Domus - - PROJECTS - Text Rahul Mehro­tra, Kai­wan Mehta, Jac­que­line Bur­ck­hardt Photos Robert Stephens, RMA Ar­chi­tects

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


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...

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