Stirling Prize 2012: Sainsbury Laboratory by Stanton Williams
‘A consistent language of high quality materials and fine details snapped together with satisfying precision,’ says Felix Mara
The mother of the arts has been surprisingly generous to scientists and sometimes even to research scientists. Leaving aside the great museums and heroic engineering structures such as nuclear accelerators, Louis Kahn’s Richards Laboratories and the Salk Institute are great, if not entirely future-proof, architecture. Surprising indeed, when you consider the matriarch’s disdain for operational drivers and typical research facility briefs.
These demand highly serviced, flexible, pragmatic and temporary responses to unpredictable futures, invariably eliciting ad hoc warrens with cheap, proprietary FF&E. This was nearly the fate of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a plant science research facility for the University of Cambridge. Project backer David Sainsbury originally envisaged a ‘hugely functional’ building to be demolished after 30 years. But his wife Susie, emphasising the need for architectural quality on a site at the perimeter of the university’s botanic gardens, suggested Stanton Williams Architects.
Her intention aligned with others’ wish to use the facility’s design and quality to promote communication between staff and attract the best scientists to probe the mysterious, beautiful world of plant development whose secrets may eventually address concerns with ecology and resources.
It is easier to appreciate these architectural qualities if you forget this is a research facility. Put aside thoughts about services strategies, fume cupboards and notions of an instant coffee and Pot Noodles lifestyle. Think instead of an art gallery in a landscape, blasted by daylight.
Consider the delight of exploring its spaces, revealing internal and external vistas. The idea of a promenade lies at the origin of the gallery building type and the notion of a thinking path devised by Charles Darwin, whose mentor John Stevens Henslow played a vital role in Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden’s development as a research facility and public amenity, inspired Stanton Williams’ L-shaped internal street - a place where scientists could stroll and reflect, like Darwin at his Kent residence, while contemplating the gardens and courtyard and interacting.
The facility is also gallery-like in its components, with a gently sloping stepped ramp like a solid-state escalator, which avoids interrupting the path, and a consistent language of high-quality materials and fine details snapped together with satisfying precision.
You could use the analogy of dialects for this language’s highlights: the external colonnade, lecture room ceiling, study boxes and lab skylights. As you approach through the entrance court’s grid of gingko trees, the ranks of limestone columns with broad bays reconciling the facade corners, affirm your entrance to a temple of science. This hard urban edge relaxes into a softer face to the gardens, with a tricksy, monolithic, concrete cantilevering frame, darting this way and that, and a key-pattern elevation that uncoils, pulls back like a slingshot and shelters the terraces.
The route from the entrance passes the glass-walled lecture theatre, with oblique views of its textured, interwoven frame and undulating ceiling, like an inverted Hokusai ocean, then ramps past a bank of study boxes whose foxy, twisting configurations frame informal meeting places and views, forming a slinky, three-dimensional, flickering chequerboard facade to the central court. The labs are subtly raised above the level of the internal street to enjoy views outwards and across it without being intrusively overlooked by it and, without precedent, their ceilings part to admit skylight between voluptuous GRG soffits, while services rise from below.
Like the specially-commissioned artists’ reliefs, etched plates and central court water features, so much more than the satisfaction of planners’ requirements, the building services and FF&E are not just integrated with the architecture but built-in and hard-wired. A gallery designed around research laboratory processes with an ambitious social agenda: the mother of the arts and her backers have indeed been munificent.
Felix Mara is the editor of AJ Specification and technical editor of The Architects’ Journal
Q + A: Gavin Henderson, director, Stanton Williams
What was the initial design concept?
We were encouraged to develop the project from the inside out. The concept is based around a continuous route that functions as a space for reflection and debate, and is intended to promote interaction between the scientists, and between them and the landscape.
Did the final scheme alter from the original concept?
We started the project with an extended period of dialogue with the client team to develop a full understanding of the scientists’ priorities. Only then did we develop a design concept, which remained constant throughout. The architecture, however, went through many iterations.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project and why?
Despite the technical challenges of the building type, the real issues were human and social. The challenge lay in understanding the working culture of the scientists to rethink the priorities for laboratory design: a demanding but stimulating two-way learning process for both us and the client.
Stanton Williams’ work has been called ‘polite Modernism’. How would you describe the building?
We think of our projects in terms of the activities of users and their physical experience of the building, rather than stylistic labels. We are interested in rethinking how buildings work: an approach that is radical in the real meaning of the word and is recognised in the RIBA judges’ description of the building as ‘an exciting new typology’.
How does the design enable interaction and how will you measure its success?
The internal route is configured to provide opportunities for unplanned encounters, meetings and conversations within a variety of spaces, from the intimate to the formal. Already we see these conversations and meetings taking place, but real success will be measured in scientific outcomes.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from the project?
The project reinforced the lesson that successful projects result from collaboration with visionary clients. Close collaboration with the funder and client, and their input on quality and functionality, enabled us to deliver a building of exceptional quality tailored to the users’ requirements.
Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?
Our current projects, including the Sainsbury Laboratory and Central St Martins at King’s Cross, have allowed us to explore ideas at a larger scale than our earlier work. Recent smaller projects include the current Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy. Regardless of scale or budget, what remains important is the creative renewal brought by new challenges and the cross-fertilisation of ideas.
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See images, drawings and details of Sainsbury Laboratory by Stanton Williams