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FIRST LOOK

aLL Design completes spiky ‘neuron pod’ for east London university

  • 5 Comments

The £2 million monocoque structure by Will Alsop’s practice didn’t require foundations and was designed to a 25 tonne maximum weight

The 23m-long and 10m-high freestanding science learning centre is based at Queen Mary’s Whitechapel campus, and was designed by the late Will Alsop and his practice aLL Design.

The structure consists of 13 large steel sections welded together, having been transported one by one to site, some requiring police escort due to their size. Neuron Pod is raised on three legs to allow the space below to remain useable, and also so that the sensitive medical research labs beneath weren’t disrupted during construction. The structure is accessed via an existing walkway with level, barrier-free access.

The scheme has been designed using the monocoque structural technique whereby the steel skin also acts as the structure, varying in thickness to minimise use of materials and weight – a technique often seen in vehicle design. It has a 25 tonne maximum weight to ensure that no strengthening was required on the existing basement, thus no need for additional foundations, and the structure is formed from weathering steel which will rust over time. This will be sealed once adequately rusted, halting the process.

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The spiky structure makes links with the university’s Centre of the Cell, which is based at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science’s Blizard Building, also designed by Will Alsop in 2006. Centre of the Cell delivers biomedical research educational programmes and Neuron Pod was created to extend this work. The pod provides multifunctional space for workshops, debates, film and exhibitions as well as improved disabled access, and will host adult initiatives, school visits and sessions for young people with learning difficulties.

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Architect’s view

Neuron Pod is a three-legged, weathering steel monocoque structure that has been designed to ‘mimic’ a neuron – a nerve cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signalling. Typically it has many dendrites, which appear as branches or hairs growing out of the main cell. We have punctured the facade with 500 fibre optic ’hairs’ or dendrites and these are fitted with LEDs that can be illuminated at night.

Neuron Pod shows how you can use creativity and art as architecture by creating an object and space that delights while being extremely functional. Developing the design alongside the Centre of the Cell team has been a joy.

We worked with Queen Mary University of London to design several acoustic baffles based on different cells, reiterating the design rationale of our work on the Blizard Institute, at a reduced scale. Georgia Scott designed the stunning mesh chandeliers and baffles within Blizard so we were thrilled to work with her to develop the Neuron baffles which she has realised in aluminium mesh.

Marcos Rosello, architect, aLL Design

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Consultant’s view

Given the significant levels of work involved with the three legs, it was imperative that all leg-to-body fabrication was carried out in the works to ensure that very difficult site assembly and welding was eliminated.

Initial site assembly of the 13 sections was achieved by the provision of additional temporary ribs, which allowed the structure to be assembled piece by piece while keeping all edges to the correct profile. For structural reasons, these secondary ribs had to be removed after the external welding was complete.

All external shell plates were profiled from weathering steel. Prior to any fabrication all were shot-blasted and, after the sections were complete, each was hand-blasted to blend the seams. The final rich orange and brown colouring is totally dependent upon weather conditions, but with the recent rain showers, it is starting to blend well.

Architectural and Structural Metalworks, Littlehampton Welding

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Project data

Start on site April 2018
Completion February 2019
Construction cost £2 million
Architect aLL Design
Client Queen Mary University of London, Centre of the Cell
Project manager QMUL Capital Projects
Structural engineer AKT II
M&E Watermans Group
QS Turner & Townsend
Employer’s agent Gardiner & Theobald
Fire consultant The Fire Surgery
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown
Building control PWC
CDM consultant CDM Services
Main contractor Total Construction
Steel sub-contractor Littlehampton Welding
Main contractor’s architect To-Do Design
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Fibre optic sub-contractor Universal Fibre Optics (UFO)
Spray foam insulation sub-contractor Foamseal 

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • What a fabulous project; what a loss Will was.

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  • Yes, and I wonder if there might be an inadvertent lesson in the effect of the weathering steel on the paving below during the rusting phase, by the look of it.
    I wonder what the students call this creation?

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  • It is said we should not speak ill of the departed. I must say though that this horrendously expensive vanity project - a glorified oil tank if you will - looks none other than an image of a hairy pig.

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  • Thomas Heatherwick original?

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  • Simply wonderful and highly imaginative

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