones, as we felt multiple options of work environments are important in creating spaces that are conducive to research and development. Art, too, plays a role in defining these spaces. The artist Pipilotti Rist has created with light a video installation that at times switches on and gently caresses the interior surfaces of the lab walls, bringing a softness to the environment that the scientists are working within. These enigmatic light swatches of colour and image are inspired by the visual imagery that scientists in the building use to represent cell and molecular structures, in their own research. A series of interactions between the artist and scientists resulted in the final artwork created by Pipilotti Rist.
The building works from the outside in, and the inside out. There are two ‘loggias’, or outdoor ‘rooms’, spaces that are accessed from within to view the Rhine. This is important, as it is the first lab building on the campus to be built along the Rhine. The loggia on the first floor can be accessed by visitors to the campus, giving them occasion to see this stunning view. Sightlines to the Rhine are established and safeguarded within the building, as several of the meeting rooms, especially the twoperson room ‘bubbles’, are in glass, keeping transparency within the building, to see the river. The two primary façades — facing east (the Rhine) and west (the park), are treated quite differently. The glass façade facing the east has operable blinds on the outside, keeping out the heat gain before it enters the building envelope, and establishing views to the river. Facing the west, a green façade screens the view from the contemplative spaces. The hydroponic trays and catwalks establish a system for the vines to grow and to be easily maintained.
The quantity of direct sunlight into the building is limited by Swiss building code, so we had to maximise the light coming in
through the façades and the skylights above. By selecting ‘stucco lustro’ as a finish on all surfaces around the courtyard, we could create a bright atmosphere, as the plaster catches and reflects the light within the space. In fact, in the details, we have chosen to let the materials speak — as in the natural colour of the material — be it the stone, the wood, the metal, etc. Thus the eucalyptus wood does not have a stain, but just the ‘smoked’ colour. Similarly for other surfaces, if we needed to add a pigment, it is of the colour inherent in the material. The concrete too has a limestone aggregate from the local quarries near Liesberg, and therefore a yellowish hue. The colour then is focused on the foliage within and without the building — bringing an awareness to the seasonal changes of the vegetation around. Connecting to the vegetation and the site’s environment is in keeping with the design intent, and part of the client’s brief — to design a Lab of the Future.
This page, top: Spacious offices in the Virchow 16 building are connected by verdant walkways Opposite page: the western façade of the building comprises suspended planters with fine guy-wires to create a transparent green filter. Individual protruding glass boxes break through the green façade, thus providing a direct view of the outdoors