Attention, San Francisco: A spaceship has landed in your backyard. The shiny silver form of Rafael Viñoly’s Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building is a stunning discovery lurking at the back of the University of California, San Francisco. The most exciting local building to be erected since the California Academy of Sciences and the De Young went up in Golden Gate Park, this structure is at once sharp and lithe, rational and poetic, industrial and organic—an appropriately futuristic home for the cutting edge of research, and the most adventurous work from the architect in some time.
The building brings together all of UCSF’s stem-cell researchers, who will number about 250 when it is fully occupied. Most of the 80,000-square-foot space is devoted to compact rows of lab stations, accompanied by offices for the scientists leading the research and a few conference rooms.
One of Viñoly’s primary achievements was to make a virtue out of an incredibly difficult site. UCSF’s main campus backs up sharply against the city’s daunting Mount Sutro, and the remaining unbuilt space had a 60-degree slope. The structure is cantilevered 100 feet above the foot of the mountain and supported by an exposed foundation—a steel space frame on concrete piers.
The long, thin building contours to the landscape, hugging the slight S-curve of the hillside. Bordered by a winding road, it also progresses upward in four blocks, but the actual organization of the building isn’t really apparent until you are inside. From the exterior, you see only its sleek, windowless hull, clad in corrugated steel. Unfettered by the prescriptions that stunted the firm’s design for the Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Center at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, and liberated from the street grid, Viñoly and his team were able to proceed with a purer architectural vision—including an elegantly utilitarian material palette and a more organic shape.
The grid is solidly in place elsewhere on the UCSF campus, which was built out—and up—in the 1960s and 70s. The only entry to the research center is across a glass-enclosed bridge from UCSF’s main school building. From here, you are intimately aware of the physical gap that lies between the mid-century, 16-floor structure and its gleaming new neighbor, as well as the leaps that architecture has taken in the intervening years. You can also see the outdoor ramp that allows researchers to get to their particular lab via a short but thrilling hike, as well as the many staircases that invite exploration of the upper terrace gardens. At the top of the building, there are splendid views of the northern end of the city, including Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge.
While building a tall, skinny tower would have reduced foundation costs, Viñoly and his team proposed a design that would encourage interaction and collaboration. The research area is essentially one continuous floor, with four grade changes. Because the labs are apt to shrink and grow over time, the ability to spill over to the next lab space and remain visually connected was important. At each of the three junctions between levels, there is a landing with a break area and kitchen, a natural gathering spot. Labs are located a half-flight down, while small banks of offices and conference rooms are located a half-flight up. This split-level approach, borrowed from residential architecture, efficiently distinguishes public from the private spaces. Across each landing, the next lab space begins. Within the labs, the open plan was designed for maximum flexibility, with wiring harnesses and flexible plumbing routed overhead and lab benches that can be easily disassembled.
The building also does an exceptional job of bringing in the natural world, and is expected to receive LEED Gold certification. While the public, campus-facing side is opaque for privacy, the hillside façade has an expanse of windows that look into a forest of eucalyptus trees; a green mural along the laboratories’ back wall. Each of the four sections has a terrace garden, lush with grasses, softening all the corrugated metal.
Alas for architecture fans, the building has no public access. It is not visible at all from the closest street, Parnassus Avenue. But a determined observer can get a good view of the exterior by taking Medical Center Way, at the east end of campus, to the Regenerative Medicine loading dock. The $94.5 million project was partially funded by California Proposition 71, where voters allocated $3 billion for stem cell research and facilities in 2004.
The UCSF center is the sixth of 12 such projects in the state, but thus far, the architectural ambitions have not matched the magnitude of scientific endeavor. This is one case where they have. Without going for gimmicks—you can easily see another architect going on about the complexity of the cell—Viñoly has created a thing of beauty and mystery that, when dissected, reveals itself to be an intelligent adaptation to the natural world.