A Fitting Building For the Building Blocks of Life

It was the colored glass wall that got my attention. An architect sent me a picture of it during construction early this year, and I was hooked.

Now the big building for the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville is done and, clearly, there's a lot more to it than a single wall.

There is, for instance, the fast-growing suburban context. When design work started a few years ago for the building just off Shady Grove Road, the land across the street was a rolling green field. Like so many others in the vicinity, that field has become an instant neighborhood, with apartments and houses surrounding a shopping center.

Then there's the issue of architectural style. Institute president Claire M. Fraser, no fan of the high-tech look, told the architects in no uncertain terms that she wanted to continue the modified Prairie style of the first four campus buildings, constructed in the 1990s. This was a significant challenge, because the new building was to be much larger all around than those modest, two-story originals.

Above all, there is the matter of the work being done inside the big building. It is painstaking, complex, world-changing work. An international leader in genomic research, the not-for-profit institute employs nearly 300 scientists to decipher, analyze and compare genetic blueprints of life forms, from the simple to the complex.

These experiments promise decisive answers to life's evolutionary puzzle, and lay the foundations for significantly altering plant and animal life. For good and, of course, possibly for ill.

Paradoxically, these bold scientific investigations take place in utterly ordinary architectural environments. "Much like hospitals, science buildings are highly standard and inflexible programmatically," says Michael Winstanley, director of design at the Washington office of the architecture firm Leo A. Daly, which designed the new building. Or, as Gertrude Stein might have said, a laboratory is a laboratory is a laboratory. A genome research lab, that is, doesn't look all that different from a good high school or college lab, with dark stone slab countertops, sinks and cabinets laid out in orderly rows. To be sure, the precision of the robotic measuring and imaging equipment is in a rarefied league. Ditto the storage capacity of the computers on the ground floor.

In other words, aside from technical requirements for extra energy and air-handling capacity, designing a building for genome research is not exactly a demanding task. A typical lab building need be no more than a box of stacked floors, each with a hallway in the middle and rooms on each side -- a description that, come to think of it, might fit about half the buildings constructed in the last century.

The Daly architects did manage to massage the formula quite cleverly, however, by splitting the plan into three parallel, 45-foot-wide bars, two containing laboratory rooms and one for offices. Functions that needed little or no natural light were concentrated in the center, while the labs and offices on the outer edges have plenty of light and good views.

This three-bar approach also enabled the architects with some success to deal with the stylistic challenge of sheathing a five-story building in Prairie-style dress. The point of the Prairie style, initiated back in the early 1900s by Frank Lloyd Wright, was of course to hug the earth, not easy to accomplish when a building is, basically, a very big box.

Yet this new Rockville building almost pulls it off. The three segments slide past each other, giving a certain dynamism to the whole, and the three sloping, tiled roofs with characteristic projecting eaves give the building a certain horizontal emphasis. The highest roof is in the center, covering a massive amount of mechanical equipment, and is a suitable crown.

Still, the stylistic applique remains rather forced. Despite everything, the building doesn't really feel like it evolved naturally from those modest 1990s structures. Much more important than style to the campus's cohesiveness is the fact that the big building was sensibly placed at the northern edge. It's like a wall that frames a series of terraces leading down to a pleasant little lake, which also doubles as a storm water management pond.

Which brings us back to the wall that first attracted my attention. I've always loved colored glass. Also, I've long wanted to see it used on a large scale in buildings other than churches. Glass, after all, has been a prime architectural material ever since the Crystal Palace went up in London more than 150 years ago. As a non-structural building skin, the sheer glass "curtain wall" was at first a hallmark, and then a cliche, of modern architecture.

Sure, we had plenty of tinted glass curtain walls in the post-World War II era. Sometimes, as in Gordon Bunshaft's lovely, green 1952 Lever House in New York City, they were elegance personified. But color really wasn't the point. The glass was tinted to keep sunlight out, as an elementary attempt to control daytime heat gain. More often than not, buildings with tinted glass walls were just dreary brown blots on the cityscape.

And, from the inside, they made the whole world look brown. Thankfully, glass technology moved on, and the need to tint was eliminated by the production of transparent coatings that could efficiently screen the sun. There's nothing better than a crisp glass wall with views both in and out, unless, say I, it's a crisp colored glass wall.

Clearly, not a whole lot of architects have felt the same way. In the 1980s, the Miami experimenters of Arquitectonica started using colored glass grids along with eccentric shapes for selected buildings, such as the splendid Center for Innovative Technology out by Dulles International Airport. Not many followed this lead.

Technical improvements have continued, however, so hope remains. The color films on those Arquitectonica walls were applied to the exterior of the glass. The color in the south-facing wall of the new Rockville building is made with films inserted between layers of laminated glass. The result, says architect Winstanley, is improved durability and enhanced transparency.

Plus, he says, colored laminated glass is inexpensive and readily available, so we're likely to see more of it. Not long ago in Berlin I did encounter an urbane building in the center of the city with a lively, color-patterned curtain wall, designed by a German firm, Sauerbach Hutton, that loves color.

There's more to the Rockville wall than decorative color, however. Genomic research produces millions of color-patterned images, many of them showing the dyes used to identify the four amino acids that make up the rungs of the ladder of DNA, the basic carrier of genetic information. The architects used these four colors -- pink, blue, yellow and green -- as the basis for the pattern of that immense southern wall.

This was a smart, inventive thing to do. It adds the richness of a coded meaning to a fine architectural gesture.

600450 A Fitting Building For the Building Blocks of Life glassonweb.com

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