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Frick Laboratory, Princeton University by Hopkins Architects

[Images + drawings + data] An informal space in Hopkins’ Frick Laboratory at Princeton encourages creative collaborations, says Brian Carter. Photography by Warren Jagger

Louis Kahn spoke of the value of accommodating both hearth and test tube when designing the laboratory, and the most recent building at Princeton University recognises that.

By planning the Frick Laboratory as two parallel blocks - one housing research laboratories and teaching facilities and the other accommodating offices, meeting areas and conference rooms - Hopkins Architects has been able to create a third space in between.

This space - Taylor Commons - is the hearth. Named in recognition of one of the chemistry department’sdistinguished members and his remarkable work, it promises to play an important role in the life of this building and the university. Dr Edward C Taylor’s research focused on pigments in the wings of butterflies. However, after chance encounters with colleagues, that research led to the surprising discovery of a successful anti-cancer drug. This inspired the client who, in turn, encouraged Hopkins to design a building that would bring together staff and students who had previously been housed in different locations across the campus, and prompt new chance encounters.

Taylor Commons accommodates informal workplaces, a café with views out to the forest and high-level bridges that connect offices with laboratories, and is interlocked with adjacent offices by a series of elegantly designed open stairs threaded up through the building. It has been designed to be conspicuously transparent to reveal both the activities and people working within. And because of its carefully integrated design, it also forms part of the servicing system of a building which significantly advances a campus-wide sustainable design agenda.

The university campus has long been a focus for inspired design thinking. As a result of the enlightened patronage of university presidents, vice-chancellors and building committees, it has become the setting for significant buildings around the world. In North America, it is the site of modern architectural landmarks designed by Louis Kahn, Gordon Bunshaft, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph, to name just a few.

More recent projects have been designed by Rem Koolhaas at Illinois Institute of Technology, Fumihiko Maki at MIT and Rafael Moneo at Columbia University. The campus at Princeton is no exception, and while the traditional core is made up of fine historic buildings constructed from locally quarried stone, it also includes several newer buildings by Venturi Scott Brown, Frank Gehry, Tod Williams & Billie Tsien and other leading architects.

The Frick Laboratory is an important part of an expansion of the Princeton campus. Together with other buildings dedicated to scientific research and teaching, it defines a new ‘Natural Sciences Neighbourhood’ identified as a priority in a masterplan by Beyer Blinder Belle. Located at the south-eastern edge of the original campus, this new neighbourhood straddles Washington Road, a major traffic route in a ravine that cuts through woodlands and links the campus to Interstate 1. The buildings that make up this new, expanded campus are located on opposite sides of that ravine, and include the Carl Icahn Laboratory for genomics research, planned by Rafael Viñoly, as well as a new teaching and research complex for neuroscience and psychology by Rafael Moneo.

To connect these two areas, a new pedestrian footbridge designed by Swiss engineer Christian Menn has been constructed over Washington Road. While the Streicker Bridge - built with a chunky concrete deck, tubular-section Cor-ten props and curved stainless steel handrails - is surprisingly ponderous in its design, it successfully links four existing paths to make an important new connection.

One of these paths leads to the Frick Laboratory, where a generous stone-paved threshold has been extended out from the building and marked by a solitary, emphatic column. This column, a 229mm-diameter steel tube braced with 32mm-diameter steel rods, is almost 23 metres tall and supports the roof of Taylor Commons. It serves as an emblem for both the building and the architects’ interest in the details of construction, as well as a totemic device that is considerably more refined and expressive than the nearby footbridge.

Hopkins Architects worked with an interdisciplinary team of architects, engineers and landscape architects to advance its integrated design concept. That concept included locating the building to repair a site that had been previously occupied by an armoury and car park. Developed with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which oversees landscape design at Princeton, this plan made it possible to initiate an impressive restoration of the site, including the reduction of hard-paved areas and reinstatement of watercourses. New trees have been planted and wetlands created to harvest rainwater and improve drainage. And, while an early design of the Frick Laboratory explored ways of connecting occupants with the surrounding woodlands by projecting the building into the trees, this restoration of the site has brought the forest to the building.

Hopkins’ development of high environmental standards through the thoughtfully interlinked design of buildings has made its work of particular interest in North America. It offers a truly collaborative way of working that engages architects, engineers, contractors and clients throughout the design process, rather than one which merely relies on using the latest digital tools to process and organise information for construction. Plans for new academic buildings on campuses in Arizona and Texas developed by Hopkins clearly demonstrate the value of this approach, while Kroon Hall (AJ 26.05.10), a facility that it designed for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University, has been acknowledged as one of the most elegant and successful sustainable academic buildings in North America.

The Frick Laboratory certainly does not wear the badge of sustainable design conspicuously, and at first glance the gridded grey metal and glazed skins of the building reference the machine rather than the forest. However, this is not a machine assertively shaped by servicing systems or the gadgetry of the research laboratory, but one which benefits from being designed holistically to advance passive systems that address issues of use,space and place as well as requirements for light, energy and air.

Informed by Hopkins’ research into the design of government offices in the UK, the new offices are naturally ventilated. This is unusual in North America, where extreme climates frequently result in sealed and air-conditioned buildings. At the Frick Laboratory, large horizontally sliding windows - double-glazed and thoughtfully screened from insects and the sun - are part of a sophisticated high-efficiency external skin that enables incoming air to flow through the offices and, via Taylor Commons, to roof-level plant rooms, where heat is extracted prior to its recirculation within the laboratories.

The structure of the office block also incorporates chilled beams to provide cooling. Furthermore, by specifying demand control ventilation regulated by fume-hood use within the laboratories, the design minimises the need for environmental servicing systems. Together these strategies reduce energy requirements in a building that belongs to a type which is considered to be an aggressive consumer of resources.

Extensive areas of glazing not only assist in providing natural ventilation and views between spaces, but also offer good levels of natural light throughout the building, which in turn helps reduce energy usage. Vertical glazing is screened by specially designed louvre panels made of aluminium cast in sand - a technique that creates subtle variations and the occasional sparkle - while the elegantly detailed glazed roof of Taylor Commons is shaded by a canopy made up of panels with photovoltaic cells sandwiched between sheets of 8mm-thick tempered glass.

Developed in co-operation with Arup, who used parametric analysis to examine varying degrees of openness, the ingenious shade canopy creates changing patterns of light that animate the space within the building, and at the same time generate up to 65kW of energy at peak periods for the campus. This roof and shade canopy are characteristic of a level of design that we have come to expect from Hopkins Architects. However, in contrast to the inspirational forms of English vernacular which frequently inform its buildings in Europe, this roof suggests an interest in materials and invention that recalls the work of Charles and Ray Eames.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the spirit of the Frick Laboratory is assertively modern and that the building exudes a distinctly corporate character. While Taylor Commons creates a convincing hearth, it certainly is not one that recalls the rug and oak table suggested by Kahn as a counterpoint to the clean air and stainless steel of the laboratory. However, the distinctly mid 20th century modernist qualities - underlined by the adoption of a grey palette and large areas of glass, meticulously detailed louvres and repetitive facades - also transform this large building into a graceful, animated screen and a foil to its leafy surroundings.

Currently the Frick Laboratory remains something of an island on the campus. While the building has been considerately designed, with colonnaded spaces along its outer edges at ground level and a vitality created by the street-like Taylor Commons, it does not yet appear to function as a destination or route through this new neighbourhood. However, it already provides much more than state-of-the-art laboratories, excellent workspaces and an enviable range of amenities for students by serving as an impressive campus machine that generate new energy and alternative social landscapes.

Credits

Start on site December 2007
Contract duration 60 months
Gross internal floor area 22,296m²
Form of procurement Construction management with GMP
Total cost £120 million
Cost per m² £5,382
Client Princeton University
Architect Hopkins Architects
Executive architect Payette Associates
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Project manager Jim Wallace, Princeton University
Main contractor Turner Construction
Laboratory planners GPR
Estimated annual CO2 emissions Unknown

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