Collaborative Cure

PROJECT Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Centre for Drug Research and Development, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Saucier + Perrotte Architectes/Hughes Condon Marler Architects
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS Marc Cramer unless otherwise noted

If every building had a theme song, who would select it and what would it say about the experience of the place? Perhaps Montreal-based Saucier + Perrotte Architectes and local collaborators Hughes Condon Marler Architects would not have chosen Good Times by American electronica band Owl City and BC native Carly Rae Jepsen for the new Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). At any rate, the 2012 summer anthem became the soundtrack for the school’s official lip dub, the latest outlet for school spirit amongst university students and faculty. The four-and-a-half-minute YouTube video feels like karaoke’s answer to the music video, combining lip synching and audio dubbing while following a new student around on her first day of class in a single unedited shot. From the main entrance off the university’s spine road, Wesbrook Mall, she is greeted by a chorus of students and faculty that winds through the facility’s main foyers, staircases, atria, classrooms and labs, culminating in a balloon-wielding, lab coat-clad crowd jumping frenetically across the new plaza in front of the school’s iconic west façade. The lighthearted song lyrics and gangnam-style dancing remind viewers that while large institutional facilities like this one support millions of dollars in leading-edge research and experimentation, such buildings are at their best when they bring people together in collaboration and enthusiasm. 

Buildings across UBC’s Vancouver campus evidence a strategy of enticing top-ranked students through iconic architecture. Recently completed projects like Patkau Architects’ Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre and Perkins+Will Canada’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, as well as projects currently under construction such as Dialog’s Student Union Building and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health by Stantec Architecture reflect the university’s commitment to research excellence and a visionary campus. While the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and CDRD follows UBC’s overall strategic plan, the building itself is the brainchild of former dean Robert Sindelar. His vision for the facility as an international destination bringing together teaching, learning, research and community outreach activities in one structure was a significant driving force. 

The new 27,311-square-metre glass box of a building on the Point Grey campus consolidates the faculty for the first time since its inception in 1946 and integrates a new program collaborator, the CDRD–a national not-for-profit drug development and commercialization centre founded in 2007. The two tenants are woven around and through the public spaces of the building, overlaying the routines of students, faculty and private researchers with opportunities for chance encounters. “Conversation as a catalyst for innovation” is the phrase chosen by Sindelar to describe his intention to bring together different disciplines and welcome the public into the depths of a research-sensitive facility. The interactive exhibition The Story of Medicines, located in the lobby and mezzanine, communicates pharmacy’s contributions to a wide audience and is clearly part of this broader initiative.

Although everyday life at the facility likely falls short of the over-the-top celebration depicted in the student-made video, the visual tour reveals the vibrancy and dynamism of its public spaces when actively in use. For Gilles Saucier, the project’s lead designer, the sheer size of the building’s public interface speaks to the university’s responsibility to communicate itself as a public institution. The carefully choreographed boundary between public and private space–what is accessible and to whom–is key to the success of the design, yet virtually invisible to users of the facility. Security and privacy are top priorities for research facilities of this calibre; indeed, the row of emergency generators to the south attests to the value of work being done in the labs. But the building also houses one of UBC’s main IT hubs, which, together with several specialized labs, are tucked away securely below the plaza level. Above, the open and transparent main floor remains intensely used throughout the school year as a catchall for students entering the campus and moving between classes in the Health Science Precinct.

Despite the university’s heavy construction program, breathtaking natural scenery sets the Vancouver campus apart. Fringed by beaches, large expanses of water and views towards the North Shore Mountains, the paradisiacal quality of the setting is further enhanced by the Pacific Spirit Regional Park and greenbelt, which buffer the campus from the city. In exterior photographs and renderings, the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences supports this narrative of pavilions in a park-like setting. Despite its close proximity to other buildings in the precinct, it appears isolated: an iconic object surrounded by little context other than grass, paving and expansive sky. The design team received few directives on how to fit in with the overall campus architecture. The emphasis from a planning perspective was rather to create a campus gateway that supported the flow of pedestrians. Its site–a long narrow slice of a lot–left few options for the building’s orientation. Its overall form abides by the campus’s rectilinear street grid and masks the Thunderbird Parkade directly to the south.

From the approach along Wesbrook, the dark glass box dissolves into its surroundings. On a sunny summer day, its liquid smooth skin recalls the depths of a reflecting pool, mirroring Vancouver’s open blue sky and the red brick façade of the Life Sciences Centre to the north. As the newly planted larch trees wrapping around the building’s southwest corner mature, their reflected foliage will imprint the building with nature’s changing seasons. 

The building’s character changes significantly to the west. Here, a plaza and grassy knoll–a cherished student meeting point and venue for picnics, impromptu Frisbee games, and last-minute studying–are framed by the dynamism of the building’s west façade. Likened by Saucier to a pixellated tree canopy, four storeys of meeting rooms project at random over the newly paved plaza, breaking down what could have been a monolithic glass façade into a careful composition of individual rooms. Like a chiselled rock face, each surface catches the light at a slightly different angle, creating a pattern of reflection and shadow that transforms over the course of the day. The façade’s appearance is also manipulated by the users of these rooms who open windows, adjust roller blinds, reconfigure furniture and turn task lighting on and off according to their needs. These are the most coveted spaces of the facility. As non-assigned rooms rather than private offices, these spaces can be booked for meetings, lessons, and impromptu study sessions. Their accessibility is no coincidence given the ongoing fundraising mandate for the project. Rooms are named for donors, and the size of the signage roughly correlates to their donation level. 

The building’s simple volume disguises a complex puzzle of interior spaces. While the site itself is relatively flat, the differential between the height of the perimeter offices (2.3 metres) and the interior labs (3.6 metres) translates to an eight-storey building in some locations and a six-storey bu
ilding in others. The joint where the levels split reads most clearly from the north elevation, where the two systems interlock in a zigzag. Inside, a slash-like atrium connects the lab and office areas, allowing faculty and students to maintain visual contact and a sense of the greater community of the building.

Saucier uses the analogy of a tree to distill the building’s complexity into a simple idea: the tree as life force, supporting, connecting, and growing. He begins with a sketch of two trees that represent the building’s two main forms, their trunks distinct silhouettes yet their branches intertwining in a single canopy and their roots growing together below the ground’s surface. The building itself is not so literal, but draws inspiration from the experience of moving through a primordial forest, much like the rainforests that once covered UBC’s Endowment Lands. With elemental grandeur, the plaza’s ground plane folds into a monolithic concrete trunk, whose board-formed texture reads like tree bark at a super-scale next to long narrow benches that push like root tendrils through the rational paving grid. 

Inside, the materials continue to transform into canted walls of cedar strips that fold up and across the ceiling like the underside of branches. Ribbons of wood spiral upwards through the atria to the skylights above. Three white lab volumes float above the main level, nested between two generous atria that bring light and air deep into the building. The ensemble is then wrapped in a grid of offices and meeting rooms, the skin of the building. Here, wood returns as part of the material palette. Throughout the building, materials meet with knife-edge precision. These deliberate joints are a testament to the building’s high quality of craftsmanship despite its accelerated construction schedule. The complex deserves commendation for the ease and elegance of its design. At times restrained, at times overt, it responds to its context and the needs of its users in clever yet subtle ways.

The Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and CDRD is the first project realized by the trans-Canadian partnership of Saucier + Perrotte and Hughes Condon Marler. While both firms boast portfolios of acclaimed institutional and community-oriented projects, the facility’s design and construction benefit from clearly defined roles within the team, and a collaborative approach to the project. The design language is overtly Saucier + Perrotte, seen in signature details like the steel-clad bridges and stair bisecting the atrium, as well as the play of opacity and reflection between planes of textured concrete, shiny black glass and floor-to-ceiling windows. Their resolution in real space is a credit to the management and creativity of the Hughes Condon Marler team.

The clarity of the design team’s initial vision in the finished product speaks to the firms’ strong working relationship despite some 5,000 kilometres separating the two offices. The success of the partnership will be tested again in two current projects, the Saint-Laurent Sports Complex and the Saint-Michel Indoor Soccer Centre, this time on Saucier + Perrotte’s home turf in Quebec. 

If, as Sindelar suggests, conversation is a catalyst for innovation, then architecture in turn is a catalyst for conversation. Beyond its iconic architecture, the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and CDRD exemplifies collaboration on many levels: bringing together academia and industry, faculty and students, and design firms from across the country. In doing so, it challenges boundaries, pushing individuals to build beyond the traditional box. CA

Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based architect and writer.

Client University of British Columbia (UBC) Properties Trust
Architect Team S+P–Gilles Saucier, André Perrotte, David Moreaux, Patrice Begin, Charles Alexandre Dubois, Dominique Dumais, Nicko Elliott, Olivier Krieger, Joel Legault, Yutaro Minagawa, Greg Neudorf, Marc-André Tratch, Vedanta Balbahadur. HCMA–Roger Hughes, Bill Uhrich, Craig Lane, Darryl Condon, Paul Fast, Melissa Higgs, Rachel Lacey, Charles Leman, Kourosh Mahvash, Carl-Jan Rupp, Craig West, Eli Wolpin, Nicolas Worth.
Structural Glotman Simpson
Mechanical Stantec
Electrical Applied Engineering Solutions (AES)
Landscape Perry + Associates
Interiors Saucier + Perrotte Architectes/Hughes Condon Marler Architects
Contractor Ledcor
Architectural Concrete UCC Group
Wayfinding and Signage Smart Design Group
Laboratory Design Stantec
Lighting Tripped On Light
Civil Core Group Consultants
Area 27,311 m2
Budget $92 M
Completion September 2012