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Alsop and Amec in medical research centre alliance

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Alsop Architects has teamed up with designers from Amec to produce a dramatic new medical research campus for London's East End.Designs for the £26 million development for Queen Mary University of London will be revealed later this month.

A team of architects drawn from a Stirling Prize-winning practice and a global giant makes an unlikely alliance, but both firms insist that the design process has been a '50-50' collaboration.

Two architects from Amec have been seconded to the practice for the past 12 months.

The idea to join forces came from Amec - a firm with a good track record in laboratory design - which last year was tipped off that the college was to advertise for a new design-led research laboratory in Whitechapel.

'We're realistic. We're good, but we don't have credibility as designers, ' admitted Amec's architectural design director Paul Hartmann, formerly a director at Broadway Malyan. 'We wanted somebody who understood urban design and would probably come up with a radical solution. We approached Will Alsop and agreed to join forces.'

The result is a pair of buildings, one a transparent box containing laboratory spaces and public-access facilities, the other housing plant and machinery. The AJ has seen drawings of the project - a recognisably 'Alsopian' scheme of pods and 'free-form' spaces suspended within a glass interior.

Members of the public will be able to look down upon the serried ranks of 400 researchers working in one open-plan space - viewers will be protected from the smells and fumes from below by an 'invisible cushion of air' acting as a vapour barrier.

Christophe Egret, project director with Alsop Architects, insists that much of the radicalism is the result of pressure from Amec: 'We were supported from day one by the enthusiasm of Amec, who pushed us to go further that we had the courage to go. They allowed us to have an openplan laboratory, which has never been done before; for the last 200 years researchers have worked in closed, protected spaces.'

Laboratory staff at the centre will conduct research into cancer, diabetes and virology, but a special pod is to be set aside for school visits.

Called 'the centre of the cell', the pod will be able to accommodate classes of 30 or more eight-12 year olds. Teaching facilities will be laid on, as well as ready-made experiments. Another pod is being designed as a presentation suite able to accommodate 250 people.

Planners at Tower Hamlets council are 'pleased' with the scheme, according to Hartmann and Egret, who will make a formal planning submission in a fortnight. The practices are also seeking funds to link the centre with the nearby Mile End Park through the creation of a series of artworks.

Both Alsop and Amec are now exploring further opportunities for collaboration.

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