Interdisciplinary collaboration is a defining trait of modern scientific research, and as a consequence, many of the field’s hallowed landmarks—places like Fuld and Pupin halls, where the likes of Einstein and Fermi worked in secluded laboratories—have become relics, with limited practical use. For this reason, the Rockefeller University, a biomedical research institution founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1901, strongly considered demolishing two of its aging lab buildings, Flexner and Smith halls, in order to make room for a more modern facility. After all, there was little room for expansion on its Upper East Side campus, and the existing structures, stately neoclassical buildings dating to 1917 and 1930, were poorly suited to contemporary needs. At 62 feet wide, they are rather narrow for today’s open-plan labs; their 12- to 13-foot floor-to-floor heights are not ideal for modern mechanical systems; and they promised scant possibility for creating socially conducive space. Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, however, saw things in a different light.
“While the 80-year-old buildings were very tired, our analysis indicated that they were well suited to adaptive reuse,” explained firm partner Paul Broches. Rather than demolish them, the architects recommended refurbishing the buildings for state-of-the-art research. “The existing buildings are 80 feet apart and separated by a sunken parking lot,” ontinued Broches. “Our proposal takes advantage of the gap to make a connector building between them, containing all the amenities needed to facilitate collaborative science.” This solution would maintain the historical integrity of the campus while also delivering an admirable environmental benefit by reusing the existing structures.
The 60,000-square-foot connector building, known as the Collaborative Research Center, links the two existing buildings on each of their six above-grade floors and on one subterranean level, which features a 200-seat auditorium buried beneath a public plaza. Framed in cast-in-place concrete, the connector also creates a new main entrance for Flexner and Smith halls and consolidates all of their vertical circulation, freeing up floor plates for open-plan lab space. Each of the connector’s upper levels also hosts meeting rooms, bathrooms, pantries, and ample seating areas for eating and getting to know one’s fellow scientists. These spaces are arranged around a full-height glazed atrium that provides visual connectivity throughout the elevation of the building. Elliptical in plan and shaped like an inverse cone in section, the atrium serves as an architectural expression of the social vortex that will presumably take place within. While primarily open, it is also rimmed by a wooden trellis that modulates incoming daylight and provides a variety of spaces that range from partial seclusion to full exposure.
Making the connector as transparent as possible was an important concern for Mitchell/Giurgola. All of the campus’ buildings feature interstitial spaces that keep light and air moving about in abundance. Here, that was especially important, as the building faces one end of a Dan Kiley–designed promenade that bisects the campus north-to-south. The architects located the elevator core at the eastern edge of the site, and flanked it with glazed walls. The west facade, however, was made completely transparent by cladding it with a structurally glazed, steel-and-aluminum curtain wall. The flat sections of this glass elevation are broken by the protruding ellipsis of the atrium.
R.A. Heintges Associates helped design the wall, which was fabricated in Italy. The flat surfaces are supported from floor to floor—spans of approximately 15 feet—by split aluminum mullions that connect to the concrete floor slabs with visible articulated attachments. These brackets allow for expansion and contraction, and are adjustable to absorb concrete tolerances. The curved portions that follow the elliptical plan of the atrium span two stories, and in one case, three. They rely upon the same bracketing system, but employ steel mullions hung from the roof for extra rigidity against wind loads. All of the high-performance insulated glass units are flat, though on the atrium portions of the facade they were segmented in a way to give the impression of a continuous curving surface.
The existing buildings are being gut-renovated in a two-phase process, during which no scientist will need to move more than once to facilitate construction. Smith Hall, to the north, was completed first. Flexner, to the south, is currently in progress. Each legacy building is receiving new high-performance glazing designed to match the original wooden double-hung windows. They will also feature open-plan labs offering much-needed flexibility, as well as the full complement of contemporary mechanical and ventilation systems threaded primarily through the old vertical circulation shafts—a handy way to work around those cramped floor-to-floor heights.