Genetic Complement

Project Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, Toronto, Ontario

Architect Architectsalliance and Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner

Text Leslie Jen

The University of Toronto welcomed the latest addition to its stable of impressive new buildings comprising the city’s medical and health sciences precinct with the grand opening of the 20,550-square-metre Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (CCBR). Its completion follows that of MaRS, the Medical and Research Science building by Adamson Associates Architects located just a couple of blocks east on College Street. And not following far behind is the nearly adjacent Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building designed by Foster and Partners in conjunction with Cannon Design (formerly Moffat Kinoshita Architects).

Although neither firm in the joint venture of Stuttgart-based Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner and Toronto’s architectsAlliance had much experience in laboratory design, their proposal won over the primary client, scientists and former chairs of the University of Toronto’s Department of Medicine, Cecil Yip and Jim Friesen. CCBR is the result of the vision and initiative of Yip and Friesen in their quest for continued advances in genomic research. As this area of science is so clearly interdisciplinary and transboundary–incorporating the fields of medicine, biology, engineering, and computer science–Yip and Friesen sought to have a building designed to foster and encourage research amongst departments.

Fittingly, CCBR is located directly in the heart of Toronto’s university and hospital precinct, geographically and interdepartmentally a nexus for cutting-edge research in Canada. Much in the way that Saucier + Perrotte’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (CA, March 2005) in Waterloo functions as a huge draw for physicists around the world, CCBR aims to recruit top scientists in the highly competitive field of genomic research with a world-class facility. The result is essentially a generic loft building for scientists, a highly flexible and open structure that accommodates a variety of uses over time and also the manner in which these scientists work. Like architects, scientists involved in genomic research jump from project to project and are not permanently fixed to one lab or area of the building. The client and architectural team formed a highly synergistic relationship of shared ideals and objectives. Of primary importance to both Behnisch and architectsAlliance, the idea of a green building also appealed to Yip and Friesen–not surprising given the natural affinity of scientists for environmentally green technology. Yip and Friesen also recognized the need for the building to possess a certain “cool” factor in order to appeal to potential recruits, a quality evident in the built work of both firms.

The imaginative response by the architectural team to site particularities is critical to the project’s success. Built atop the former Taddle Creek Road–previously a service lane, parking and loading dock access for the Medical Science Building behind, the tight site constraints restrict the building to a mere 60-foot-wide floor plate. However, by choosing to shift the mass of the building back from the street and slightly to the west, a beautifully landscaped stepped and ramped forecourt and a convincing green side yard to the east were created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, fostering connectivity to the Medical Science Building and the rest of the campus beyond. Moreover, siting the building eccentrically takes advantage of the highly textured yellow brick Romanesque faade of the adjacent Rosebrugh Building, which then becomes the interior west wall of CCBR’s multi-storey planted atrium.

The 12-storey building is almost entirely glazed, and its height is broken at the seventh floor with a reduced floor plate on which the building’s considerable mechanical functions are located. This gesture splits the massing of the building into two chunks like a belt cinching a midriff, an elegant solution which also responds contextually to the existing datum line of the buildings in the area.

architectsAlliance principal Adrian DiCastri maintains that the building is really quite simple: a research facility comprised of a stack of repeated floor plates containing wet and dry laboratories and offices. As this is not a teaching building, classrooms are not included in the program. Instead, three variably sized seminar rooms are expressed on the second floor as curved pod-like forms bulging into the generous terrazzo concourse leading from the building’s street address on College Street towards the Medical Science Building and the heart of the campus. These curvilinear forms with canted walls are sheathed in tiny, glittering Italian glass mosaic tiles in vibrant hues of crimson, ebony and ecru. Continuity is achieved inside and out with these pods, whose form and coloured cladding material penetrates through the glazed east wall, declaring themselves on the building exterior.

The relatively narrow floor plate means that the building stretches quite deep into the site, and the movement through the building unequivocally conveys this sense of directionality. As an alternative to taking the south elevator immediately to the upper laboratory and office floors, the inviting entry sequence and passage through the building ramps slightly upward to the north via the gentle incline of the stairs, flanked on one side by what is one of the building’s most striking features–a soaring six-storey garden, densely planted with bamboo reaching 25 to 30 feet high. The architectural team’s environmental agenda is experienced immediately with the oxygen blast of this interior green space, inviting contemplation and repose with strategically placed benches nestled amongst the bamboo. Moreover, reclaimed wood from the trees cleared on site was used to fashion long benches with tectonically detailed supports. This provision for seating along the upper concourse level further encourages lingering, enjoyment and use of the space.

It is along this pleasantly meandering processional route post-entry that the nature of connectivity becomes apparent. There is a positive grade change of an entire floor as one moves northward from the front to the back toward the Medical Science Building. The design team was conscious and respectful of the established campus circulation patterns and routes through the site prior to CCBR’s construction, and designed the building not only to minimize disruption to this sense of flow, but to encourage and facilitate it. Consequently, students, faculty and staff move through the building as a campus shortcut and as a circulation route to get to and from the nearby Queen’s Park subway station or to other parts of the university campus. Besides the main south entrance, several access points enable this movement: a gentle wood ramp and stair on the exterior of the northeast corner of the building leads into CCBR from Queen’s Park; a highly articulated glass and steel stair connects the northwest corner of the building towards King’s College Circle; and the north side of the building connects directly with the existing Medical Science Building, the latter’s variegated geometric precast panels expressed on the interior of this new nexus. The degree of connectivity is furthered by a bridge on the sixth level, also leading to the Medical Science Building. With so many layers of connection and linkage, CCBR literally and metaphorically knits together disciplines and precincts.

At its most elemental, CCBR is a glass box. But one that is detailed in a most sophisticated and rigourous fashion. In addition to being a superb urban building and good neighbour to other buildings forming the campus, the clarity and transparency of the building demystifies science by letting the world see the building’s inner workings. In fact, CCBR even goes so far as to celebrate science by incorporating various expressions of
the DNA molecule on the east and west faades.

High-performance insulated glazing units on the west faade provide maximum transparency while minimizing solar heat gain. A ceramic frit dot-matrix design is incorporated into this faade, representing the double-stranded helix of the DNA molecule. Like an impressionist painting, it’s unclear what the dots represent when seen up close, but an unmistakable helical pattern emerges when viewed from a distance. A layered effect occurs through this faade, as views into the building through the DNA frit pattern reveal playful blocks of colour that define the interior walls enclosing the labs. On the east faade, panels of brightly coloured glass seem randomly interspersed, but are in fact representative of the DNA barcode sequence.

The principal research offices are located on the south side of the building, which provided an opportunity to apply a system that Behnisch’s office has already utilized many times in European projects. The high-performance curtain wall employs a double faade, with an exterior double-glazed skin separated 800 millimetres from a single-glazed interior skin. DiCastri likens the outer skin of the double faade to a sweater, capable of reducing heat loss (and gain) while providing wind and acoustic protection. To maximize comfort and productivity, a high degree of customization is achievable for office occupants. Operable dampers between the faades modulate the natural stack effect, to heat or vent the interstitial space. Exterior blinds and operable windows, individually controlled by users, are connected to the building management system to ensure override controls are in place. Principal Stefan Behnisch remains modest about this double faade, maintaining it’s a system that simply makes practical sense on this noisy street facing south.

The rigour and rationality of the spatial division on the laboratory/office floors is countered by an incredible amount of light, openness and transparency. One registers a sense of floating in the expansive laboratory spaces while drinking in spectacular views of the city, an experience so unlike typical hermetic and airless lab spaces illuminated only by artificial fluorescence. Rows of lab benches are flanked on the east side by adjacent write-up spaces and on the other side by a central service spine equipped with support rooms and fume hoods. Running alongside the labs and service spine on the west side are wide corridor spaces overlooking the atrium. Not only do these generous side corridors provide circulation space parallel to the labs, they are equipped with long benches wired for computers, creating yet another flexible space enabling multi-functional usage.

It has been documented that 80% of scientific breakthroughs occur outside the lab environment in more informal and social spaces. To foster this creativity and potential scientific advancement, the architects made sure to incorporate a variety of contemplative and interactive social spaces outside of the labs and offices. Consequently, each floor boasts a coffee bar in the space between the labs and offices. Provision is also made for a series of impressive two- to three-storey winter gardens planted with black olive trees, located on certain floors in the building’s south corners. These gardens filter air and provide oxygen and moisture to common areas, and form a natural gravitation zone in which to unwind with a coffee. And finally, as an alternate vertical circulation route, clearly expressed stairs run directly off the west circulation corridor through the soaring bamboo atrium, promoting chance encounters and interdisciplinary interaction and exchange.

Clearly, this building achieves sustainability not through a dry checklist of “green” features, but by adopting an approach to design that takes into account the well-being of occupants. A broad environmental agenda manifests itself in a multitude of ways, from separate mechanical systems for labs and offices resulting in better air quality, to the provision of ample natural daylight which necessarily reduces energy cost and usage. Communication with the building through simple yet sophisticated technology results in the ability to customize to suit individual needs–to tune one’s own environment through operable windows and through individual light, shading and temperature controls. The abundantly lush interior gardens provide beauty, warmth, and substantially improve air quality, a sadly atypical feature in most institutional buildings. And as social condensers, the gardens provide a welcome reprieve from the intense focused work environment of the CCBR. Despite the openness and adaptability of the loft concept, the building is far from blank; the architects have addressed the client’s highly specific needs with a flexible design that works. Moreover, it is a design that will undoubtedly facilitate CCBR’s objectives in genomic research, and represents a true complement to both the physical campus and academic reputation of the University of Toronto.

Client John Bisanti, Asst Vice-President, Operations & Services, University of Toronto

Architect Team Stefan Behnisch, Adrian Dicastri, Peter Clewes, Volker Biermann, Walter Bettio, Deni Papetti

Structural Yolles Partership Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical Hh Angus & Associates Ltd.

Lab Consultant Flad & Associates

Landscape Diana Gerrard Landscape Architecture

Contractor Vanbots Construction Corporation

Area 20,550 M2

Budget $100 M

Completion September 2005

Photography Tom Arban