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It is nearly 40 years since Norman Foster attended masterclasses on the top floor of Louis Kahn's University Art Gallery at Yale. The influence of Kahn has surfaced many times since in Foster's own work, and is certainly apparent in Foster & Partners' new medical and biological research building at Imperial College, London. Opened last autumn, the Sir Alexander Fleming Building is something of a hybrid, combining heavily used undergraduate teaching facilities with more specialised provision for doctoral and post- doctoral researchers. Its programme bears relatively little resemblance, in fact, to the iconic (but, in practice, flawed) models of laboratory design set down by Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania and in California in the Sixties.

Foster & Partners' association with Imperial College (ic) (effectively the mit of the uk and chasing Cambridge for top place in the scientific research stakes) began in 1991. Appointment as masterplanners to ic led naturally to the practice's role as planners of 'Albertopolis', embracing the whole of the South Kensington museums and education quarter and the subject of an (unsuccessful) Millennium Lottery bid. Albertopolis is, according to Foster director Spencer de Grey, far from dead: a less costly version is being developed by a partnership between ic, the Science Museum and the v&a. Meanwhile, the restructuring of the ic campus continues. John McAslan's extension to the library (AJ 15.1.98) is diametrically opposite the new Foster building, across the Queen's Lawn, a pleasing open space dominated by the great tower - all that survived the 1960s - of T E Collcutt's Imperial Institute.

ic has grown relatively slowly in comparison with other uk universities - the stress is on quality, with a high proportion of postgraduates. A major landmark in the college's history was the development of a medical school as a result of the reorganisation of medical education in London initiated under Virginia Bottomley. Up to 1000 students based at St Mary's and Charing Cross hospitals now go to South Kensington for lectures and laboratory sessions - the patients remain elsewhere. On the ground and first floors of the Alexander Fleming Building there are lecture theatres (with video links to the hospital sites) and seminar rooms. A wing extending at right angles to the rear of the virtually square (45 x 42m) main block contains floors of flexible laboratories and computer rooms for undergraduates.

There is a Kahnian touch in the prominent glazed service tower (housing lifts, stairs and wcs) which looks northwards across to the Collcutt tower, reflecting a strategy of locating services at the perimeter. Both brick and (more sparingly) Portland stone have been used to integrate the new building into its context. A very unscientific Kahn project, the Mellon Center at Yale, is evoked inside, where timber panels, infilling an expressed fair-faced concrete frame, are pierced by the windows of offices looking down into the semi-public entrance concourse, with its attractive cafe. This is a lively social focus and can be both crowded and noisy when lecture theatres disgorge hundreds of students. There is a view up from this space into the world of research above, but the noise does not penetrate. A glazed acoustic screen divides the two domains. Spencer de Grey concedes that 'there were lessons to be learned from Cambridge' (where there have been persistent complaints about distracting noise within Foster's Law Faculty library).

The heart of the Alexander Fleming Building is 'upstairs', in the research zone. The building is shared by the medical school and the department of micro-biology, whose staff and around 350 postgraduate students are accommodated in a five-level 'research forum', with a series of staggered floor spaces overlooking the central space. The brief was developed by the departments in consultation with the college building committee (chaired by Stuart Lipton). The architects testify to the professionalism of the client, under the 'inspired' leadership of Rector Sir Derek Oxburgh and with the hands-on involvement of Estates Director Ian Caldwell.

The impact of the research zone, seen from an upper level, is immediate and dramatic - one is inevitably reminded of great commercial atria, like that of Foster's Hong Kong Bank or Rogers' Lloyd's. Natural light enters from the heavily glazed north elevation and from above. Instead of dealers' desks, there are, however, banks of study carrels for boffins on the second and fourth levels, heavily occupied, when I visited, by figures intently tapping away at computers. As in Foster's own office - compared by one critic to a nineteenth-century mill - the fixed furniture provides an ordered framework, keeping a mass of papers, files and books under control.

A strict building management policy forbids the random fixing of posters and notices to the building or the ends of the carrels - the rules seem to be observed. Laboratories and other highly serviced technical spaces, plus some cellular offices, occupy the east and west flanks of the building, where they are close to the main service risers, and the south end of the block. The use of timber, as on the lower floors, for partitions and doors, plus carpeting in the carrels, contributes to an aesthetic which is welcoming and far-removed from the more clinical fit-out of the labs. On the northern edge of the forum there are open areas, provided with comfortable seating and served by kitchens, where informal meetings can take place. One of the underlying aims of the project was to encourage interaction and communication between departments - this as much the world of the 'new office' as of conventional laboratory design. This is an all- hours building - come here late at night or on a Sunday morning and there will be people at work.

User reaction to the building seems positive - its success, says Ian Caldwell, is being used to spearhead further building campaigns at the college and to attract funders. (A second Foster building is about to go on site.) ic's older buildings contain laboratories arranged along corridors, making interaction difficult but providing greater privacy and insulation from noise and other distractions. Yet the noise level of the forum seems to be a constant, murmurous hum - rather like that which prevailed in the old British Museum reading room and an agreeable background to concentrated work. It helps, says Caldwell, that everyone working there is part of a research elite - there is an implicit code of behaviour. The undergraduates can peer upwards through the glazed screen and aspire, perhaps, to a PhD or even a post on the faculty.

As project director Andrew Thomson points out, lessons from other Foster projects, including Stansted, have been applied in the use of natural light in the building. At Stansted, a calm and regular light is occasionally interspersed with shafts of sunlight which 'lift' the interior, providing an element of sparkle. A similar strategy was adopted at ic, where a series of rooflights, baffled by sculpted 'waves', provide a steady north light, with the occasional burst of direct light. As at Stansted, consultant Claude Engle advised on the natural lighting strategy as part of the overall energy programme for the building.

Engle is a regular Foster collaborator. So, increasingly, is the Dane Per Arnoldi, responsible for the strong element of colour in the ic building. Arnoldi's first collaboration was at Commerzbank in Frankfurt and, more recently, he has had an important role at the Reichstag. At ic, Arnoldi strengthened the architect's own colour proposals. The south wall of the central forum is painted in increasingly intense yellow hues, which integrate with the exposed concrete and timber panelling to give the space a glowing focus. Elsewhere, the use of a deep blue effectively marks out social and interactive spaces.

As university buildings, in terms both of procurement and design, increasingly learn from the world of commercial architecture, the results are mixed. But Foster's addition to the (increasingly civilised) Imperial College campus is remarkable not only for its use of a constrained site, in an area where major national institutions contend for land, but also for its inspired adaptation of space-planning and management techniques learned in the world of office design. This is a highly sociable building, which recognises that scientists are people and provides a comfortable, even inspiring, milieu for innovation.

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