Slick Science: Dubrovsky Molecular Pathology Centre
PROJECT Dubrovsky Molecular Pathology Centre, Jewish General Hospital, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECT NFOE et associés architects
TEXT David Theodore
PHOTOS Stéphane Brügger
Why do we spurn laboratories? Seen as relentlessly technical and constrained projects, laboratory commissions do not have the glamour of museums, libraries or single-family homes. The same disdain goes for hospitals, surprisingly few of which are in architecture history books despite how many there are in our cities. Put together, the hospital laboratory has a dual disadvantage. So why would an architect want to design one?
Maxime Pion, design architect at NFOE architectes et associés in Montreal, has a commonsense answer. “We had a good budget,” says Pion, “and our client, Dr. Alan Spatz, was very open to new ideas.” He’s talking about the Dubrovsky Molecular Pathology Centre, affiliated with the Segal Cancer Unit at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital. The privately funded, 12,000-square-foot facility opened early last year. It provides workspace for 30 doctors-in-training and 30 technicians in a playful and lively design akin to offices for a tech startup: crisp white cabinetry, writable walls and bright colours.
The Centre’s mission is to produce personalized cancer medicine. Doctors send a tissue sample from a cancer patient to the Centre, where researchers then analyze its genetic components: DNA, RNA and proteins. In five to six days, the team can create a profile of the tumour’s genetic mutations at the molecular level, which doctors use to prescribe custom-designed drugs. This personalized treatment, the hospital says, ensures that patients can be spared unhelpful drugs and therapies.
The challenges for NFOE were complex. The building itself gave the architects little to work with. The Centre is on the sixth floor of an existing building, and one-third of the floor area had to be kept free for future facilities. As well, the floors above and below had to remain in operation throughout construction. There is ample floor-to-floor height—almost 4.5 metres—but half of it is needed for a bewildering array of HVAC ducts and equipment.
Pion says that the planning came from a thorough consultation process. NFOE aimed to lay out rooms and machines in a way that would optimize the time required to analyze samples. The tissue samples move through the laboratory stations from tissue preparation to analysis in a sequence that involves as little doubling back as possible.
The arrival from the elevators is rather ordinary. But once the Centre’s users turn left towards the security doors, they are met with a precise and bright environment. The design becomes quite sleek at moments where door and window frames are reduced or eliminated. A pair of full-height pivoting glass doors, for instance, transforms a simple conference room entry point into an event. Both imposing and festive, they allow equally for privacy or parties.
Colour gives two kinds of visual cues to users. First, it identifies different activity zones. An apple green covers the entire kitchen and entrance area. The waiting area sports a large mural with similar bright green tones, while two neighbouring conference rooms share a curved wall with blue murals. Second, when surfaces are opened or cut, they reveal saturated colours. For instance, a corridor bench set deep into an interior wall is painted cadmium red, while cabinets open to reveal cobalt blue interiors. “We had fun with the composition,” says project architect Dominic Daoust. One particular colour choice seems to be working well. Inside the workrooms, the architects used cobalt blue vinyl safety flooring. “Colour on the floor is very efficient,” says Daoust. “It makes the room less cold without adding distraction.”
The design also emphasizes borrowed light and shared views. Where possible, labs have windows to the exterior. Offices facing the street include glass interior walls, allowing natural light to filter in to a connecting corridor. “We tried to give everyone a hint of the weather outside,” adds Daoust. This idea is carried out in a number of design elements; one is an enfilade of glass set into the interior partitions of the administrative offices. Another consists in creating borrowed views from one laboratory into another, sometimes across corridors. These design elements are not readily visible in the plan or in photos, but they affect the quality of the users’ everyday life. Whether in a lab or in an office, all workers have vistas beyond their own workspace.
Note that patients do not visit this part of the hospital; only their tissue samples do. Contrary to popular opinion, the challenge of hospital design is not strictly about patient care, but rather—and often primarily—about providing appropriate settings for hospital workers to do their jobs. A patient may only be in the hospital for a few days; an oncologist might spend her entire career there. For the architects of the Dubrovsky Molecular Pathology Centre, the space’s most important role is not treating patients, but rather supporting the health-care professionals who do. And those professionals are discerning well-educated clients, with an eye for detail and every bit as much design-savvy as high-tech entrepreneurs. Laboratory design might just be more glamorous than we think.
David Theodore is an Assistant Professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.