Control and clarity are the hallmarks of NBBJ’s Life Sciences Building, says Martin Pearce.
The University of Southampton’s principal campus at Highfield is a palimpsest of architectural visions that have accompanied the growth of British higher education through the twentieth century. The university’s first red-brick buildings, designed in the 1930s by Giles Gilbert Scott and set either side of the important north-south University Road that divides the 24-hectare site, are a paradigm of interwar gentility. Basil Spence’s 1956 masterplan turned its back on suburbia as democratised post-war education saw linear blocks dramatically cantilevering over an arcadian valley, paradoxically the result of the brick clay excavations that fuelled Southampton’s suburban sprawl. In contrast Rick Mather’s planning strategy in the 1990s was intensely urban, as exponential growth in student numbers was mirrored in a building density that produced a tight network of streets and linear blocks edging the dividing road, now transformed to tree-lined boulevard. Of these John McAslan’s slender Engineering, Education & Entrance Building, fronting the eastern side of the boulevard, has a certain beauty in its ruthless simplicity but left a rather unpromising site which NBBJ inherited for the new 10,000 square metre Life Sciences Building.
The complex brief for biological and medical science education contrasted general undergraduate teaching labs, administration and seminar spaces with the highly specialised needs of research teams and raised serious issues of access control and security. Added to this mix, an emphasis on greater interaction of research activity and cross-disciplinary working augured against a discrete zoning strategy. NBBJ’s solution is elegant and owes much to the power of refining architectural diagrams to solve conflicting functional problems. In principle the ground and lower levels accommodate the more open general activities and the research laboratories and staff offices are above, all arranged around a central lightwell and service core. Organised as three stacks the upper levels provide specialist laboratories, general offices and a ‘shared research core’. A fourth stack forms a south-facing prow, housing administration and meeting rooms which overlook the campus, and which is topped with an external observation deck. From the prow one can just see the berth from where RMS Titanic began its maiden and final voyage and, in breaks from the microscope, re-enact that DiCaprio-Winslet moment.
The central lightwell creates further drama in resolving the sectional problem of stacking offices, typically with 3.4 metre floor-to-floor heights, next to laboratory spaces with deep ceiling plenums, typically five metres floor-to-floor. The cross section reveals the ingenious juxtaposition of the differing floor heights such that the vertical stacking arrangement is expressed as a series of mezzanine platforms. Stepping the office decks back creates a feeling of openness and visual connection, much like Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer office building (1972), while a wide accommodation stair, negotiating the split section, and generous circulation spaces create incidental meeting areas. A pear-shaped opening visually connects the public concourse below and enhances the overall feeling of shared endeavour and community, at once spectacular yet serene. There is something of Hugo Häring’s iconic Gut Garkau cowshed in the rounded triangular forms that recur throughout the building and perhaps a sense of the subtle organic functionalism that contrasted with his more austere modernist contemporaries.
The external manifestation of this inner world is the most striking aspect of the design. Instead of overtly expressing each functional stack the architects have swathed the facade in a delicate curving timber screen. This unifies the building, giving it a strong identity but rather than garishly shouting its presence, as with some recent additions to the campus, this affords a more gently spoken distinction and authority. Mather’s plan envisaged a narrow street flanked by two linear buildings, but McAslan’s orthogonal structure is used as a counterpoint to the Life Sciences Building, whose meandering facade augments the linearity, funnelling visitors towards the entrance and creating pockets of open space beyond. This juxtaposition is remarkably successful and owes much to Alvar Aalto’s design device of juxtaposing orthogonal with organic form.
The facade treatment is inspired. Above a ribbon of entrance level glazing floats a cedar box, with openings expressed according to the need for prospect and daylight by towering fixed vertical louvres. The number, spacing and angle of the louvres is thus individually adjusted, the angle of incidence to the facade varying between 85 and 45 degrees according to the particular orientation, and when viewed in the round they read somewhat like a bar code. Equally the materials of the exterior have been rigorously thought through. The recent fashion for timber facades has been accompanied by a lack of knowledge in their detailing, leaving a legacy of buildings that have streaked, discoloured, warped and leaked. NBBJ’s choice of western red cedar is far more carefully considered. The board-on-board timber strips are prefabricated into rainscreen panels so that no fixings are exposed, and particular attention has been given to issues of water run-off. As the elevation changes direction, sinuous corners have been employed to reinforce the building’s continuity and avoid stark contrasts in weathering. Nanotechnology is employed in the form of a microporous hydrophobic treatment which coats the timber at a molecular level rather than the conventional sealed film coating. This also affords ultra-violet protection, slowing the ageing of the timber’s lignin through photo-oxidative decomposition, so the building should grey consistently over a long period of time, gently settling into its context. This nano-engineering of the external skin of the building seems an appropriately poetic response to the microbiological and molecular research activities taking place within.
The planning of a university campus, or indeed a city, is somewhat akin to a game of chess, with each successive move affecting the future directions of play. But so often in campus design, the architectural players keep changing strategies, and long-term plans can easily become dissipated. At the University of Southampton NBBJ has been a clever, even cunning player. Providing the campus with its endgame, the architects could have succumbed to a compulsion to make a panicky overt statement. Instead with The Life Sciences Building NBBJ has calmly read the situation and responded to the complexity of both context and brief with a control and clarity of which Basil Spence would no doubt approve.
Martin Pearce is an architect, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and author of University Builders.
Architect: NBBJ; structural engineer: Adams Kara Taylor; services
engineer: Arup; sustainability consultant: Short & Associates; laboratory planning specialist: Fac-Tech; landscape architects: Plincke, Ubu Design; project manager: Buro Four; cost consultant: EC Harris; CDMC: White Young Green; main contractor: BAM Construction; client: University of Southampton.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Services: BAM Services Engineering; structural frame: Getjar; curtain walling, timber louvres: VHB Memmingen; timber cladding: BCL Timber Projects; timber treatment: Boehme; roofing, cladding:
Facilitas; internal glazing: Fendor; glazed partitions: Planet Partitioning; partitions and ceilings: AT Jones; architectural metalwork: AW Jeffries; laboratory furniture: Waldner; specialist joinery: Linden-Bauer; lifts: Kone; specialist glasshouse: Cambridge HoK; environmentally controlled rooms: Weiss Gallencamp.
AT215/ February 11, p40