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Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge by Stanton Williams

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Charles Darwin’s theories of reconciling nature and thought were the inspiration for Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Back in the early 1990s, sections of Britain’s architectural profession began to rant against what they called ‘polite Modernism’. I was never quite sure what their beef was. Could it have been that two decades of cynical Postmodernism was not enough? Or did they expect Modernist buildings to confront their settings, or express their construction with a raw tectonic, rather than glossing over it?

Their prayers were answered by a craze for object buildings and a renewed interest in Brutalist architecture. But Stanton Williams, one of the practices ranted against, because its work was calm and subdued, just carried on doing its own thing and getting better at it – vide its Cambridge University Sainsbury Laboratory, which opened in April.

‘It aims to be the pre-eminent plant science research facility in the world,’ says Stanton Williams director Gavin Henderson. ‘Our brief was to provide a high-quality working environment that couldn’t be had elsewhere and would attract leading scientists.’ This entailed not only providing exemplary facilities, but also rethinking research laboratories from first principles.

‘We were asked to design from the inside out,’ says Henderson – a tall order for a site between a residential terrace and the university’s listed Botanic Gardens.

The brief called for a building with a direct relationship to the gardens, which were laid out by Charles Darwin’s mentor, Professor John Stevens Henslow. It was to promote interaction within an elite community of 120 scientists, with all research facilities on one floor. ‘It’s not an object building,’ says Henderson. ‘It’s a series of spaces.’ These range from the first-floor laboratories – functionally orientated, easily reconfigured and tough – to social spaces, mainly at ground level.

Internal streets at ground and first-floor level wrap around two sides of a central court, connected by a stepped ramp and a staircase to provide a continuous promenade, inspired by Darwin’s idea of a ‘thinking path’, which reconciles nature and thought.

To provide openness and transparency, glass walls separate the laboratories from the internal street, which is 400mm lower, so scientists can look across it to the gardens without distracting eye contact. Although it is possible to black out the lecture theatre, all that separates it from the entrance area is glazing.

External areas, especially the entry court and the central court, complete this spatial sequence and, despite the requirement for inside-out design, Stanton Williams has responded to the context. The planners were concerned about height, so a third of the accommodation, logically including plant and the Darwin Herbarium, is below grade.

But, polite Modernism or not, the Sainsbury Laboratory is not ingratiating towards its neighbours. Stanton Williams has not compromised the internal layout to create pleasing external effects. As one might expect, given the practice’s expertise in exhibition design, the facility is a sequence of spaces, rather than a picturesque series of views.

There is little incident on the north and east facades to relieve the regiment of stone piers, which stand opposite the residential terrace and are not unlike David Chipperfield’s Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach am Neckar, Germany – but, then again, not unlike other examples of pared-down Classicism.

To the south, the first-floor accommodation takes up a commanding position, jutting out into the gardens. But the scale and proportion of the piers, which do not continue down to ground level, are fine-tuned and create a sense of permeability, although much of the glass behind is solid-fritted, helping to restrict overlooking of the terrace.

The subdued colours articulate spaces, regulate daylight and camouflage the diversity of materials. To emphasise continuity between inside and out, all stone flooring is York stone and all masonry is French limestone. Viewed from the north, this gives the impression of a building carved from the landscape.

The palette of natural materials includes European oak, Iroko and parquet oak flooring, which creates a monolithic appearance. But materials in the laboratories are clinical, with benches and walls clad in 10mm cast epoxy resin.

This extensive range of materials, which includes powder-coated and anodised aluminium, stainless steel and acoustic render, is held together by impeccable detailed design. This more than compensates for the low-key conceptual design.

It is not clever-clever detailing but, in its subtle way, it feels right and looks precise, with fine recessed junctions of 6mm or less and sharp corners, formed by special extrusions and flat bars. ‘There was a lot of attention paid to carefully setting out the shuttering module,’ says Henderson. And this achieves the intended effect – one of smooth, monolithic concrete surfaces in jointless runs of up to 70m.

It’s all in situ (precast requires joints). Certain details, such as ceiling panels, have an interlocking quality, seen at a larger scale in the building’s plans and sections. The stone piers are solid blocks and wide openings on the return facades help them to negotiate the building’s corners neatly. The balustrade cappings around the internal street stairwells have discreet coffee cup kerbs.

‘The first drawing on the project was the workbench,’ says Henderson. Its services rise from the floor below, rather than dropping from the ceiling.

The structural design is subtle, especially the perimeter of the court, picked up on only four points. Upstand beams on the first-floor terrace double as benches. But what stands out is the quality of daylight, which is remarkable. This filters through regulating internal streets, the colonnades and – where one might have expected suspended ceilings – rooflights, with undulating GRG soffits. ‘Because labs tend to be heavily serviced, an architectural response is a relatively rare creature,’ says Henderson.

It would be easy to say that Stanton Williams didn’t take risks, but only if you failed to imagine how the detailed design might have turned out in less capable hands. You might ask for more originality; but then, as Dennis and Elizabeth De Witt observed, the world is full of unique architectural monstrosities.

In its own, quiet way, the Sainsbury Laboratory slowly expands the limits of what is possible. If this is polite Modernism, long may it thrive.




Start on site February 2008
Completion December 2010
Gross internal floor area11,000m2
Form of contract EEC, Option A
Construction cost of main laboratory £65 million
Cost per m2 £4,975
Client University of Cambridge
Architect Stanton Williams
Structural and civil engineer Adams Kara Taylor
Building services engineer Arup
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Strategic project manager Stuart A Johnson Consulting
Main contractor Keir
Estimated annual CO2 emissions75kg/m
EPC rating 46 (B rating)
Total estimated annual energy consumption220kWh/m
On-site generation 10per cent of carbon emissions (64,440kg CO2/year) based on total energy figures
Airtightness @50Pa Better than 2m3/h.m2
Background lighting level in labs 200lux
Task lighting level in labs 500-1,000lux
Proportion of year with daylight level of 200lux in labs 80 per cent

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